Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Most of you that know me well know that I have a love affair with one of the great mushrooms of the world, the porcino aka cèpe or bolete (from Boletus edulis). It is second in my book only to the morel.

Our late September weather (Yes, Virginia, it is mid-August, but doesn't it feel great! I've never lived through a cooler summer.) has got me thinking porcini as it does every year. Next week during our annual vacation, I will be sitting somewhere, no doubt poolside, with my composition book in hand, scheming new porcini dishes for the fall menus.

While spring has me looking forward to fresh porcini from our forager in Oregon, fall has me thinking about dried porcini. If you've never sampled the two, then you won't know that they might as well be two different mushrooms. Even though I really enjoy fresh porcini, especially with butter and parsley, I love dried porcini.

Drying porcini does something magical to them: it concentrates the flavor surely, but it also deepens it and enriches it in a way that I can only feebly describe. Dried porcini have an aroma that is pure essence of the earth. That perfume is the perfect accompaniment to the smell of fallen leaves and this is surely why the change of seasons in the fall brings porcini to the forefront of my consciousness.

One of my favorite dishes on this earth is porcini risotto and no doubt this will appear many, many times on my menus throughout the fall and winter. I just do not see how food gets any better than creamy Arborio rice, rich porcini, and (oh let's just say this out loud and pretend we don't care about calories) a great heaping wad of butter and mound of grated pecorino Romano*.
*So many traditional risotto recipes call for Parmigiano-Reggiano, but why? Why use that glorious cheese which is best suited for eating out of hand with fresh figs and prosciutto in any application where its greatness is grated away?

For flavoring risotto, making sauces, and enriching soups, my most common uses for dried porcini, there is no need to buy top grade porcini. Porcini, as far as I can tell, are graded on size; you pay more for larger, more uniform pieces of dried porcini. Conversely, in fresh porcini, the smaller mushrooms are much more highly prized than the larger ones. In any case, you don't need lovely large pieces of porcini for any of these applications. Grades, from the top down, run AA, A, B, etc.

When buying dried porcini, always check the bag for bugs. I've often encountered bags of old porcini which the moths have reduced to near dust. Those bags never go in our pantry.

Think about me next time you reach into your pantry and get out the dried porcini. You can always call to see if I am available for dinner. ;)

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