A camping trip is not my idea of a great culinary adventure. But when the location is Italy in the fall, an unexpected treasure can come your way. While exploring the area near Florence, my husband and I couldn't resist buying fresh porcini mushrooms at the market. We sauteed them in a little oil over our van's gas burner and tossed them with pasta. The result was a delightful picnic we will never forget.
Mushrooms are easy to prepare even in a camper. The technique favored by a majority of leading chefs for cooking mushrooms, both the exotic and the familiar, also happens to be the quickest. They are simply sauteed in a little oil or a mixture of butter and oil over fairly high heat. They acquire a wonderful "toasted" flavor and a pleasant, almost crunchy texture, and are done in less than five minutes. In contrast, if cooked over low heat, they often exude moisture and end up with a softer texture resembling that of boiled mushrooms.
Mushrooms should be cleaned just before they are cooked. There's no mystery to cleaning them--the chefs I studied with in Paris simply rinsed each mushroom carefully and rubbed it gently to remove any sand.
Exotic mushrooms vary greatly in size. At our local farmers' market, I've purchased cepes that were big enough for two portions. For even cooking, large mushrooms should be sliced or cut in bite-size chunks. Small ones can be left whole to show their attractive shapes. Regular mushrooms are best quartered or sliced. To save time, they can now be purchased already sliced in many markets.
In recipes you can freely exchange one type of "wild" mushroom for another, or you can substitute regular mushrooms. Members of the onion family are mushrooms' natural companions. Onions should be sauteed first, while shallots and garlic can be added to the skillet with the mushrooms, or a minute or two before they're done. In the French kitchen, a favorite flavor enhancer for mushrooms is a persillade, a finely minced mixture of parsley and either shallots or garlic. Hungarian cooks love to use mushrooms sauteed with onions and paprika to accent a variety of foods, from noodles to beef stew.
Sauteed mushrooms are perfect partners for meat, seafood, poultry and grains. And they are wonderful on their own as a first course. In Europe, mushrooms have a traditional place of honor on autumn menus. With their increased availability in our markets, this may soon become an American custom as well.