Many edible fungi fruit in damp, dim, indoors digs, regardless of dates on the calendar.
Truly wild mushrooms, on the other hand, are supreme symbols of seasonal food. Their arrival isn't merely the result of ideal temperature, light, moisture and medium for growing, because all of those factors can seem perfect to mushroom hunters and yet the fungi can still, mysteriously, fail to materialize.
3 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds ground veal shoulder
Salt, as needed
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup double-concentrated tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup basic tomato sauce
1 1/2 pounds farfalle (bow tie) pasta (may substitute penne)
8 ounces baby spinach, trimmed
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano
In a bowl, soak the porcini mushrooms in 2 cups hot water for 10 minutes. Drain porcini, reserving soaking liquid, and coarsely chop. Strain soaking liquid through a fine-mesh sieve and set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook until it is lightly toasted. Add the veal and chopped porcini; cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until meat is well-browned, for about 10 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper to taste and add the tomato paste. Cook over high heat, stirring continuously, until paste turns a rust color, for 5 minutes. Then add the wine and 1 cup strained porcini-soaking liquid; cook for 5 minutes, until wine has almost completely evaporated. Add the tomato sauce and reduce heat to a very low simmer.
Bring 8 quarts of water to boil in a large pot and add 2 tablespoons salt.
Drop the farfalle into water and cook for 1 minute less than package instructions indicate. Just before pasta is done, carefully ladle 1/4 cup cooking water into veal mixture. Stir the baby spinach into veal mixture.
Drain pasta in a colander and add it to veal mixture. Toss over medium heat for about 30 seconds, until pasta is nicely coated. Pour into a warmed serving bowl and serve immediately, with the grated pecorino on the side.
Makes 8 to 10 first-course servings, 6 main courses.
— Recipe from McClatchy News Service
Fortunately for mushroom lovers, a number of species — cremini, shiitake, oyster and enoki — are cultivated year-round in addition to the common supermarket button variety. Let's be clear: These are not "wild mushrooms," as some restaurant menus proclaim.
Wild mushrooms are plucked from natural landscapes and often escape efforts at cultivation. The Pacific Northwest's widest variety is available during our wet fall and winter, when black trumpet, yellow foot, hedgehog, lobster and matsutake complement the prolific chanterelle. Oregon even has its own truffle, prized for a particular pungency best enjoyed garnishing gourmet dishes.
Spring in Southern Oregon, of course, is time for morels, starting with the tender "blond" specimens found at low elevations and continuing through early summer as foragers follow the fungi, their caps a darker brown, to higher ground. Morel season is a time for culinary celebration, but another species occupies an even narrower window — April through June — and shouldn't be missed.
Icons of Italian cooking, porcini mushrooms belong to the genus boletus, widespread around the globe, including western North America, where they're known as California king boletes. Some sources may use the term "cepe," as the mushroom is known in French cuisine.
Fat-stemmed porcini are among the meatier mushrooms and can be treated much like portobello in the kitchen. Yet porcini promise vastly superior flavor and texture with a savory, almost livery, quality that seems concentrated in the greenish gills. This ability to shine amid other distinctive foods explains porcini's frequent pairing with rich flavors.
Even dried porcini retain that supreme umami potential, so water used to reconstitute them should never be discarded but rather incorporated into the dish. Add it to the stock or other liquid when making risotto, or thin pasta sauce with it.
This recipe from celebrity chef Mario Batali is a prime example of dried porcini in a tomato-based pasta sauce with meat. Because the fresh fungus has a more delicate flavor and texture, lighter sauces — such as pesto and Alfredo — are ideal in spring, especially with vegetables such as leeks, asparagus and fava beans.
Thickly sliced and grilled or sauteed, porcini also make a peerless topping for pizza or polenta with poached eggs. Accompanying steak with blue-cheese crumbles, porcini takes that classic flavor profile to new heights.
One of the most consistent sources for fresh, local porcini is forager Louis Jeandin, whose Mushrooms All Year is a fixture of the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market. Jeandin's business name also indicates the availability of dried mushrooms year-round, with porcini among the most popular. One-fifth of a pound costs $19.95 and can be purchased at the market or www.mushroomsallyear.com. Imported and other domestic porcini are available in dried form at specialty grocers.
Picking your own porcini — and other wild mushrooms — is possible on public lands, and the permit is free. The only gear needed is a basket, knife and small paintbrush or food-basting brush.
Lacking morels' distinctive appearance, however, porcini aren't so easily identified, and the uninitiated risk confusing them with inedible or even poisonous species. Novice foragers should accompany a veteran or participate in one — or several — of the mushroom hikes and festivals offered locally through various groups several times per year.