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Wooing The Wild Porcini

In Search of the Coy Mistress of Mushrooms

September 10, 2000|AMELIA SALTSMAN | Amelia Saltsman last wrote for the magazine about cooking with tequila

WHEN DAVID WEST, PURVEYOR OF WILD MUSHROOMS at the Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers' markets, went to Italy last fall, he took three photo IDs: his passport, his driver's license and a picture of himself in front of his mushroom stand. This last was to break the language barrier on his quest for boletes. Boletus edulis. The Great Porcino.

Ah, porcini. The woodsy, fragrant king of wild mushrooms that sends Italians and French alike into paroxysms of culinary joy from late spring through early fall. With stout white stems, rounded tan-brown caps and an earthy aroma, it's no wonder the Italians named them "piglets."

According to Italian cookbook author Giuliano Bugialli, the juiciest, most flavorful porcini are found near chestnut trees in the Maritime Alps and Appenine Mountains, and are commonly paired with nepitella, wild mint. Several years ago, Bugialli took a group of us to an old Florentine restaurant for a local specialty, bistecca florentina, two-inch-thick porterhouse steaks cooked rare. We began the meal with an unforgettable beef broth, voluptuous with fat slices of the prized mushroom. Cautioned that I'd never find fresh porcini in Los Angeles, I settled for dried, and created a satisfying alternative.

It turns out that California has two porcini seasons--late spring and fall. West Coast boletes (Boletus edulis includes at least six species) grow near pine and fir, which imparts "a drier" flavor and aroma, and are found in the Sierra Nevada, on the north coast and even in the San Bernardino Mountains. They usually arrive at specialty stores and farmers' markets in May and again after early autumn rains.

Like a coy mistress, domestic porcini play hard to get. David West's Clearwater Farms receives perhaps 40 pounds of porcini per week from foragers during the monthlong spring season, nothing like his experience last fall, when his Italian counterpart sold full shopping bags in the few minutes it took West to find his snapshot calling card. Here at West's stand, you'll be shoulder to shoulder with chefs Josiah Citrin of Melisse, Bruce Marder of Capo, Alain Giraud, formerly of Lavande, and Mark Peel of Campanile.

Choose dense specimens without holes. The underside is sweet and creamy white in young mushrooms and turns to a stronger-tasting yellow and olive green in mature boletes. Keep them cool and use right away or insect larvae may hatch and tunnel up the stem (cut away the damage and don't worry unless the mushroom is seriously riddled).

I like porcini soup too much to eat it only once a year. I use dried (look for large, flat, brown-edged white pieces) punched up with pancetta, or frozen--which most resemble fresh ones in flavor and texture, just don't defrost before cooking or they get mushy--to create a duskier version of the soup.

However, it's fall, that pungent, lusty time of year. For one brief, shining moment, I make the real thing, the mushrooms yielding their sweet succulence to the broth, yet retaining their identity. I ladle caramel-edged porcini into soup bowls with wanton abandon. Everyone should live a little.

Porcini Soup with Garlic Croutons

Makes 6 servings.

1/2 ounce dried porcini

1 pound fresh or frozen porcini or 2 ounces dried porcini

8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces pancetta, diced small (optional)

1/2 cup chopped red onion

2 cloves garlic, peeled

3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

6 cups homemade beef broth or 3 cups canned, diluted with 3 cups water

1/2 loaf day-old country-style bread

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

*

Soak dried porcini in warm water until soft, 30 minutes. Strain, reserving liquid. Rinse and brush mushrooms clean and dry on paper towels. Coarsely chop larger pieces. Strain liquid through coffee filter or paper towel and reserve. Clean and slice fresh porcini. If using frozen, do not defrost. Immediately before using, plunge into boiling water for 10 seconds for easier slicing.

Saute pancetta in 1 tablespoon olive oil in large pot over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add onions, 1 clove garlic, 2 tablespoons parsley, more oil if necessary and brown pancetta and onions about 5 minutes. Discard garlic when nut brown. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and fresh or frozen mushrooms, cook until mushroom edges are browned, about 10-15 minutes. Add dried mushrooms, cook 10 minutes. If using only dried porcini, saute for 15 minutes, with small amount of broth. Season with salt and pepper.

Add 2 cups reserved mushroom liquid and bring soup to boil partially covered. Turn heat to low and simmer 15 minutes. Add broth and simmer 15 minutes.

Halve remaining garlic clove and rub cut surface over bread. Cut bread into cubes, place on cookie sheet, drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and toss to coat. Broil until golden brown on all sides.

Just before serving, stir remaining parsley and 2-3 tablespoons olive oil into soup. Ladle into bowls and top with croutons.

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