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Funghi Porcini

Porcini!"Every year come September, the price of mushrooms drops and I stock up on porcini," wrote Pellegrino Artusi a century ago. He was talking about drying the mushrooms to use in stews and sauces during the winter months, but we can be quite certain that fresh porcini figured prominently on his table as well: Boletus edulis is one of God's great gifts to humanity, a rich, heady, meaty mushroom that is amazingly versatile, delicate enough to give grace to an elegant stew or sauce, and yet vigorous enough to stand up to something as flavorful as a thick grilled steak accompanied by a good Barolo, for example the current vintage of Ceretto's Bricco Rocche.

Porcini even look the way a mushroom should: A corpulent firm white stalk and a broad dark brown cap -- if you're out walking in a European forest and come across a clump under a chestnut tree, where they're often found, you may well think you've stumbled into a fairy tale and look about for gnomes. Of course most of us don't have the time, nor the expertise required to go mushroom hunting. So we buy our fresh porcini at the market (according to Epicurious, fresh porcini can be found in North America also, while Barbara Kafka points out that the French call them Cèpes, the Germans Steinpilz or Herrenpilz, and the Russians Belyi Grib, and that they may appear under any of these names). They should be firm, with opulent white stalks and proudly brown caps in perfect order, not nicked or broken. If the undersides of the caps have a yellowish-brown tinge to them the mushrooms are heading into overripeness, and if they have black spots on them or the undercaps are deep green they've arrived. The other thing you should look for in a tired mushroom is signs of worms.

When you get home, scrape any dirt you may find off the stalks and wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp cloth -- only wash them if you absolutely must, and then never in hot water. They are now ready to use. If you plan on doing so immediately, perfect. If, on the other hand, you must wait several hours, either remove the stalks or stand the mushrooms on their caps -- the stalks frequently contain tiny worms, which eat their way upwards. Though they're harmless, they're annoying.

A final thing about purchasing fresh porcini: Tuscan cooks season them with nipetella, a slightly minty, woodsy variety of thyme. In other parts of Italy parsley is used instead; I personally prefer the nipitella because it adds considerable grace to the mushrooms. Feel free tu use either, but do give thyme a try.

dried porcini in a marketYou can also buy dried porcini -- they obviously cannot be grilled, but do play an important role in the kitchen: they're blessed with a terrific mushroomy aroma that adds wondrous grace to stews and sauces, and produces one of the finest risotti one could possibly imagine.

In purchasing them, look them over carefully. If they're crumbly they're likely old and probably won't have much flavor. If they're sold from a jar, breathe deeply when it's opened; you should smell a heady mushroom aroma (which is often strong enough to come through the packaging of a packet). If there's no aroma the mushrooms aren't going to taste of much. Finally, look the mushrooms over for pinholes, and if you see any look in the bottom of the package for worms. They know a good thing when they smell it too.

To prepare dried porcini steep them in just enough boiling water to cover for 20 minutes or until they've expanded. Drain them, reserving the liquid, and mince them. They're now ready for use in the recipe; if the recipe calls for liquid as well, filter the water they steeped in (it may contain sand) and add it too -- you'll get lots more mushroomy aroma.

Porcino Recipes

Finferli

Gallinacci, Finferli , or ChantarellesWinding down, a couple of suggestions for Finferli; they're fairly bright yellowish orange wild mushrooms that are known by a variety of names, including Gallinacci or galletti in Italy, and Chanterelles in France. They're about 2 inches tall at the most, and their caps expand out of their stalks, rather like trumpet bells. Though they aren't too susceptible to worms, they absorb moisture readily, and you should therefore make certain that they're not waterlogged before you buy them. They dry well, and when dried will keep for months in a tightly closed jar.

In terms of cooking, they require more than some other mushrooms, and this makes them a good bet with risotti and such. Come time to cook them, don't subject them to high heat because it will toughen them and drive out their flavor.

In their absence, use mildly flavored wild mushrooms.

Some Recipes

About ingredients & techniques

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