Porcini-O-Rama: The Joy of Seasonal Indulgence

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Holly A. Heyser


One of my favorite things in the world is to gorge on a fresh, seasonal ingredient when it's abundant. I eat tomatoes every day in August. I once binged on mackerel for several weeks straight in spring. And in April I eat so much asparagus my pee smells funny all month.

But there is nothing quite like a full-on gorge with an ingredient so fragile and so rare as a wild mushroom, in this case the spring porcini Holly and I found with Langdon Cook last week. These are the ingredients you can't replace easily, so you want every bite to count.

We wound up with more than enough fresh porcini for three big meals after our trip, and I was hoping to make this a binge to remember.

I've cooked with spring porcini before. A year ago, I made a raw porcini salad. I lacquered them in a sauté pan and then chopped the stems and other bits for a mushroom ragout I served with polenta.

But last year I failed to write down the recipe for both the raw porcini salad and the lacquered porcini—and both were pretty awesome. So I remade both recipes.

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Holly A. Heyser

Porcini are one of the few wild mushrooms you can eat raw, and I like their slightly crunchy texture here. Spring porcini taste milder than fall ones, so I used a light hand with an oregano-lemon vinaigrette to dress it. The dish still lacked a bass note, however, so I julienned some cured lamb loin and tossed it in with the porcini. Much better. Incidentally, you can do this recipe with regular button mushrooms, too.

The lacquered porcini are based off a recipe for glazed enoki mushrooms I'd found in Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. Only I went with Western flavors: butter and a sweet wine.

I kinda feel dirty for which wine I chose, too—I used a splash of a 1974 Heitz Cellars Angelica. I got the wine when I was researching Angelica for Gastronomica magazine, and it is very special, as only a sweet, 30-year-old oxidized wine could be. I have no idea how expensive it is, but using it in a pan sauce felt like wiping my ass with hundred-dollar bills. Someday I might just have to do that to see how it feels; I'm betting scratchy.

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Holly A. Heyser

The recipe for lacquered porcini is ridiculously simple, and can be done with lesser mushrooms and lesser wine. Cremini and Marsala would be what I'd suggest as cheaper substitutes.

Lang says he likes to grill his porcini, and I reckoned Lang would know—he eats way more of them than I do. We also came home with some morels, but not really enough to make a meal in themselves. So I decided on an encore performance of the morel sauce I served with venison a couple of weeks ago, only using grilled porcini as the stand-in for the venison.

Holly really outdid herself on this one; I can just stare at this picture for hours. The porcini take on a meaty texture when grilled, but they're still pretty mild. The morel sauce, made with Port, demi-glace, and shallots, adds weight to the dish. It is always a big-time drool fest when I bring this sauce out, and we could've eaten every one of the porcini this way and been perfectly happy.

But I had another idea. Anyone ever eat at Alinea, Grant Achatz's place in Chicago? No? Neither have I. A bit beyond my tax bracket. But I did buy Achatz's book, Alinea, which is as daunting as his food. My friend Carol Blymire is cooking her way through this book, and her adventures in molecular gastronomy are one of my guilty-pleasure reads every week.

Well, not long ago, she decided to reconstruct one of Achatz's dishes into a form most of us mere mortals can understand. Her reasoning? A complete dish in the Alinea cookbook consists of many elements, each one its own recipe—and many of those component recipes rock the effing house. Carol and I talked about it, and we both think that for most home cooks, it's wrong to focus on the whole dish—you'll throw up your hands. Make the component recipes and play with them that way.

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Holly A. Heyser

So I did. I took elements from the porcini recipes in Achatz's Alinea, with almonds and cherries, and reinvented it in a dish I'd be proud to serve Chef Achatz himself, if I were ever so lucky to be able to cook for him.

What is it? If I had to name this dish, it'd be something crazy, like "Venison Comes to a Sudden Stop for Porcini." Sounds all modern art, doesn't it? No, really, you're asking: what the hell is in it?

    • It is venison loin I massaged with one of my favorite new ingredients, Oregon White Truffle Oil (I got my bottle from Jack Czarnecki, who invented it), then cooked sous vide. When the meat came out, I rolled it in porcini powder.
    • The sauce is straight from Alinea's porcini puree, although I used more garlic and thyme than Achatz does.
    • The compote/salsa/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is also based on the Alinea porcini dish, only I used hazelnuts instead of almonds; I get bored with the classic cherry-almond combo sometimes. It's porcini stems diced and sautéed, with stewed cherries and toasted hazelnuts, with a little fresh thyme thrown in.

This dish was like slow sex: all your senses are afire, and you never want it to end. It's the closest I've come to making a "death row" dish, and while I can't quite say it'd be my last meal on earth, nor can I come up with anything I'd rather eat right now. Just thinking of this dish makes me all warm ...

I got down off my high-wire act the next day and went from haute to homey. I still had a bit of porcini puree I had not already smeared all over my body, and I was wondering what I should do with it. Ravioli filling came to mind. Yeah, I know, probably not your first thought.

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Holly A. Heyser

It gets better. I doubled down on porcini by adding some porcini powder to the pasta itself, which was half farro flour I got from Scott over at Sausage Debauchery, fortified with a couple duck eggs I got from my friend Josh. In went the porcini puree, and I tossed the ravioli with more Oregon truffle oil, black pepper, and some wild California white sage.

Um, yes please! I am only sorry I did not have more fresh porcini to make a double batch, as we gobbled up every one in seconds, and in silence—well, except for grunts and monosyllabic yummy noises.

It was a fitting end to our fresh porcini bender. How many months before the fall porcini arrive? Sigh.

Porcini recipes:
Raw porcini salad with cured meat and oregano vinaigrette
Porcini ragu with barley pasta
Porcini ravioli, with porcini in both the pasta and filling
Langdon Cook's grilled porcini salad and pickled porcini
Elise's porcini Parmesan from Simply Recipes

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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