Category Archives: boletes

Wild Mushroom Strudel

strudel4A couple weekends ago, while attending the Sunshine Coast Mushroom Festival in British Columbia, I got a bite of a Wild Mushroom Strudel and immediately vowed to make it at home.

First, though, I had to find the mushrooms. So I visited a regular patch on my way to Yakima to speak to the Yakima Valley Mushroom Society. It’s a patch frequented by Eastern Europeans, especially Ukrainians, who pick a variety of different Leccinums including what they call “redcaps” (possibly Leccinum aurantiecum, though we’re likely to see taxonomic changes in North America with further DNA testing). They leave all the matsutake, which happily went into my bucket, along with several gypsy mushrooms and a fat porcino of more than a pound that remarkably perched in the duff unscathed. When I got home, the gypsies and king bolete went into the strudel.

I’ve never made a strudel before. For this reason I kept things simple and bought frozen puff pastry from the store. You’re welcome to make your own. A couple notes: braiding the puff pastry makes for an attractive presentation and allows air to escape through the vents so that the strudel doesn’t blow up into a monstrosity. Dried porcini, though not mandatory, gives the strudel a deep mushroomy flavor. You need less of the mushroom mixture than you think. My next strudel will have a bit less than the one pictured here.

3 cups diced wild mushrooms
1 oz dried porcini (optional)
1 large shallot, diced
2 tbsp butter
olive oil
2 – 3 springs fresh thyme, de-stemmed
1/4 cup white wine
1 handful parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
1 sheet puff pastry
1 egg, beaten

1. If using dried porcini, pulverize in a food processor and rehydrate with 1 cup warm water. Set aside for 20 minutes.

2. Saute diced shallot in butter over medium heat until soft. Add diced mushrooms. Cook mushrooms and shallot together for several minutes. The mushrooms will soak up all the butter; add olive oil if necessary. When mushrooms begin to brown, deglaze pan with a splash of wine. Add mushroom stock and reduce until the mixture is moist but not wet. Stir in thyme and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.

3. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out puff pastry into a rectangle about  12 inches by 8 inches. Place pastry on a piece of baking parchment atop a cookie sheet. With a knife, make diagonal cuts to the edges of the two long sides, so that the pastry can be folded up in a braided pattern. Spoon mushroom mixture down the middle. Fold up the strudel and pinch the ends. Brush with eggwash and place in oven. Bake until golden, about 30 minutes.

Halibut with Porcini and Nettle-Mint Sauce

king4The king bolete (aka porcino) is one of the few wild mushrooms that can be served raw, in limited quantities. Fresh porcini, both spring and fall, have a strong floral aroma. Make use of this arresting feature by thinly slicing or even shaving the mushroom over foods. Firm #1 buttons are best.

king6This recipe was inspired by a dish I had earlier this spring at the Willows Inn, where chef Blaine Wetzel  is earning plaudits for good reason. At the Willows I had a course of spring porcini stewed with asparagus and woodruff. My server shaved mounds of fresh porcini over the plate to the point of obscuring everything else underneath. The cooked mushrooms were contrasted by the snappy texture and floral sharpness of the fresh.

For my take, I oven-roasted halibut fillets and plated them with sautéed spring porcini mushrooms and a nettle-mint sauce. The sauce was quick and easy because I already had cubes of nettle pesto in the freezer. To make the sauce I sweated diced shallot in butter, added three cubes of defrosted nettle pesto, and stirred together with a generous splash of chicken stock and a tablespoon of chopped mint from the garden. The sauce was finished with heavy cream.

Once plated, I shaved a nice spring porcini button over the top.

Given the sort of spring mushroom season we’re having in the Pacific Northwest (worst in memory), this might be my last dance with the king until fall.

Super Bowl Chili

chili1On days like today, it pays to have a deep bench. I dropped back and went long for…dried pulverized chanterelles and frozen porcini.

First, I had to make a morning run to the market for some last minute provisions. The place was a mob scene at 9 a.m. Even little old ladies were decked out in Seahawks jerseys, pushing carts full of beer. This town is pumped up. The cashier had a big cutout picture of Richard Sherman on a stick that he was waving around when the line got disorderly

But this is still Seattle, and my job today is to bring a vegetarian dish to the neighborhood Super Bowl party. Everyone loves chili. Mine will be a little different from the norm.

First, the chanterelles. If you dried your excess last fall and buzzed in the food processor like I did, then you have a very nice stash of magic mushroom powder that adds a layer of depth to soups, stews, gravies, and rubs. It’s a little sweet yet still earthy. I think of this chanterelle powder as my special teams outfit.

