The beach house is closed for the season. The rientro is complete and everyone is back in the city where school and work schedules once again dictate the rhythm of daily life. What’s the first thing a Tuscan cook thinks about in autumn? That’s the question I asked of Valeria Bruni, a busy author and art professor who is also a passionate cook. Her answer was instantaneous. ‘Funghi porcini,’ she said with a big smile. ‘I am always so happy in September because I can eat porcini as often as I like for an entire month!’ Living in Florence, we’ve got easy access to these highly sought-after mushrooms, called Boletus Edulis in Latin (from the stem bolet meaning ‘su-perior mushroom’ and edulis meaning ‘edible’). The Sant’Ambrogio and San Lorenzo markets are great sources of porcini, which are found in pine and hardwood forest areas that provide the shady environment in which they thrive. Their harvest, tied to periods of rainfall, occurs from late summer into autumn.Porcini look the way mushrooms should look, as if a little gnome might peek out from behind the stem at any moment. With fat white stalks topped by broad brown caps, they can be quite large, up to six inches or more across the cap. Their size plays an important role in deciding how to prepare them (giant caps for grilling and smaller ones for sauces and salads). Porcini have a higher water content than other mushrooms; their texture is smooth and they have a nutty, earthy aroma. When buying porcini, how can you find the youngest and freshest? For one thing, the pores on the underside of the caps are white when young and fade to yellow and then brown with age. Also, the older the mushroom, the higher the water content, so the weight and feel can indicate the dampness level. If the water content is too high, the mushroom won’t have the firm texture that it should have. Here are four of Valeria’s recipes, each of them simple, pure and easy to prepare.
FUNGHI PORCINI FRITTIThis is a great autumn appetizer or cocktail party snack. Make lots of these—they’re a big hit.Porcini caps, thinly slicedFlourOlive oilClean porcini well and slice, but do not slice too thin or the slices will either fall apart while frying or become too crisp. Dip each slice into flour and then fry quickly (about a minute or two) in hot olive oil. Remove from oil and allow to rest on paper towels in or-der to remove excess oil. Arrange on a platter and serve immediately.
FUNGHI PORCINI ALLA GRIGLIAPerhaps the favored way to serve porcini for true aficionados—grilling is an easy way to prepare and enjoy them in their purest form. Here’s what you need to serve four:1 large porcini per person2 cloves of garlic, peeled and choppedOlive oilA few sprigs of nipetella (a minty, woody herb, member of the thyme family that is always available alongside porcini in the mar-kets)Clean the porcini by wiping them carefully with a damp cloth. Remove stems and save them for use in other recipes. In a small bowl, combine garlic, nipetella and olive oil. Set aside. Place the porcini over a hot grill on a rack which has been covered with aluminum foil. (The foil keeps the delicate skins from sticking to the rack and tearing as they are turned). Turn after 3-4 minutes and grill for 3-4 minutes more. Drizzle the olive oil mixture over them and serve with grilled steak and a hearty red Tuscan wine.Note: A great option for vegetarians, porcini cooked in this way (often referred to as ‘poor man’s steak’ ) can stand on its own as a main dish.
INSALATA DI FUNGHI PORCINIThis is a lovely way to prepare porcini. A simple unadorned salad of fresh, raw mushrooms. Find a pretty serving dish because this salad has flair! Funghi porcini caps, thinly slicedOlive oilSalt and peppernipetella leavesClean mushrooms well and slice thinly, cutting right through the mushroom cap, thereby giving the slices a full outline of the mush-room with all of its color gradations. Arrange the slices in one layer on a serving platter. When ready to serve, drizzle olive oil over the mushrooms, followed by a few pinches of salt and liberal grindings of black pepper. Sprinkle with nipetella leaves. Serve as an ar-ranged salad, perhaps with some grilled meat and a hearty Tuscan red wine.
FUNGHI TRIFOLATIA quick and easy recipe for a delicious pasta sauce using porcini. Tagliatelle is the pasta of choice for this dish. These golden ribbons provide a perfect nest for the bits of porcini to cling to. To serve four you would need:250 grams tagliatelle800 grams porcini, tops and stems 4-5 tablespoons olive oil2 small cloves of garlic, pressedA sprig of nipetellaSalt and pepperClean porcini and chop into bite-sized pieces. In a large frying pan, sauté garlic in olive oil for a few minutes over low heat, until soft but not brown. Add the chopped porcini and stir well. Add a few pinches of salt and pepper as well as the nipetella leaves. Cover and sauté over low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are soft. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil, add some salt and the tagliatelle and cook for about 3 minutes. Drain the pasta and put it directly into the frying pan with the cooked porcini. Gently stir and tumble the pasta to coat every strand with the flavorful sauce. Serve immediately accompanied by a hearty Tuscan red wine.