So, I’ve never tasted porcini mushrooms. I’m kinda bad at mushrooms in general; growing up, ‘mushrooms’ were either of the canned variety (!) or–for special rare occasions–took the form of raw white buttons cut up into an iceberg salad with some Hidden Valley smothering the lot. I find this to be frustratingly true for so many foods; I had a bad first exposure to them, decided I didn’t like them, then never thought to re-examine that preference. It wasn’t until this project that I’ve been forced to introduce myself to new mushrooms. Last spring it was black trumpets, which I feel madly in love with. I knew going into this that porcinis are meant to be the King of Mushrooms, so I was excited to stumble through this recipe and let the flavor of the porcinis introduce itself to me.
The foundation of this dish is a puree made from porcini caps. The recipe calls for 500 grams of caps, “cleaned, gills removed”. My fresh porcinis had nothing resembling the feathery gills I’ve seen on other mushrooms, and at first I thought I might have bought the wrong thing. After some semi-desperate internetting (my phone might be the most useful kitchen tool I own), I found that porcinis don’t really have ‘gills’, but rather small, tightly-packed tubes covering the bottom side of their caps. I found that if I carefully scraped at these tubes, they’d come off in chunks and would break away from the ‘meat’ of the cap cleanly. We want to remove these gills because a) they tend to trap dirt and other unpleasant-to-eat sandy particles, and b) they can contribute off-colors to the puree we wanna make.
Here we’re looking directly at the underside of the cap of a large porcini; I’ve cleared away the gills in the bottom/right half of the cap. The grey, spongy-looking stuff in the upper/left is the gills.
These caps are cooked in some canola oil to brown them, then with a bit of cream and thyme for a few minutes until tender. The mixture is meant to be blended until smooth. I had trouble with this; my porcini caps were incredibly absorbent, and also seemed to create a thickening effect in the cream mixture. My cooked porcinis didn’t really puree very well; they resulted rather in a very dry paste. Because I used 500g of caps, I had a huge batch of stems that would otherwise go unused, so in a second saucepan I cooked them with some more cream, basically making a porcini-infused cream mixture to use to thin out the cap paste. This worked pretty well; I was left with a lovely puree that was thick and smooth.
As the porcini mixture cooked and I tasted it, I realized it tasted very familiar. I recognized it from occasions when I buy house-made white mushroom sauces from italian delis. It’s very quintessentially-‘mushroomy’.
I held back a few of the whole fresh porcinis to make porcini ‘chips’. I sliced the mushrooms into 1/16″ thin slices, then broiled with with some oil to effectively ‘toast’ them. The toasted mushrooms were then dehydrated for several hours until very crisp.
Again I was surprised by how the mushrooms behaved; I started with two whole porcinis each the size of a tennis ball; by the time the dehydration process was complete, they’d shrunken to about 1/3 of their original size. The taste was lovely though.
I cut a few of the remaining porcini stems into various small dice, then cooked them in butter and oil until they were tender and glazed. Because of the various sizes, they cooked at different rates…the smaller dice browned more quickly than the larger, yielding an interesting collection of shades that I kind of dug. Sort of like a 3d mosaic.
The recipe includes a component for ‘ham powder’, made by freezing a chunk of ham, grating it with a Microplane, and dehydrating it into a crispy powder. I bought a pack of prosciutto that I really like for this, rolled the layers into a cylinder and wrapped them in plastic wrap before the freezing step. The resulting powder is salty and so tasty.
While the prosciutto was dehydrating, I fried some almonds in hot oil, then tossed them with salt. I fried them at a lower oil temp than usually used for deep frying (around 300F, rather than 450F); the lower temp gives me more time to control things, and makes it easier not to ‘overshoot’ and over-fry the almonds. When tossing the almonds fresh out of the oil, the salt tends to get wet, which makes it turn into an awesome salty crust/coating around the almonds. I could eat these things all day; they’re great.
I used more almonds to make ‘almond milk’; for this, I toasted some raw almonds for about 10 minutes (until fragrant and golden), then simmered them in milk and let the mixture sit in the fridge overnight. The next morning, I strained the almonds from the milk, and used the milk to make almond ice cream.