Next, the porcini. I’m guessing the one-pound bag I pulled out of the freezer was about two pounds fresh. Back in the fall, during an epic king bolete pop, I chopped up pounds and pounds of the stuff, sautéed in butter, and vacuum-sealed in single meal sizes. Today the porcini is my meat substitute. Think of it as that now-legendary decision against the ‘Niners to scratch the field-goal attempt and go for seven.

Here’s the play-by-play:

2 cups dried black beans
2 medium yellow onions, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 15 oz can pinto beans
1 15 oz can red kidney beans
1 28 oz can diced tomato
2 heaping tbsp chanterelle dust, reconstituted in 2 cups warm water
2+ cups prepared porcini *
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced
olive oil
4 tsp chili powder
4 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
cayenne pepper to taste
oregano to taste
salt

* As noted above, the porcini should be fresh or frozen, about 2 cups cooked.

1. Rinse black beans, cover with water in a heavy pot, and bring to boil. Reduce heat, add half the onions and garlic plus a bay leaf and simmer until soft, about an hour. As the water reduces, stir in chanterelle stock.

2. Add pinto beans, kidney beans, and diced tomato to black bean mixture. Continue to simmer.

3. Saute remaining onion and garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until soft. Add porcini and cook together a few minutes before adding all the peppers. Continue to sauté mixture until peppers are soft. Stir in spices, cook a couple minutes until vegetables are thoroughly coated, and add to beans.

Serve with shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped onion, cilantro, and copious quantities of beer.

GO HAWKS!!!

The Wild Table

wild_table9

One of the perks of being a writer (besides the endless hours of self-doubt and boatloads of cash) is the chance to hit the road and meet up with likeminded folks—and call it work. Likeminded in my case means those who enjoy spending time both outdoors in nature and indoors in the kitchen.

This past weekend I traveled down to Eugene, Oregon, for the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival. Along the way I stopped near the funky coastal hamlet of Yachats to visit with a friend who I knew only from Facebook. David is an ace cook, mushroom forager, and photographer. His food photography graces the web site Earthy Delights. His wife Anna is of Russian descent, which makes her genetically predisposed to sleuthing out fungi.

Together the three of us hunted some of their favorite spots and came away with a cooler filled with beautiful #1 matsutake buttons, plump porcini, and a variety of other edible boletes. Back at their home, we celebrated our bounty in Russian fashion—Za vashe zdorovie!—with a shot of yellowfoot-infused vodka (and then another) and got down to the business of snapping a few pics of that evening’s wild table.

Unlike me, David is an organized and well prepared food photographer. He had a light box and tripod in his office along with various deflectors and gizmos. We set up some of that evening’s goodies, starting in the upper right corner and moving clockwise: yellowfoot-infused vodka, salt-cured saffron milkcaps, matsutake, golden chanterelles, king boletes, shots of yellowfoot vodka, wild scaber-stalk bread, dried chanterelle spice rub, and smoked salmon spread.

After a first course of homemade ravioli with a pork and chestnut filling and a salad course of romaine hearts with fresh-shaved porcini and a Meyer lemon dressing, we proceeded out front into the cool evening air to grill: matsutake caps with a ponzu marinade and dipping sauce of soy and key lime; traditional olive oil and garlic marinated porcini; a fillet of wild Chinook salmon with chanterelle spice rub and rock crab butter; and a dessert of pears with spruce bud syrup. As the decanter’s waterline of yellowfoot vodka ebbed, multiple bottles of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir appeared. It was a feast to savor, capping off a fruitful day of foraging with new friends on a miraculously sunny fall day on the Oregon Coast.

The next morning, after a rise-n-shine bowl of Matsutake Wonton Soup, I drove the pretty little Alsea River through the Coast Range, spying salmon fishermen along the way, to Eugene for the mushroom festival. It was a huge success, with a big crowd of fungal fanciers, more than 400 species identified, and a bluegrass band playing outside. Volunteers whooped it up at the After Party and I made the wise decision to spend one more night. I also had the opportunity to put a few faces to names, including the elusive Chicken-of-the-woods (aka Laetiporus Sulphureus) and Dimitar Bojantchev, moderator of the Mushroom Talk listserv. As a nightcap, my hosts in Eugene, Bruce and Peg, plied me with their delicious (and powerful) homemade blackberry brandy.

The next day I bid adieu to Madame Muscaria and the rest of the characters that make Eugene and the Oregon Coast such a pleasure to visit, with plans to make it back down there again as soon as possible.

