Driving in darkness along a deserted highway, I had porcini on my mind. It was long before dawn, but I needed to drive from my house near Sacramento down to California’s Central Coast and meet up with my fellow mushroom hunters as close to dawn as possible. We needed to be there before competing pickers did.
It is a rare thing for me to be up this early without a gun or fishing rod involved. But the prospect of a serious flush of boletus edulis, the magnificent porcini mushroom, is more than worth a 4 a.m. wake-up call. Tramping around the country on book tour, I’d thought I’d missed our fall porcini season, which is usually October and November on California’s coast. But last week a reader named Carter sent me an email asking if I’d wanted to join them on a porcini hunt. He assured me there were still some king boletes to be found if we went south of San Francisco. How far south I cannot tell, only that it was north of Los Angeles…
Carter, his friend Adam and Adam’s father John and I all met about the same time. We quickly made our introductions and headed into the forest. I could see mushroom lust in all our eyes.
We didn’t walk five steps before we began seeing boletes. Tons of boletes. An endless, monstrous, epic flush of boletes. Everything from slippery jacks and other suillus to some beautiful, firm leccinum manzanitae, the manzanita boletes beloved by the Italian community in the Sierra Foothills. And studded among them was the largest flush of amanita muscaria I’ve ever seen.
Amanita muscaria is one of the prettiest mushrooms in the world, and it is also toxic if eaten without special processing. If you try to eat it like a regular mushroom, fly agaric will cause hallucinations as well as various gastric issues. No bueno. But, if you are looking for boletus edulis – porcini, cepe, penny bun, etc – look first for amanita muscaria.
And just like that, Carter found one. Then his friend Andy found one. Game on! As we walked and walked and walked, the porcini, with their distinctively warm brown, “hamburger bun” cap and fat stem, hid themselves among the zillions of lesser boletes. Boletes, by the way, include all mushrooms with spongy bottoms instead of gills. The biggest groupings are the true boletes, the suillus, which generally have slimy caps, and the leccinums, which tend to be firm and dry and have dark, hairy flecks on their stems that look like five o’clock shadow.
I happen to like dried leccinums, so I picked them as well as the porcini I found. And if you look at the mushroom behind this leccinum in the picture above, it is a baby pine spike, chroogomphus vinicolor. I pick these, too, as they are good dried when tossed into mushroom broth or into a ragout. And they were everywhere. I also found lots of lactaria deliciosa, which I hear is not so delicioso; I’ve never eaten them.
As we moved through the forest, my interest in all edible mushrooms was, apparently, a disadvantage. I’d tuned my eyes to mushrooms in general, but Carter, Andy and the rest had keyed themselves solely on the porcini. So they covered ground far faster — and picked far more porcini than I did.
Even so, the picking was good. I did the worst of everyone, but I still came home with more than 10 pounds of porcini, plus a small haul of pine spikes, leccinum and a few slippery jacks. I was on top of the world as I drove back to Sacramento.
Most of the porcini I’d collected were not prime. They were large, some more than two pounds, their spongy bottoms discolored and their bodies inhabited by a few wormy tenants. If they are not too slimy, or moldy, or too riddled with worms, these porcini are wonderful cut into pieces and dried. The worms flee the mushrooms in the drying process and die, so you will not be eating dried maggots in your porcini. This is a good thing.
My dehydrator ran morning and night for two days, and I wound up with three quarts of dried porcini, a haul by my standards. I had another pint of porcini powder, made from the spongy bits. The sponge isn’t very good to eat when it is reconstituted; it’s slimy. But dried and ground, it makes the perfect, intensely flavored porcini powder. I use it in venison sausage and in pasta.
I did, however, have enough prime boletes to work with some fresh ones. I am pickling a few (more on that later), and grilling others simply. (Grilling in December? Welcome to California!) But the stems, which can be a little fibrous, are great diced small and fried in olive oil, then worked into a porcini risotto.
So I decided to make a sexed-up porcini risotto, with fresh porcini, minced, reconstituted dried porcini, the water I soaked the dried mushrooms in, plus a little parmesan cheese. I topped it with a seared pigeon breast — pigeon and squab are a perfect complement to porcini mushrooms.
It was a winter carnival of flavors, warm, loaded with mushroomy umami goodness, with just a little bit of medium-rare game to round it out. I cracked open a 2005 Vino Noceto Sangiovese wine to go with it. Thanks a heap for the invite, Carter! I hope to return the favor someday soon.
Porcini Mushroom Risotto
This recipe is a triple porcini bomb: You use both fresh and dried porcini, plus the water you reconstituted the mushrooms in to cook the rice. You don’t need too much fresh porcini for this dish, and I use only the stems. One good-sized mushroom will do. You will also want some dried porcini, too, and these are available in many supermarkets, or you can buy them online from Earthy Delights.
As for the pigeon, well, I shot mine. But you can get squab in fancy markets, or buy it online from D’Artagnan. Or you could use a little duck breast or venison loin or a couple pieces of beef skirt steak. Basically you want a little richly flavored red meat in there. Of course, if you are a vegetarian, skip it. The risotto will still be excellent.
A final word on the rice. Most of you who read this space know that I am a stickler for good risotto rice. I prefer Carnaroli rice for land-based risotto, and Vialone Nano for seafood-based risotto. Arborio rice is fine to use, and it is more readily available, but I don’t like it as much. You can buy Carnaroli rice in Italian specialty shops or online from my friend Scott over at Sausage Debauchery.
Serves 4 as a first course or 2 as a hearty main course.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
- 1 ounce dried porcini
- 4 cups boiling water
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 cup fresh porcini, diced
- 1 cup risotto rice (Carnaroli, Arborio or Vialone Nano)
- 1/3 cup Marsala wine, or sherry
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- Black pepper
- 1 squab breast for each diner (optional)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)
- Soak the dried porcini in the boiling water for 30 minutes. Do the rest of your prep while the dried mushrooms are soaking.
- In a large, heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute, then add the shallot and fresh porcini. Saute for 3-4 minutes, or until the mushrooms begin to brown. Sprinkle some salt over them as they cook. Chop the reconstituted dried porcini and the rice and add them to the pot. Stir well and saute another 2 minutes or so.
- Pour the mushroom soaking water through a paper towel to filter out any grit and put it in a pot with 2 additional cups of water. Set this to simmering.
- Add the Marsala to the pot with the rice and stir it in. It’s likely that it will almost immediately evaporate. If so, add 1 cup of the mushroom soaking water. Stir this in. You are now in the work stage of a risotto. You will need to constantly stir and add water to the rice as it cooks to get that creamy consistency. I stir almost continuously at this point, but you can step away a little bit. Once the water is almost gone — you never want the rice to stick to the bottom of the pot — add a little more, then a little more, and so on. Sprinkle salt in the pot once or twice as you do this.
- When the rice is al dente, i.e., close to done but not yet there, get out a small frying pan and heat the 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Let this get hot and set the squab breast skin side down on it. Turn the heat down to medium and let this sear for 2 minutes. Flip the squab breast and cook for 1 more minute. Remove to a cutting board, tent loosely with foil and let it rest.
- Add the parsley and the parmesan cheese to the risotto and stir it in. If you run out of water, add a little more to keep the risotto loose. Taste for salt after adding the parmesan, as it is salty. Stir for 5 more minutes.
- Spoon the risotto into bowls and grind some black pepper over it. Slice the squab breasts and put on top of the risotto. Serve with a medium-bodied red wine, such as a Sangiovese, a Cote du Rhone, a Pinot Noir or a Grenache. If you are a beer drinker, I like a brown ale, a Scotch ale or some other malty beer.