At the El Bulli dinner at Next, one of the courses (an almond custard with tomato granita) was punctuated with the comment that “it’s not often we experience a savory dish served cold”. I thought this observation was interesting, and we see the converse at play here. The almond ice cream is specifically not sweet; the slightest bit of sugar is used for stability and to heighten the natural sweetness of almonds, but overall the ice cream is savory.
It also calls for the annoyingly-unavailable “Louis Francois Stabilized 2000”, for which I substitute something from Le Sanctuaire called “Stabi-3000”. I’m still getting the hang of this stuff, but in this case I overdosed it, with interesting results. The recipe directs me to cook the almond milk with stabilizer at a simmer for several minutes, then blend a few minutes more in a blender. Cooking with stabilizers is interesting; you can immediately tell when the heat is such that they ‘kick in’. Liquid tenses up and turns thick in a matter of seconds. That’s what happened here, but it felt unusually thick with this combination of ingredients. When I tried to freeze the mixture in an ice cream churn, it got so thick that it formed something almost like a glue or wallpaper paste. When it froze it definitely remained stable and easy to quenelle, but in the mouth it felt a little odd; not really gel-like, but way more thick than you imagine ice cream would be. Sorta like someone froze a tub of cream cheese then gave you a bite. The flavor was fine, but the texture was a bit off. But, given that it takes about 24 hours to make a batch of this, I didn’t have the time to redo it, and also kinda liked again seeing what “too far” meant with this stabilizer.
Next up was making a garlic gelee. I sauteed cloves from a whole head of garlic in oil until they were toasted and golden brown. The cloves were removed to another pot of water, brought to a boil, then left to steep, making a ‘garlic tea’. This infusion was set with sheet gelatin, then cut into small dice.
I think it’s kinda neat each time I get to learn a new cooking term and wrap my head around its meaning. There are a lot of exotic names in cooking; each time I encounter one I find it intimidating until I try it, and inevitably I end up thinking “Oh, that just means you cook it.” Braising, poaching, macerating, blanching–all these intimidating terms really are all rooted in “apply some heat. Maybe do it like this.”
Macerating means “to soften or break up by soaking”. So: put some shit in a liquid. Look at that–you’re macerating something! You can macerate yourself by getting in the shower! For this dish, I macerated some cherries in rose champagne and sugar–this is basically akin to making maraschino cherries (historically: sweetened, macerated in liquor). The cherries are soaked until sweet and tender, taking on some notes from the champagne.
The sweetened champagne reserved from macerating the cherries is mixed with gelatin and charged in a whipped cream canister, then chilled rapidly. This yields a foamy cherry liquor that stays stable for a minute or two before dissolving fizzily into liquid form.
Finally, this dish is meant to be accented by some thyme flowers. My thyme plant is indeed flowering, but I also wanted to use some of the many flowering and micro greens I’ve been growing this year.
All of these components are layered in a glass sleeve; from the bottom up we have the porcini puree, the porcini dice, fried almonds, garlic gelee, a quenelle of the almond ice cream and the macerated cherries. This is topped with the cherry foam, then with porcini chips, thyme flowers, and assorted summer greens. Tableside, the sleeve is lifted and the contents are allowed to flow out onto the plate.
I did something a little different this time: usually I’m shooting photos as I go, but for some reason I let myself complete this dish before worrying with photographing it. I wanted to let the dish speak to me a little, and was inspired in doing so to photograph it a little differently. The flavors–odd though they sound, and even odder in combination–were lovely. The porcini flavor sounds loud and clear, and couples obviously with the garlic and almond elements, which are savory and salty. The cherry I think is meant to be a surprising curve ball, a sweet accent to all the salty elements–but I didn’t find them to be exactly that. I plated this several times, each time increasing the cherry component to make it louder, but it never really rose all the way to the forefront for me. It was just…there. But it was nevertheless visually dazzling, as were the fresh greens. Overall Sarah and I were both surprised at how much we enjoyed this one.
Next up: something that’s now illegal in California!