If you go out for a drive after a fall thunderstorm in Italy, you will find long lines of cars parked along the sides of the roads. Mushrooms have sprouted, and pickers are searching the woods.
Although authorities require a licence and regulate the number of bags and places where picking is permitted, mushroom picking continues to be a wonderful way to spend a day in the woods. It's easy—all you need are good shoes, a basket, and a knife. The reward can be porcini, a mushroom that is very versatile, delicate enough to give grace to an elegant dish, yet has an extremely strong flavor.
But never eat wild mushrooms unless an expert has identified them. Toxic mushrooms may look a lot like other desirable species, and some of them, such as Amanita muscaria, contain a deadly neurotoxin.
Porcini are very prized and appreciated mushrooms. They have a smooth, meaty texture and a strong woodsy flavor.
They can weigh anywhere from an ounce to more than a pound, and their caps can range from one to twelve inches in diameter. You will seldom find them fresh in the United States, but you might try looking for them in specialty produce markets in late spring or in the fall. Some grocery stores eventually carry frozen imported Porcini. The dried form of this mushroom is readily available. Porcini mushrooms also come preserved in oil.
Drying is an age-old method of preserving wild mushrooms to enjoy them year round. Dried mushrooms will keep for months without refrigeration.
Choose mushrooms that are a tan to pale brown in color. Avoid those that are crumbly. Dried porcini must be softened in hot water for at least 20 minutes before using.
As a rule of thumb, one ounce of dried mushrooms will reconstitute to six to eight ounces. Once softened, the mushrooms may be sliced, chopped, or left whole, according to the recipe.
Add reconstituted mushrooms at the beginning of cooking. This allows their highly concentrated flavors to permeate the entire dish. Also, cooks usually add the soaking water to the preparation for more flavor.
A combination of dry porcini and more fresh mushrooms, like chanterelle, are usually substituted for fresh porcini because fresh porcini are rarely found in the United States.
Anna Maria Volpi - © www.annamariavolpi.com