A few days ago, I – literally – stumbled across some Porcini: Boletus edulis, cep, the King Bolete. Highly prized across the culinary world ($100/kg is not unreasonable!), the Porcini originates from Italy and the south of France, where it’s foraged for in the mountains. I was, therefore, understandably ecstatic about my finds. Before these, the only mushrooms I’d been game enough to even try cooking were some I thought to be regular field mushrooms. They turned out to be the hospital-disinfectant A. xanthodermus – I’m just glad it hasn’t put me off wild mushrooms for good.
I found five very generously sized porcini under some oak – unfortunately they were a few days past their prime, but still very good for drying. Dried porcini are invaluable: rehydrated and added to pasta or risotto, or added dry to a stock or soup – they add a punch of flavour.
As you can see, these were huge. I admit to being paralysed by the enormity and gravity of the task at hand: I let them sit for two days further before processing them for drying. …That eventuated with me sitting at the table for three hours from 2am, peeling off pores, slicing and cleaning mushrooms. Because of their age, there were plenty of little millipedes and bugs in the caps and stems – extra protein, I figure! But seriously, you end up cutting the majority of visible bugs out; it’s pretty clear where they’ve burrowed. It really is a shame I didn’t find them earlier, unmolested by insects. There are three main parts of a mushroom: the cap (pileus), the stem (stipe), and whatever it underneath the cap – be it gills, pores, or something else. Almost all supermarket mushrooms will have gills, but porcini have ‘pores’. These are hundreds, thousands of straight tubes leading from the underside of the cap to the open air, it’s fascinating.
When the mushrooms are fresher, before the cap has curled up, it’s perfectly fine to cook with the pores. For drying, however, they can go gooey and sticky – less than ideal. So I removed the pores from the cap, carefully prying them away from the soft cap. Some people, more game than I, would roast the pores separates and crush or blend them into porcini powder, which I hear is excellent in soups and stocks. An aside: I find that the best way to process these is to first twist off the caps and clean those, then slice the cap and the stem. At least, that’s the best way at this size. If they’re small enough feel free to cut whole-mushroom slices. Important note – do not wash these mushrooms! The pores will just soak it up and mushrooms will just go soggy, taking longer to dry. Use a brush or a paper towel to clean the cap, and you can just slice off the dirt around the base. Careful not to lose too much meat, though!
You can imagine the abject horror of my family when they came into the kitchen that morning: trays upon trays of sliced mushrooms, positioned under an old, creaky fan. Sorry guys, no breakfast here. Only mushrooms. Not your mushrooms. Stay away. By the way, speaking from experience – if you’re planning on drying mushrooms regularly, it’s definitely within reason to consider a dehydrator. They cost less than $50 and are invaluable space-and-time-savers.
You want them cracker dry – so there’s no bend at all before they snap. This means all of the moisture is gone and you can store them safely in an airtight glass jar with no fear of condensation and mould. This level of dryness took about 3 hours in the oven (depending on how regularly you turn them) or closer to 3 days air drying. Warning: it makes the entire place smell “mushroomy”. I didn’t mind it, but the rest of the family wasn’t too pleased…
Mushrooms are 90% water, so the end result of drying them will be a shrivelled stick of mushroom which seems uncannily light, and indistinguishable from how it looked a day or two ago.
A few days later I found two more far younger porcini under an oak – these ones, I cooked and ate immediately, delicious!
Porcini have such incredible flavour pan-fried when fresh. When cooking, you have a couple of options. You can cook them with some oil from the get-go and effectively fry them – they come out super crispy but very rich. You can also use my favourite method, which gives you lovely, tender mushrooms. Here are the steps: first, chuck all of your mushrooms in the pan. Don’t worry if the pan seems over-full, they’ll quickly reduce down. Don’t add anything else, just let the water bubble out of them on a medium heat, turning occasionally, making sure none burn. After about 10-15 minutes, or when you can’t see much more water coming out, add in a clove of minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste, along with a generous knob of butter. Sauteé them for another 10 or 15 minutes or until tender. Mmm! Fantastic in pasta, risotto, with steak, probably stir fry – anything, really.
So what makes mushrooms taste so good? They are extremely high in the fifth flavour group: umami. This is that indescribable savouriness – the same ‘mmm’ quality you get from a seared steak, aged parmesan or seaweed – and it’s also found in MSG – which, as it turns out, gets an unfairly bad rap. But that’s another post. The huge amounts of umami in mushrooms mean that they’re vital in so many great stocks, along with seaweed. As the stock simmers away and reduces, that savoury element just gets stronger and stronger.
Now, I have to go and cook up the solitary porcini whisked back through the rain, sitting in the kitchen, waiting for my knife.
‘Till next time,