Mushroom Hunting in China and Eastern Tibet

I met a self-proclaimed globetrotter at a barbecue the other day who told me that in a lifetime of traveling he’d never been to the Far East. That’s funny, I said to him, because I just got back from China. He wasn’t impressed. “The Chinese can have it,” he said sourly. “It’s their century anyway.”

The old codger may be right about the 21st century being stamped with Chinese characters, though I’m at a loss to explain how a so-called “lifetime of traveling” translates into such a narrow world view. Maybe if George W. Bush had spent more time on foreign soil—rather than extolling his own provincialism—he might not have made such a mess of things in the White House. There’s one way to gain a better understanding of the world and its people: by crossing borders.

My recent trip took me to southwestern China and the Tibetan Plateau. The lens through which I glimpsed these places was fungi.  Mushroom season is in full swing in the monsoon-soaked highlands and I wanted to see for myself a mushroom hunting scene that has been described as one of the busiest anywhere, with economic implications that stretch far and wide. Daniel Winkler, a member of the Puget Sound Mycological Society and proprietor of Mushroaming, was my cheerful, indefatigable tour guide (besides an encyclopedic knowledge of local custom and natural history, the guy speaks enough Tibetan to hang out with nomadic yak herders).

You’ll have to take my word for it when I say that I survived adventures this July to fill a book—or  at least a lengthy essay. Much of it I’m still trying to process. China is big, jam-packed with people, and not a little overwhelming. I’ve got work ahead to bring into focus my thousands of photos, hours of audio/video, and copious notes. In the meantime, allow me to share a little of the itinerary and some accompanying images.

The trip started in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, where the region’s infatuation with everything fungal was on display, at a price. Local pharmacies showed off wild medicinals such as reishi (pictured above) and Cordyceps sinensis, the caterpillar fungus. Should you seek these time-honored curatives, be prepared to open your wallet. One member of our party paid 480 rmb (about $75 US) for a dozen of the desiccated larvae of the ghost moth with their fungal parasites (called yartsa gunbu in Tibetan, with a reputation for restoring the humors, enhancing sexual prowess, and even producing Olympic Gold Medalists)—and she got a deal!

Mushrooms are widely eaten as food in the Far East, too. Restaurants in big cities and small towns alike routinely include both cultivated and wild varieties on their menus. One of the best meals of the trip was at this tiny restaurant (above) near Ya’an on the road to Kangding, where we dined on wood-ear and oyster mushrooms cooked to order by a wok-master and his wife. One of the many fun (and different) things about eating in China is seeing all the meat and produce on display in the restaurant’s glass-cased cooler; reading the menu for most of us westerners is an impossibility but one can always point.

Our first day out of Chengdu we followed rivers that I’d never heard of, rivers that, to the naked eye, would seem to dwarf the Skagit or even the Sacramento. The Red Basin is famous as the bread-basket of China, and it’s easy to see why when you start counting the major water courses that flow into it, including the 2,000-year-old irrigation diversion at Dujiangyan. There’s an unbelievable amount of water pouring out of mountains that seem to go on forever, especially during monsoon season.

We gained steady elevation, finally topping out at 8,400 feet in Kangding, a smallish city by Chinese standards with about 100,000 souls at the confluence of the Tar and Chen river gorges. Despite its size, Kangding boasted more wild mushroom dealers than I’ve ever seen in one place. Matsutake commanded the highest price, at 80 to 100 rmb per pound for #1 and #2 buttons, while the local varieties of Caesar’s amanita (Amanita hemibapha) and king bolete (Boletus sp.) were going for as much as 25 rmb for prime specimens, such as these amanita eggs below.

Other species for sale included the Himalayan gypsy (Cortinarius emodensisbelow); hawk’s wing (Sarcodon sp., below); Leccinum versipelleCatathelasma imperialis; various boletes, russulas, and chanterelles; and a Tricholoma similar to man-on-horseback.

One night we taste-tested the gypsy side by side with the mystery Tricholoma (below). The latter was favored by some, though I must say I preferred the gypsy for both taste and texture and will be looking for this mushroom more in the future. The Chinese are known for their nose-to-tail eating habits, and this catholic taste spills over into their use of fungi. Species that I don’t usually associate with the marketplace in the U.S. (e.g. Catathelasma imperialis, various russulas, and hawk’s wings) are routinely sold and eaten in China. This is in keeping with the agricultural strategy; virtually every square inch of arable land is under cultivation. With 1.4 billion inhabitants, even a nation as geographically large as China must continually think about food production.

