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Porcini Pig-Out

June 05, 1986

Folks are flipping out over a dried mushroom from Italy. And it's not a psychedelic effect that's driving them wild: It's a gastronomic one.

Funghi porcini-- literally "little pig mushrooms"--grow as round and fat as toadstools and are popping up in pasta, poultry and meat dishes in Valley restaurants. "They're fantastic," says Michel Despras, chef at Lalo and Brothers in Encino, who also serves them with lobster and fettuccine. Americans are just now discovering this high-priced delicacy, the Frenchman says.

Fresh and broiled whole, they're divine, or so say the Italians who have been munching on them for centuries.

You don't have to gather in a restaurant to trip on them, nor hit the hills of northern Italy, where a hot sun after a spring or fall rain conjures up the caps in the chestnut groves. Apothecary jars full of dried porcini are turning up on the shelves of American food specialty shops.

The Irvine Ranch Farmers' Market in Northridge carries the genuine article.

Dried porcini compensate for the loss of succulence with a more concentrated woodsy flavor. Sliced through with the stem and cap in one piece, the dried mushroom should still be spongy, neither hard nor crumbly.

Porcini are expensive, about $65 a pound, but a little goes a long way. David Hamilton, produce manager at the Irvine Ranch Farmers' Market, says the price scares customers. "I have to explain they're not going to use a pound unless they own a whole chain of restaurants," he said.

Those in the know advise: Lightly rinse a fistful of porcini-- about one-third ounce--to eliminate any clinging muck, then soak them for about half an hour in warm water to reconstitute. Don't discard the water, suggests Marcella Hazan in her book, "Classic Italian Cooking," because it's full of flavor. She writes that the water, strained through filter paper, is a distinctive substitute for chicken or beef broth in sauces and rice dishes.

There's nothing mellow about these wild mushrooms. If you're cooking chicken and rice, Despras recommends throwing in some porcini. "You'll have a dish out of this world," he says.

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