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.
|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.
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.