A few days (and hard miles) later, while our drivers played cards, we investigated a likely slice of matsutake habitat in the oak forests above Yajiang with the help of a young Tibetan and his aunt (pictured below).

Fresh divots in the forest floor told the story: we were too late. Matsutake is intensively hunted on the Tibetan Plateau and represents a significant source of income for many Tibetans. The only species more important is the caterpillar fungus. Later we came upon some successful hunters in the woods. As in the U.S. and elsewhere, the pressure to find matsutake leads to a market overflowing with tiny buttons (called peanuts in the Pacific Northwest). This is compounded by the Japanese preference for unopened caps. If the pickers allowed the mushrooms to grow even a little bit, they’d make more money, but competition is so stiff that the buttons are exhumed as soon as they’re spotted. Even a seasoned matsutake hunter from North America would find the level of competition fierce. On this particular day we ran into pickers everywhere, many of them charging up and down the rough mountain roads on motorcycles.

While waiting for a landslide to be cleared—one of the many monsoon-induced road closures that would plague our journey—we met a matsutake buyer who couldn’t contain himself. Though he spoke no English, he must have understood the gist of our conversation as we all waited impatiently beside the muddy jeep track. He grabbed hold of my sleeve and ushered me back to his minivan. As he yanked open the sliding door, I imagined jack-booted authorities jumping out to arrest me, but instead I found myself staring at a carload of mostly #1 matsutake buttons, maybe 500 pounds in all.

Our high point in terms of elevation was the town of Lithang, birthplace of two Dalai Lamas. At 4,014 meters (or more than 13,000 feet above sea level), it’s one of the highest towns in the world, though it wasn’t a high point for morale. Sleep and appetite suffered in the thin air. Outside the tourist town of Yading we caught a miraculous glimpse of Mt. Chenresig, the sacred Buddhist peak of compassion (6,032 meters), normally shrouded in cloud cover.

The drive from Daocheng to Shangri-la in Yunnan Province passed through miles of awe-inspiring territory. We came across a guy selling a basketful of matsutake out in the middle of nowhere. (Or, more likely, he was waiting for his usual buyer to motor by.) This was a signal to keep our eyes peeled, and sure enough, we rounded a bend and saw a mushroom camp in the distance.

According to the people running the makeshift local store, about forty pickers plus their families had set up the camp in the past week. Some were still moving in.

The temporary settlement, with its simple tents constructed from tarps and wooden stringers cut on site, reminded me of the matsutake camp near Chemult, Oregon. There was a lot of activity as the inhabitants collected wood, shored up their domiciles with brush, and laid in supplies.

Unfortunately there was no time to linger. We had to press on to Shangri-la, a dingy city in Yunnan Province that has appropriated the famous name from Lost Horizon for itself. Yunnan is well known for its wild mushroom trade. Not surprisingly, Shangri-la had a corner of real estate devoted to the buying and selling of precious fungi.

Over the course of the trip, our group had a chance to sample many species of local edible mushrooms that we found along the way, including boletes, blewetts, a beautiful sulfur shelf, and others. We brought them to little family restaurants where there was never a question as to whether the mushrooms were safe to eat. The people know their mushrooms. Only once did a cook remind us that the responsibility was all ours.

Though our trip was built around the foraging and commerce of mushrooms, we also spent welcome time identifying mountain flora, visiting towns along the route, and exploring Buddhist monasteries. Outside Shangri-la I had one last opportunity to hunt mushrooms in China before flying back to Chengdu—on the grounds of a monastery where, among a roving band of pigs, chickens, and goats, I found a pair of  perfect Amanita hemibapha eggs and a beautiful Amanita from the vaginata group in the shadow of Tibetan prayer flags, a fitting end to an exciting and educational mushroom hunt.

Spring Kings: Another Season, Another Lesson

It’s getting a little late in the season to talk about spring kings, but it seems that every year I learn a little bit more about these tantalizing members of the bolete family that are so emblematic of the Kingdom of Fungi in general. For instance, even though it only received species designation in 2008, Boletus rex-veris has been picked and eaten by Italian-Americans for a hundred years. You can read the many spring porcini posts on this blog—from my first post to my experiments with freezing buttons to taxonomic clarity—as a record of my own progress.

Much of my understanding about how to cook and care for the the “little pigs” has been won through trial and error. There just isn’t an operating manuel. As you might recall, I started “field dressing” my porcini a couple years ago in an effort to keep them clean and to combat the bugs that are as boletivoracious as us. Boletus rex-veris, in contrast to B. edulis, does much of its growing underground, so it can be quite a dirty mushroom. Dirt and duff-covered mushrooms piled together in a basket or bucket will share their dirt like STDs, making for a difficult cleaning proposition at home, particularly with the pores under the cap. Wherever I happen to find them, I clean them up and check for insect infestations, taking precautions to cover up the scene of the capture when I’m finished.

