The Power of Sublime Porcini

August 2, 2016

There are some things that you just can’t live without…great olive oil, sexy shoes, fresh garlic, juicy grapefruit, loyal friends, tulips in the spring and porcini mushrooms. 


Growing up in an Italian family, cooking…and eating was a part of life, something to be celebrated, enjoyed bite after bite.  For me, rich, smoky porcini mushrooms were common ingredients in cooking.  Stirred into polenta, into soups and simmered in white wine to create the most delicious pasta sauce on the planet, porcini mushrooms were integral to my family’s cooking…and still are to mine.


Boletes, the proper name of these richly flavored beauties, are fleshy, edible mushrooms native to temperate regions including Europe, North America and Australia.  Generally grown in evergreen forests or deciduous woods, like oak, beech and chestnut, boletes are somewhat difficult to locate unless you know where to look. 


Also known as porcini or cepes, boletes have long, fleshy stalks that can be as long as ten inches and topped by a fleshy cap.  The generally round, convex cap can be smooth or velvety in texture and anywhere from 2-12 inches in diameter.  While these mushrooms can be pink, yellow, red, whitish or grey, the most richly flavored porcini mushrooms are a deep, rich brown.  The underside of the cap is covered with vertical tubelike pores, while most other mushrooms have gills. 


Porcinis are most often sold dried, which concentrates their flavor, but when buying them fresh, look for the small, tender young mushrooms for the best taste.  Fresh porcini mushrooms are generally very clean, save for the very bottom of the stem, which is usually removed before cooking.  Dried porcinis require soaking in warm water to reconstitute them, but strain the water and use it in cooking for magnificent flavor. 


Most cooks avoid combining porcini mushrooms with strongly flavored ingredients so that their flavor is not masked.  Delicious braised in oil, with garlic, parsley and white wine, porcini mushrooms are great in soups, sauces, casseroles and risotto.            


Rich in potassium and riboflavin, porcini mushrooms are 89% water, with only 14 calories per 100 grams, so don’t let their rich flavor fool you.  They’ll add decadence to your dishes without adding anything to your hips.


Here’s my favorite porcini mushroom sauce recipe.


Penne with Porcini Mushrooms and Beer-Stewed Artichoke Hearts

A quick dinner.  While it’s lovely to take artichokes down to their hearts, it’s a lot of work…worth it, but sometimes simply impossible.  So keep a jar of prepared artichoke hearts (or a bag of frozen ones) and a package of dried porcini mushrooms in the pantry, so you can put together a delicious masterpiece like this one, in the blink of an eye.


Makes 4-6 servings

extra virgin olive oil

2-3 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced

1 red onion, thin half moon slices

generous pinch red pepper flakes

sea salt

1 large jar artichoke hearts (in oil), drained well, oil reserved

2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms, soaked until tender in warm water

1 bottle dark beer

10 ounces penne

1 small bunch arugula, rinsed well

balsamic vinegar

2 (one half) ripe tomato, diced, do not peel or seed


Place a small amount of oil, garlic and onion in a deep skillet and turn heat to medium.  When the onions begin to sizzle, add red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt and saute until onions are quite soft and beginning to brown, 5-6 minutes.  Stir in artichoke hearts, a pinch of salt, porcinis and the beer.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, season lightly with salt and cook for 15 minutes.


While the porcinis and artichokes cook, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook penne al dente.  Drain well, but do not rinse.  Toss the penne with a small amount of the reserved artichoke oil.


When the porcinis and artichokes are ready, finely shred the arugula and add to the skillet.  Remove from heat and stir gently to incorporate the arugula into the mixture.  Fold in the penne, with a light sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and transfer to a serving platter.  Serve garnished with diced tomato.