Mushrooming in the rain

20 March 2014 - 02:00 By Andrea Burgener
Andrea Burgener
Andrea Burgener
Image: Supplied

I know the recent downpours have been dreadful in many ways, but, selfishly, I am delighted with them for one good reason: the abundance of velvety porcini mushrooms, sprouting (or, er, mushrooming perhaps?) in shady places, puffing up like small pungent soufflés, full of umami and strangeness.

We revere most fungi, but it wasn't always the case. No doubt this is due to the toxic properties of a few of their clan. An olde English writer opines that "they are convenient for no season, age or temperament". He is joined by a chorus of others. Now we're in love with them.

So why do we (and I include posh restaurants) still cook them so badly?

There are two cardinal errors. Firstly, the mushrooms are sliced from head to toe, in one piece, which shows off their shape but, from a cooking point of view, is wrong. Why? Because the stems take longer to cook than the heads (a fact more obviously true as days away from the forest floor increase).

The heads should be cut from the stems and cut slightly more thickly. Place the stems in the pan first, with the heads added halfway through. Both stems and heads will be tender and silken but not mush. So logical.

On to the second error. Porcinis are too often cooked at moderate heat, which leaves a boiled effect. You want a heat high enough to give a distinct browned surface on each piece, increasing the umami factor many times over. I like olive oil best for this. Butter is great too, but you must watch carefully to prevent burning.

Whichever type you choose, the mushroom pieces must always be in a single layer in the pan. Halfway through, turn, add salt, garlic slivered tissue-thin and, nearer the end, basil leaves are a nice option. Mighty quickly, serve them on mash, toast or on their own, with or without a good Parmesan-style cheese.

If you have a glut of porcinis and can't use them fast enough, fear not, they can be saved for a rainy day (which is, ironically, when a new bout of fresh ones will be rearing their heads). Slice them thinly, lay them on baking paper on an oven tray, and dry them out at around 100°C for roughly two hours or until they are as crisp as dry leaves. Store in an airtight container for as long as you like.

Dried porcini are brilliant as follows: pound with mortar and pestle or rolling pin until you have a bread-crumby rubble. Oil beef or game fillet steaks or fish fillets, salt well, and coat with the porcini mix. Fry in butter on moderate heat.

If using red meat, keep the cuts thin. You can imagine how sinfully delicious this is.