Field dressing consists of trimming the stem of any dirt, cleaning the cap as thoroughly as possible, and finally slicing the mushroom in half to check for worms. Even seemingly pristine #1 buttons can have fly larvae in them that will make a mess in no time. If I see any bug activity (as in the image at right and a closeup below, showing the culprit), I slice it out with my knife. This often takes care of localized infestations and saves a mushroom that would otherwise be ruined before dinnertime.

And don’t be fooled. Bolete fly larvae can riddle a mushroom with their hungry tunneling in the time that it takes to drive your haul home from the mountains. As they warm up, the larvae become more active. Unless you crank your air conditioner, the temperature in your car will cause the bugs to stir. This isn’t too much of a problem provided you don’t dilly-dally along the way—and you get the mushrooms in the refrigerator asap.

Sometimes I’ll camp in the woods and spread my mushroom hunting over a couple days or more. Usually, when multiple species are fruiting at the height of the spring season, I’ll try to do my morel hunting at the beginning and save my porcini hunting for last. A load of porcini hanging around camp unrefrigerated is an invitation to disaster. A couple weeks ago I came home with several pounds of #1 and #2 buttons. It was cold and drizzly in Seattle and I was exhausted, so I left my basket of mushrooms on the front stoop overnight. Bad call. Even temps in the low-40’s aren’t cool enough. Plus, humidity is a killer. About half the load was beyond repair by the next day. Even a cold fridge doesn’t completely stop the worms in their tracks; it just slows them down (though I suspect a really cold fridge can prevent additional larvae from hatching).

I’ve been paying close attention to a recent batch. A few mushrooms that got field dressed and looked absolutely spotless before the drive home ended up having some noticeable tunneling within three hours of picking. Others that still looked perfect got sliced in half again (i.e. quartered) in my kitchen. This revealed minor bug activity that required immediate action. Finally, even mushrooms that passed with flying colors required checking after a day or two in the fridge, and some of these showed minor infestation. The point is, if you want to pick and eat porcini and not cook up a panful of maggots, you need to be vigilant.

The bolete below has the appearance of a #1 button. It was firm and didn’t show any signs of infestation when I trimmed the stem. I decided to keep it whole. After a week in the fridge, this is what it looked like. Look closely and you’ll see that the worms attacked via the cap, not the stem. If I had cut the mushroom in half when I picked it, I might have been able to isolate the infestation and save it.

If this is all too much for some folks, who don’t even want to think about extra protein in their food…well, mushroom hunting probably isn’t your cup of beef.

P.S. If you’re in British Columbia, I’d like to know whether you find B. rex-veris, and if so, how far north.

Porcini Bap

In 1998 I spent six months working in the UK. Martha and I lived in a flat in the dingy London suburb Slough (rhymes with cow) made famous by The Office (and, before that, by the poet laureate John Betjeman). Friends pitied us for our diet of English food, imagining slabs of gray, overcooked meat, soggy fish ‘n’ chips, and vegetables boiled into limp submission.

But those in the know, such as my colleague Rebecca (now jam goddess at Deluxe), told us not to worry, that the UK was in the midst of a major gastronomic overhaul. She was right. We arrived to find food-crazed Brits long before Top Chef landed on American soil.

We watched—along with everyone else—TV episodes of Delia Cooks, Ready Steady Cook, Two Fat Ladies, Nigel Slater, and the beautiful, tragic Nigella Lawson. We ate extraordinary Indian food (acknowledged as the national cuisine) on trips to London, and on Sundays I would ride my bike through the countryside, pulling over for a pint every so often and eventually stopping to sup on afternoon roast before wobbling back home.

We amassed a collection of contemporary English cookbooks. One of our favorites was Nigel Slater’s Real Food, the title appropriated long before Michael Pollan and the New World locavore movement. Real food meant both English standards (e.g. Toad in the Hole) as well as the many ethnic influences bubbling up across the country, all of it made with fresh ingredients and updated preparations. Twice we blew up our little English oven while mistakenly cooking one of our mainstays, Nigel’s 40 Garlic Chicken, on gas 9.

