Friday, 29 September 2017

Porcini, Ceps and Penny Buns

Porcini, Ceps, or Penny Buns

I love early autumn for many reasons - turning leaves on the trees, misty mornings, steamed-up windows, long walks, ankle-deep piles of fallen leaves, pub fires, thick wooly jumpers, mugs of hot chocolate.  To be honest, this year, apart from the very first hints of leaf colour, I've seen none of these yet.  Summer and autumn are battling for supremacy here, the seasons see-sawing back and forth from day to day.  Summer is reluctant to give way, which means at the end of September I'm still harvesting courgettes and runner beans from the allotment.

But one day of dampness and another of warm sun seems to be perfect for the growth of wild mushrooms this year.  I don't forage for them because I really don't know my mushrooms from my toadstools.  Only a few mushroom varieties have been successfully cultivated and none of those can match the flavour of uncultivated ones.  They lack the predictability of cultured mushrooms so are expensive, but a little goes a long way.  If you dehydrate them, the flavour goes even further.

In Scotland, conditions have been perfect for Chanterelle mushrooms with their delicate brown caps and spindly yellow stems and the stockier yellow Girolles (of the same family as Chanterelles and, so, sometimes also offered as 'Chanterelles') whose flesh is white when cut and smells faintly of apricots.  The earthy flavour of uncultivated mushrooms, redolent of bosky, mossy woodland is the essence of autumn in the kitchen.  But its the strapping Boletus edulis - Porcini, Cep, Penny Bun - which have a symbiotic relationship with oak, beech, birch and coniferous trees, that I'm focusing on here.  Although they do grow in the UK, they are much more prolific in Italy and France and, having just returned from Piedmont I can tell you they are all over the market stalls there right now.  They can range hugely in size and the small ones are good sliced and eaten raw.  They have a cap that looks like a crusty bread roll - hence their English name, Penny Bun - and a stem that is thick and swollen.  Underneath the cap, the fine pores are white but age to yellow before becoming green and spongy.  The stem should be thick and firm but it becomes yielding with age and/or the attention of worms, who like them as much as we do.  With proper cooking this fungi's firm texture and earthy, mildly-meaty flavour takes on a caramelic quality.

It's generally agreed that frying is the best way to cook mushrooms.  The oil or butter, or mixture of both, should be heated highly enough to sear the mushrooms rather than stew them.  I always season mine at the end of cooking as salt draws out their water content in the pan affecting caramelisation.  The simpler the treatment in the kitchen the better.  Garlic and parsley are essential, I think.  You could stop right there for me and just pile the contents of the pan on a slice of toast.  But I am fond of this recipe which introduces its carbohydrate in the form of potatoes.  Not just any potato but a firm, waxy variety like La Ratte, Anya, Charlotte or Pink Fir Apple.  It's based on Simon Hopkinson's 'Persillade of ceps & potatoes' from his book The Vegetarian Option.  A book which is on and off my bookcase with remarkable frequency, as it is packed with dishes which appeal whether you are vegetarian or not.

Persillade of Ceps & Potatoes

Persillade of Ceps & Potatoes
(Serves 2)

2-3 medium-sized waxy potatoes (like La Ratte, Anya, Charlotte or Pink Fir Apple), peeled
4 medium sized Ceps, brushed clean of soil and trimmed
A good handful of fresh flat-leaved parsley
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Finely shred the potatoes and wash in several changes of cold water until the water is clear.
Drain and dry well.
Slice the ceps thinly.
*Chop together the crushed garlic and parsley leaves.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large frying pan.  Fry the ceps until lightly coloured, season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a plate and put aside.
Add the rest of the oil to the pan and sauté the shredded potatoes until beginning to colour.  Season with salt and pepper.
Add the cooked ceps and the mixture of chopped garlic and parsley and cook on a medium high heat for another minute or two.

Eat immediately!

* Simon Hopkinson is insistent that garlic and parsley should  be chopped together, not separately, for the particular aroma and flavour this produces - I think he's right.