January 28, 2009

Slow Food with Peggy Markel: Hunting Wild Mushrooms in the Forests of Tuscany, and Colorado. [Plus, Recipe for Grilled Porcini Salad]

From the Holiday 08 issue.

There’s a drizzle coming down, and a hush over the countryside. The summer is being put to bed, dressed in the colorful nightgown of autumn.

Time to gather food for the winter. When the sun comes out, head for the hills, there’s a whole lot of squealing going on…

Fall is the time to “put away.” If you have your own garden, you preserve your vegetables so as not to lose them—and to enjoy the fruits of your labor way into late fall and early winter, when the last blush of Indian summer has passed. Tomatoes are “sun dried” and stored in oil, or made into paste or sauce. Fruit is canned for a warm mid-winter compote and jam is that sweet something, all over again on toast.

Trips to the farmer’s market should be purposeful, beyond the week’s supply of seasonal produce. Stock up on winter squash, dried beans and roots, even apples. You will be amazed how long they can last if you have a cellar or basement or any cool, dark place you can store them in. Choose the kabocha or Hokkaido squash for its deep orange flesh, that still has a stem on it. Its skin has a deep forest green. If the area around the stem is pale, the squash was not allowed to mature on the vine long enough and will not be as sweet. You want fully mature ones that can last, whole and hearty.

If you like to forage for wild food, take a hike in the nearby mountains for fresh porcini (“little pigs”), chestnut-brown capped mushrooms with a spongy underside, known as boletus edulis. Our Western mountains are full of them. It’s the best excuse for a hike; more like a treasure hunt. One must wait several days after a long rain, followed by a few days of full sun to search for them. They grow in moist environments under pine trees. If the conditions are right (no cold winds, the right temperature in the air) the mushrooms will spring out of the damp earth like funghi on the loose!

They are easy to identify and delicious to eat. Fill a sack full and take them home. Make sure you identify them carefully. One bad mushroom could wreak havoc on the liver or, worse, put you six feet under. But the boletus are finder-friendly and easy to identify. Eat some fresh if you like, sliced thin with equally thin shaves of aged parmigiano reggiano cheese, olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and fresh parsley, or slice and dry them on a screen. They dry quickly in Colorado air. They can also be bought dried and reconstituted in water, broth or wine. If you just aren’t sure what you want to do, pop ‘em in your freezer, fresh and whole just as they are, as they do in Tuscany (If you are lucky enough to have found a plethora of them and you just don’t know what to do with them all. You can let them thaw just enough to slice through, but don’t let them thaw all the way. Better to cut them while still half frozen. You can then sauté them in garlic (whole pieces) and olive oil with a touch of marjoram. Salt and pepper to your discretion. Cook them hot and quick. They can be served on crostini or tossed with pasta or risotto for an outrageous fresh forest taste.

My new favorite way is to slice them fresh, rub them with a crushed garlic and parsley mash, and grill them, then serve them next to a frilly endive and bitter green salad. Their earthy flavor seduces on the spot.

These “little pigs” seem to be fickle about where they choose to propagate. Paolo Antonielli, a bus driver from Reggello, near Florence, Italy recently expounded his true love for porcini hunting in the wilds of the Pratomagno. “I have a hunting dog and I get up in the woods and I find myself so happy. I don’t really care to hunt game. I am more excited about finding mushrooms. I especially love the porcinis that grow under the chestnut trees. They are quite different than those that grow under the pines. They have a different flavor altogether. What’s great is when you find chestnuts and porcini all at once! But I’m no real funghaio, I just love to take walks in the woods mostly. I’m just curious and passionate and want to pass these flavors down to my kids.”

Ironically, Italians feed their pigs chestnuts to fatten them with flavor. I will forever be grateful to the Italians I have met on the street, so to speak, as well as families who have had me over for dinner. I have learned as much or more about food preparations from them as I have from chefs.
The season is rich and offers us a chance to fold in our summer wings and focus inward. Our energy goes closer to the core, just like a plant’s, in preparation for the cold. However, if the hawk of melancholy tries to sweep down to steal your soul, run up and rummage around in your local forest and oink, oink. A feast of “little pigs” might just pop up out of nowhere and inspire a deep, earthy dish to delight you and your vegetarian friends.

PEGGY MARKEL’S Culinary Adventures in Tuscany, Sicily and Morocco bring friends to the table in pursuit of pleasure, culture and community, and an authentic experience of the materia prima that make for a truly good life: peggymarkel.com.

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