One of our favorite quick meals was called a bap. It was a hot vegetarian sandwich recipe that Nigel attributes to Nigella. I confess that I still don’t know exactly what a bap is (a type of bread?), but I like the sound of it. Nigel roasts the caps of large field mushrooms with garlic butter and parsley. This simple sandwich is excellent—and with a haul of spring porcini mushrooms foraged the other day here in the USA, I decided I’d give it a new spin.

Spring kings, as they’re sometimes known, are fruiting in my patches right now. I’ve written about the “little pigs” before. You can read more about them here, here, and here. They’re fun to forage and a joy to cook.

To make the sandwich, pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Chop together some garlic and parsley and mix into a large dollop of softened butter with a generous sprinkling of salt. Slather each mushroom cap with the garlic butter and roast for about 20 minutes. When the mushrooms are cooked and starting to brown a little at the edges, you can melt some cheese such as provolone or mozzarella as a finishing touch.

Choose good bread. I picked up a ciabatta from the Columbia City Bakery. When it’s time to assemble the sandwich, make sure you rub the cut ends of the bread in the pan juices.

You want to use large porcini buttons if possible, buttons with caps that haven’t fully opened yet. Placed upside-down on a roasting pan, the concave caps will hold the garlic butter. Nigel says a good bap should drip down your hands and arms when you eat it. I concur.

Porcini and Eggplant Parmesan

I was on the Oregon Coast last weekend—Rockaway Beach, to be exact—and can report that the coastal porcini north of Tillamook are on the way out. The beach pick is definitely over in Washington, for that matter. But as you move down the coast into California weather patterns change. A soaking rain in Mendocino a couple weeks ago kicked their season into gear and we should be hearing favorable fungi forecasts from places like Salt Point State Park any day now.

The point is, even if your own region is at flood stage or under a blanket of snow, someone is enjoying wild mushrooms in another part of the country. So, while I roasted the last of my Washington porcini the other night, it is with a sense of vicarious pleasure that I offer this outstanding recipe to my mushroom-hunting brethren in California, who I plan to join at the end of the month for a week of picking and roaming.

I use Marcella‘s Eggplant Parmesan recipe as a guideline. It’s decadent, with plenty of frying in oil. If that’s not your thing…well then, move along, nothing to see here.

1 large eggplant, sliced 1/4-inch thick lengthwise
1-2 large king boletes, sliced 1/4-inch thick lengthwise
flour
oil for frying
marinara sauce
1 lb mozzarella cheese, grated
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
fresh basil
salt and pepper
spaghetti

1. Heat oil in a large, deep-sided pan or skillet. Dredge eggplant and mushroom slices in seasoned flour. You may need to immerse mushroom slices in water before flouring. Fry in batches until golden, then remove to paper towels. (Note: Marcella recommends sprinkling eggplant slices with salt prior to frying so they release moisture; your call.)

2. Meanwhile prepare marinara sauce. You can take a shortcut and use a 28-oz can of store-bought sauce or make your own. We make our own simple red sauce by sautéing chopped garlic in olive oil, adding a 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes plus herbs, and simmering until the sauce attains desired taste and consistency. Add water as the sauce cooks down, and a pinch or two of sugar if necessary.

3. Grease a suitable baking dish. Line the bottom with a single layer of fried eggplant. Spoon over a third of your red sauce and top with half the mozzarella and a third of the parmesan. Dot with leaves of fresh basil. Repeat the layering, this time with all your porcini followed by another third of the red sauce, the rest of the mozzarella, another third of parmesan, and more fresh basil. Complete the final layer with the rest of your eggplant followed by the remaining red sauce and parmesan.

4. Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove from oven and allow to cool for several minutes.

Serve over spaghetti.

The Ukrainian Connection

You might not see these people around town. They stick together and avoid attracting attention. But in your local mushroom patch you’re sure to find them. Eastern Europeans, that is. Poles and Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians, many of them recent immigrants in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. They have a long tradition of scouring the woods of their homelands for edible fungi.

Mushrooms are often thought of as basically nutrient-free. This is not the case. Fungi can boast a number of important nutrients, including protein, and while a meal of mushrooms isn’t equivalent to a steak dinner, to an Old World peasant not that long ago it might have been the difference between making it through the winter and starvation.

No wonder Eastern European fungal folkways have been handed down over the centuries—and they’re alive and well in North America.

There’s a mushroom patch that I frequent in the mountains east of Seattle. Actually, it’s more of a huckleberry patch, but sometimes I’ll pick mushrooms when I’m there. Every October I see the Eastern Europeans parked in the many turnouts along the forest road that leads to it. They’re in search of boletes, especially Boletus edulis, which they call the “white mushroom” as well as a number of other species in that family that most recreational mushroom hunters rarely consider for the table. They vacuum up the many slippery jacks and scaber stalks of the forest.

