In the winter, after a good fall, when we open a particular cabinet in our kitchen, we are greeted by the aroma of the woods.
Dried porcini, a.k.a. King Boletes: harvested in the high forests above Telluride in the autumn, a virtual bounty of them when the conditions are right, as they were in the autumn of 2013.
Last September I showed a bag of porcini, recently harvested and dried, to a friend, a houseguest. I allowed her to lean in and inhale their promise.
“Are these for me?” she exclaimed.
“No!” I replied, shocking myself at how quickly my naked greed expressed itself.
These dried mushrooms are too precious to just give away. Certainly not an entire bagful of them. But I did give her a carefully apportioned allotment when she left, because I really do love her.
As the winter came to an end, my wife, Marta, observed that we had a lot of dried porcini in the cupboard, and soon we would be harvesting fresh porcini. Except, she worried, we might not find any this coming mushrooming season if we still have a large supply in storage.
There was no arguing with her, because mushrooms are, first and foremost, mysterious. Some seasons they are plentiful and other seasons you can’t find a single bolete in a vast woods where they were abundant a year or two before, no matter how hard you search; and while people speculate that it has to do with the amount and timing of monsoonal moisture, nobody really knows why the boletes come and go. Too many bags of dried boletes in too many local cabinets is as good an explanation for a poor harvest as any. Porcini ask to be eaten; this is what their aroma demands of us, and if you are miserly with them, they object. Or so the theory goes.
It was springtime and there was fresh spinach at the first Telluride Farmer’s Market. So I steamed the spinach in nothing but the water left after rinsing it, tossing in some butter and a fistful of the dried porcini. I let it all braise and seasoned it with a few twists from the nutmeg mill and wow.
Spinach and mushrooms are like tomatoes and basil, peanut butter and jelly, gin and tonic: a known and widely appreciated flavor combination that can’t really go wrong. If you combine local fresh spinach and locally harvested porcini, you have something special. And there’s a kind of San Juan Mountains logic to it. The porcini are reserved, preserved by drying them, from the fall harvest; the spinach and other braising greens, like chard, are the earliest harbingers of spring and must be eaten as fresh as possible, and though they come from opposing seasons, these porcini and this spinach belong together: a locavore’s delight – even if the nutmeg is imported from Grenada, because none of us, in the end, is truly pure. Every one of us, after all, has a carbon footprint.
And yet, I thought, there was something missing from my simple creation of spinach, porcini, butter and nutmeg, and it was a foundation layer. Which got me to thinking about gluten and the new fad against eating wheat and other grains, some saying that the unrefined versions are even worse for your health than the refined versions. (Talk about revisionist!) And I really, really love artisanal bread – I’m picturing the ciabatta at Cosmopolitan in Telluride right now – and will argue at a moment’s notice that linguini – so toothsome, so brilliant slicked with olive oil or tomato sauce – is among humankind’s greatest cultural achievements, ranking right up there with the Mona Lisa or the Beatles.
My farm-fresh local spinach with local porcini deserved nothing less than a special pasta, so I finally bought a pasta maker after literally years of imagining that I would someday do it. Because, let’s face it, making your own pasta is so circa 1982. Fresh pasta was among the first movements among home cooks (in America) in rebellion against industrial food, and back then I somehow missed it. There was no dusty pasta maker in our garage, although there is a new one in my kitchen now.
Of course, it is easy to make fresh pasta; much easier than making bread, easier than harvesting and drying local porcini. Literally anyone can do it, and probably everyone should. Marta wanted me to write about mushrooming for Shelter, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I was feeling some kind of nostalgia for fresh pasta, brought on, inexplicably, by spinach with porcini.
Here are just a few tips I can pass on from my experience. First, always cook porcini with butter and never with olive oil. Animal fats are last year’s gluten, but they are OK now, per the latest healthy eating theories (can you say “paleo”?), and I can testify that when I cook porcini in butter they develop an irresistible nuttiness and they make people swoon. Cooked in olive oil, there’s not quite as much swooning around the dinner table. Spinach with olive oil and lemon is great. But if you are making spinach with porcini, stick with butter.
Second, if you’re going to put that spinach with porcini on pasta, add cream and maybe some sherry or white wine to make it into more of a sauce.
Third, use a lot of porcini, because this is what you can do as a home cook that even a good restaurant simply won’t do. More porcini is always better than less. Whoever you are feeding will sense your generosity.
And finally, here’s a secret ingredient: powdered Hawk’s Wings. Hawk’s Wings are always plentiful in the forest, even in a year when you can’t find a bolete or a chanterelle to save your life. Harvest some, clean and dry them, and then process them into a powder in a food processor. Few people like Hawk’s Wings cooked or served any other way, but powdered they add a mushroomy, woodsy and hard to identify note to any soup or stew and to creamed spinach. A little goes a long way (so you can use fewer porcini, but I contradict myself). And powdered Hawk’s Wings are a thickener, too, better than cornstarch and as good as roux.
So I served my creamed spinach with porcini on fresh fettuccini made from my new pasta maker to Marta, and I thought it was pretty darned good.
And here’s what she said: “Gluten. It makes me feel bloated.” And then she asked for seconds.