Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Eating/Cooking. mushrooms.

The other day, my father bought a few handfuls of morels at the farmer's market. I cooked them for dinner tonight, washed them, sliced each one in half, sauteed them in a heavy cast-iron skillet filmed with olive oil. Sprinkled them with salt, turned them out onto a plate. They were faintly chewy, oozing their own juices, their ruffly texture tickling the tongue, earthy and intensely flavored.

In theory, mushrooms are disgusting. They're fungi. They grow in dirt. They're the color of dirt. When you buy them, they come caked in...dirt. Or possibly something else that I would rather not think about. If undercooked, they can taste like styrofoam. If overcooked, they can be squishy and slimy and otherwise...unappetizing. You have to time things right. But when cooked right...they are perfection.

At one dinner at my favorite restaurant, each course contained a different mushroom. I believe I remember chanterelles, king boleti, morels, even matsutake mushrooms, and something else I can't remember. It was late August or early September, and the mushroom season was just beginning. Mushrooms make me think of autumn. Wandering through the farmer's market. Sifting through piles of golden chanterelles, looking for the most perfect ones, taking them home, brushing off the pine needles, sauteeing them briefly in a hot pan. Autumn on a plate.

It's hard to say which kind of mushroom is my favorite. They all are, I suppose. Portabellos, thick and juicy. Chanterelles, delicately perfumed. Matsutakes, with a heady fragrance that permeates everything it touches. Morels, woodsy and dark. Shiitakes, with their tough stems that have to be trimmed before cooking. Wood ears, slippery and chewy, the bane of my childhood. Porcinis, simply sliced, brushed with olive oil, broiled, and sprinkled with sea salt. In Italy I had a dish of ravioli filled with Pecorino, covered in shavings of black truffles and gratineed until the cheese was browned in spots and the truffles crunched against the tender pasta. Extraordinary, all of them. I could not live without mushrooms.

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