Last year I happened on a troop of them in the bush and I wish I had been able to get some clandestine photos. They looked as though they’d just stepped off the set of a Hollywood movie about gypsies, wearing handmade clothes—the women in ankle-length skirts and babushkas in the middle of the wilderness—and calling to each other through the woods in an indecipherable tongue. As soon as they saw me they turned tail, as if engaged in some sort of furtive, illegal activity. Many of the Eastern Europeans, for reasons that are obvious to even the most casual student of history, are reluctant to talk to strangers and view anyone outside their cohort as a potential authority figure best to be avoided.

Just the other day I was more lucky. I found a group of Ukrainians working a patch who were willing to talk. Already they had a couple five-gallon buckets filled with slippery jacks, red caps, and the odd king bolete. One of the two women spoke decent English and explained that they were from a village outside Kiev. She wouldn’t submit to a photo but her picking partner agreed to hold up what they called a “brown cap.” They differentiated between three different types of Leccinum: red caps, brown caps, and black caps. This is a notoriously difficult genus to key out at the species level, and there is some debate even about the edibility of these mushrooms in general since they are known to cause illness on occasion, with one poisoning case in particular that has made the rounds recently.

The other prevalent genus, Suillus, which includes slippery jacks and jills, is ubiquitous on the forest floor but as the common name suggests, often slimy. The Ukrainians said they peeled the cap and then boiled the mushrooms in salted water before pickling or canning. A dash of lemon juice, they said, made all the difference. These are seriously labor-intensive mushrooms and I’ve never done much with them. Some people will dry and powder various kinds of Suillus for use in soups and stews.

Also that day I met a man from Moscow named Eugene. He was picking with his wife and had a basket filled with similar species (shown at the top of this post). Eugene said he sliced and salted the mushrooms before preserving them. We exchanged email addresses, a level of communication that initially surprised me, but when I tried to send photos to Eugene the next day my message bounced.

I don’t mean to sound like a cultural tourist, but I think it’s cool that an activity like mushroom hunting can introduce you to a diverse group of people from around the world. I’m hoping that I can get to know a few of these folks and learn their methods of mushroom preparation. But asking questions in the bush doesn’t always get you far. You can understand why people hailing from the former Soviet bloc might be suspicious. The Ukrainians were surprised that I was alone.

“Not good to be alone in woods,” one of them said to me. As if putting an exclamation point on the statement, a quick volley of gunfire echoed through the hills. Just target practice, I said. They looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Yes, maybe.”

Porcini 101: Porcini Risotto

It’s fall porcini time in the Pacific Northwest. This is perhaps my favorite of all the wild mushrooms. The season is late this year because of a lack of moisture in August. I found just two porcini while backpacking in the North Cascades over Labor Day, but they were prime specimens, perfect for risotto.

After scouring the Web for risotto recipes the other day I got the impression that home cooks might appreciate a bit more explanation of what porcini is (or are, since the word is plural for porcino) and how to buy, prepare, and cook them. While I’m no expert, this is what I’ve learned after several years of foraging, eating, and putting up porcini.

Taxonomy

A nice button
Porcini is Italian for a number of related edible mushrooms in the Boletus genus. The French call them ceps, the Germans steinpilz, and the Brits sometimes refer to them slangily as pennybuns. The term porcini seems to be the most widely used in culinary circles. Mycologists refer to all the species in the genus collectively as boletes. Boletes are distinguished by having pores under the caps rather than gills. Though they come in many shapes, colors, and sizes, most boletes are characterized by dome-shaped caps and thick, fleshy stems.

A mature porcino flanked by a sliced button
The most famous bolete (also considered the most choice for the table around the world) is known as the king bolete, its taxonomic name Boletus edulis, which roughly translates as “superior edible mushroom.” While porcini can include a number of edible boletes, the king bolete is the one most cooks prize. It’s characterized by an often large cap with a tan to brick red coloration, pores that are white or gray in young individuals and becoming yellowish to greenish-yellow in mature specimens, and a bulbous white stem with fine reticulation (netting) and sometimes a pinkish blush. Sliced open, the king’s flesh is white.

Often when people say “porcini” they are referring specifically to the king bolete, Boletus edulis. The terminology becomes a little more complicated on the West Coast of North America, where we have another species commonly known as the “spring king” or spring porcini, Boletus rex-veris. You can read more about spring porcini here.



