I was wandering around the Davis Farmer’s Market Saturday and spotted something rare: spring porcini mushrooms. Then I noticed the exorbitant price — $30 a pound — snorted, and walked on.
But as I walked, a thought wormed its way into my brain. “You know you’d need to drive to Shasta or Mendocino to even get into the habitat for spring porcini. That’s a lotta gas, plus meals — and you’ve never looked for them before, so you wouldn’t even be guaranteed to find them.” Still, $30 a pound is pretty damn spendy.
I bought some fish and saw John Bledsoe, my friendly neighborhood hog farmer, but John had forgotten to bring me the fatback and pork belly I’d ordered to make salami and bacon. Depressed, I continued to wander aimlessly. Until I passed the porcini again.
Fuck it, I thought. Other people spend their limited disposable income to buy drugs or booze or go to strip clubs or get pedicures or see a shrink. I’ll just be that freak who spent $30 on one raw ingredient for a meal for two. And these porcini did look really nice. So I picked out some big ‘uns, which turned out to be slightly less than a pound. “Only” $28! Uh…score.
I now had the same feeling I had when I came home with exactly four snipe to feed Holly and me last winter: stretch the ingredient and try to get it to say different things at one meal. Here’s what I came up with.
To start, I made a raw porcini salad. Mario Batali apparently makes one that I’ve never tried, but if I did I would hope it would go like this: Shaved, homemade lamb bresaola, porcini “marinated” in lemon juice for just a few minutes, then coated with an herby dressing made with basil, fresh oregano and fresh thyme, with a little grated dry cheese tossed in for body.
Damn good. As porcini have more protein than nearly any other non-animal edible, I’d say I “honored the protein,” as Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio so memorably uttered on one of last season’s episodes. Actually I find that phrase so wildly amusing — it is such chefspeak — that I just like repeating it whenever I get the chance.
Last year I learned a neat trick with enoki mushrooms in Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, in which the mushrooms are cooked down in a soy-based sauce down until they are glazed with what remains. These enoki are tidbits of salty, umami joy — love, love, LOVE them! So I thought about doing something similar with a few perfect slices of porcini I’d cut.
Behold! Hank’s lacquered porcini mushrooms! These were a goddamn work of art. I could eat a full pound’s worth, just like this. They look simple, but aren’t: You cook them in a searing hot dry pan, then remove them, then remove the pan from the heat to cool a bit, then add lots of butter, which, when it hits the pan immediately becomes brown butter. Return the mushrooms, add thyme until it gets lovely brown. Remove them again and add a healthy splash of 1974 Heitz cellars Angelica — a crazy good sweet dessert wine — cook this halfway down, return the mushrooms to coat, and serve.
Phew. I’ll write the exact recipe down in a bit. But these mushrooms were exactly the way a mushroom ought to be: Meaty, rich, a little salty and slightly sweet.
On to the main course. What I had left were the chunks and stemmy bits, which I decided to make into a porcini ragout. In late May? Yep, we’re getting oddly cool weather here, with highs only in the low 80s, so I reckoned I could get away with it. I also dropped in some dried porcini for a double dose. Oh yeah, and some handmade pancetta. And a pig’s foot.
Instead of pasta, I made grilled polenta to serve with it. Why? I wanted to use my brand-new gas grill, and it just seemed right. This was Holly’s favorite dish of the night. All that porky goodness — especially from the trotter, whose collagen made the whole sauce silky — with a double hit of porcini, lots of red wine and the crispy, soft-on-the-inside polenta. Yeah, I’ll be making this dish again.
So was it worth all that money? I think so.
It would have been more fulfilling to have ventured to the misty north and found these mushrooms myself. But as I am just a barely passable mushroom hunter, I would have been wandering blind. Not that this is such a bad thing. Any pursuit worth doing requires that you put in the time to learn before you get good at it. What I need, however, is a guide and mushroom mentor to learn the region’s shroomery — so that the time I’m putting in is at least productive. Still looking for that person.
What dinners like our porcini fest do is help keep that desire to learn stoked and hot. Foraging and hunting and fishing are, to me, less about survival and more about enjoying the many delights Nature has set out for us. Knowing that there is something as delicious as a spring porcini out there gives purpose to my thus-far-fruitless forays into the mushroom woods.
And if it costs me $28 to keep me on track, so be it.