Italiando

The fungus among us

It’s Fall here in the Pacific Northwest, which means we’re in the heart of mushroom season. From about September to November,  damp days promise an abundance of funghi – one of the many similarities between this region of the U.S. and Piedmont, the province in Northern Italy where my family is from. Even on a short hike near Hood River, Oregon this past weekend, I was able to find a bunch of different mushrooms along the edge of the path:

IMG_0191-001

I’ve combed through some mycology books in an attempt to decipher the spoils of my amateur “mushroaming,” and am pretty sure the big one to the top right is a short-stemmed russola, and the red one a lobster mushroom. For each of the rest, I’ve come up with a handful of possibilities which seem to be either “edible but not recommended” or “deadly poisonous.” Hmmm…

Not feeling quite up to hallucinating this weekend, I foraged my neighborhood grocery store for a local mushroom alternative, and came out with some beautiful golden chanterelles.

IMG_0224

One of my favorite ways to cook mushrooms is in risotto, the ultimate comfort food for chilly nights. It’s a logical choice for using fresh mushrooms in Northern Italy, because the Po Valley, stretching from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea, is filled with rice fields. Since the delicate creaminess of the rice contrasts so nicely with earthy flavors, risotto is a great way to showcase woodsy ingredients like mushrooms and walnuts in colder months, or nettles and asparagus in the spring.

When buying rice for risotto, try to track down the carnaroli variety. Because these kernels are a bit shorter, they tend not to overcook as much as other alternatives, such as arborio. That being said, it’s perfectly fine to use arborio; you just need to be more attentive to ensure your rice does not cook beyond al dente.

IMG_0238b

This recipe serves around 8, with ample leftovers, and takes about 30 minutes to make.

About 6 cups carnaroli or arborio rice – The general rule in Italian cooking is “un pugno per persona” (one fistful per person), but that’s in the context of a larger meal where rice would be only the first of several courses. I usually serve risotto as a main dish together with a salad/side, so I estimate about 2 to 3 fistfuls per person.
About 3.5 quarts (14 cups) chicken stock – The calculation here is about 2 times as much broth as rice. I like to overestimate the amount just in case – you can use any extra broth when reheating leftovers the next day.
About 5 cups cleaned mushrooms – Here I’ve used chanterelles, but other types, especially porcini (even reconstituted dry ones), would also work very well.
1 large yellow onion (about 1 cup diced)
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1/2 cup dry white wine
Small handful of fresh parsley, chopped
3-4 tablespoons butter
Olive oil
Salt & pepper

The first step is to clean your mushrooms, something done best with a glass of wine, sitting among good company. Here is my mom preparing chanterelles for cooking – wiping them clean with a damp paper towel, trimming the bottom of the stems, and cutting them in half (large pieces are fine, since they’ll shrink as you cook):

IMG_0237

Next, bring the stock to a boil in a large pot on a back burner of your stove. Season your broth with salt – that way the rice will absorb the salt together with the liquid. Once hot, continue to simmer over low heat to keep the broth warm as you make the risotto.

In another pan, sauté half of the onion in olive oil, adding the mushrooms a few minutes later. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to brown; season with salt & pepper, then set aside.

In either the same pan as you cooked the mushrooms in, or in a new one (so long as it’s big enough to hold all of the risotto- the rice will expand!), sauté the rest of the onion over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Once the onion begins to turn translucent, add the rice, stirring continuously and keeping a close eye on it to prevent it from burning. Toasting the rice without liquid at this stage allows it to develop a slight crust so that it absorbs the broth gradually during the rest of the cooking process, rather than all at once. It’s a bit like searing meat before roasting.

After the rice toasts for roughly two minutes, add the white wine and stir gently, keeping the heat at medium high. Once the liquid is just about fully absorbed by the rice, add one ladle of broth, always stirring often. Continue to add a ladle of broth at a time, stirring and waiting for the liquid to absorb before the next addition, until the rice is just shy of al dente – this shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes.

About 5 minutes before you think the rice will be ready, stir in the mushrooms and check your seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Then add your final ladle of broth (stir just to incorporate) and take the pan off the heat. This is the all-important stage called mantecatura, when cheese and butter are added to create the dish’s signature creaminess: add the parsley, 3/4 cup of Parmigiano, and 3 to 4 tablespoons of butter, then cover the pan and let sit for a minute.

IMG_0242

Stir everything together, and serve with extra Parmigiano on the side.

Standard

3 thoughts on “The fungus among us

  1. Jay Merluzzi says:

    When my grandmother use to forage for mushrooms, she always ate them 24 hours before attempting to serve them to anyone…just in case. She never got sick, neither did we. I miss her and her cooking. Also, when we would pout, she called us “fungi mouth” since that is what we looked like. Italians love to describe things in terms of food. I love your blog…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s