Notice the difference in color between the porcini at the top of the post and those directly above. The former are coastal king boletes from Washington picked the other day; the latter are kings from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. At some point we might see further splitting of the Boletus edulis complex of species.

Dried vs. Fresh

In Italy during summer and fall you are likely to see market stalls overflowing with boxes of fresh porcini picked from the local woods (or, more likely, imported from Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe to fill the Italian demand). Increasingly in the U.S. you might find porcini at specialty shops and farmers markets in season. In Seattle much of our local porcini is supplied by Foraged and Found Edibles. However, in general it’s more common to see small packages of imported dried porcini at the market.


Porcini for sale at a Genoa market. Photo by Audrey Scott


Porcini have been known for centuries as mushrooms that respond well to drying. The drying process enables these mushroom with a short season and brief shelf life to be used any time of year, whether in season or not. Equally important, the drying process also concentrates the flavor of the mushrooms, giving them a powerful, earthy bass note that does wonders for soups, stews, sauces, and stocks. Dried porcini are primarily used as a flavoring. You extract the flavor by reconstituting the dried mushrooms in warm water for at least 20 minutes and then using the resulting mushroom stock in your cooking. The reconstituted mushrooms themselves can also be used but their texture is not as good as fresh porcini.

Fresh porcini have a mild, nutty taste and a dense, meaty texture. It’s no surprise that Italians also call them “poor man’s steak.” You can slice and grill porcini like a cut of meat. They can be quickly sauteed over high heat but also stand up well to pro-longed cooking. Look for young, firm specimens with caps that have not fully opened—that is, they’re still concave like umbrellas—and whitish pores if possible. The caps of older specimens will be plane or even convex, with yellow pores; these will be softer fleshed and cook up somewhat slimy but they still have good flavor if not the desired texture. Some sellers will slice their porcini in half to show they are not worm-infested. Small buttons are useful for presentation; sliced thinly, they retain their classic mushroom silhouette and look great on the plate.

For texture, I prefer fresh porcini. For taste, it depends on what I’m cooking. Using a combination of fresh and dried is often a way to get the best of both worlds. Usually when I use dried porcini I pulverize the mushrooms in a blender first. This porcini “dust” can be easily added to dishes to boost the flavor.

Risotto

While looking over a variety of fresh porcini risotto recipes online, I was surprised to see how many recipes ask you to cook the mushrooms first and then remove them from the pan before adding the risotto rice, as if they’re so fragile that they can only be added back into the dish later as a sort of frilly garnish on top. Nonsense. The whole point is to allow the rice to take on the mushroom flavor as it cooks. Besides, even after a half-hour of cooking, fresh porcini mushrooms of good quality will retain their meaty texture. Why complicate the process?

Many recipes simply use the dried porcini. This is fine out of season, though I would consider adding fresh mushrooms of some sort, even a bland supermarket variety like cremini, if only for texture. The best porcini risotto is the one that uses both fresh and dried porcini. Here’s my recipe:

8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup (approx 2 oz) dried porcini
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, diced
1/2 lb fresh porcini, roughly chopped into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
2 tbsp butter
4 heaping tbsp mascarpone
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup (or more) sweet peas (frozen is fine)
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Warm stock just below simmer in a pot on stovetop.
2. Pulverize dried porcini in blender or food processor and add to stock.
3. In a large pan suitable for risotto, saute onions, garlic, and fresh porcini in olive oil for several minutes over medium-high heat until mushrooms begin to brown ever so slightly, stirring regularly. I like to season the mixture with a few grindings of salt and pepper at this point.
4. De-glaze with white wine. When liquid has nearly bubbled off, add rice and stir well, coating thoroughly. Allow rice to cook until slightly toasted, 2-3 minutes.
5. Add 4-5 ladlefuls of stock to pan, stirring. It helps to have a risotto spoon. Reduce heat to medium-low. Continue to add a ladle or two of warm stock as the liquid is absorbed, stirring regularly, about 15-20 minutes.
6. Risotto is nearly done when creamy yet al dente and just slightly crunchy inside. Now stir in the butter, mascarpone, and half the parmesan along with a couple more ladles of stock, then mix in the peas, and cover for a few minutes.

Don’t be alarmed if you have leftover stock; it’s always better with risotto to have more than enough. The finished risotto should be rich and creamy. The peas add a dash of color and nice pops of texture as a counterpoint to the porcini and rice. Add salt if necessary. For a soupier risotto, add more stock. Serve with remaining parmesan as a garnish. Serves 4.

Note: For an attractive and tasty garnish, thinly slice a couple small porcini buttons and saute in butter until lightly browned, as shown in the images above and below.