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Dried Mushrooms
by Elliot Essman
When I was a kid, I hated mushrooms on principle. There was no question of even tasting what amounted to, well, a fungus. A mushroom incident at my grandmother's house continues to stick with me. She was no cook, but she knew I liked Chef Boy-R-Dee spaghetti and ravioli, so she always kept a can handy for my visits. One day I put fork to bowl only to recoil in horror; the spaghetti was crawling with bits of processed mushrooms. She offered to pick the mushrooms out, one by one, but I said no. The mushrooms had already touched the spaghetti.

Strangely, it was high school peer pressure that catapulted me over the mushroom barrier. An older, more sophisticated friend, grazing in my kitchen at home, found a small can of marinated mushrooms, raved to no end about them, consumed them in a gulp. A bit later, on my own, with no one watching, I did the same. Maybe it was the olive oil, maybe just the saltiness, maybe the mushrooms themselves, but there was no going back. I may not have realized it then, but palates are much like waistlines; they tend mainly to expand.

The variety of fresh mushrooms available to consumers today is extremely broad, but some specialty mushrooms, such as porcinis, morels and chanterelles, are much easier to find dried and, indeed, take well to drying. Both fresh and dried mushrooms have their place in cuisine. The problem with fresh mushrooms is, you must choose them, buy them, keep them fresh (you get only a few days), carefully clean them (following methods that differ from species to species), and only then can you cook with them. Dried mushrooms keep much longer, weigh next to nothing, take up little space, and are the perfect secret ingredient to have at hand for fuss-free yet sophisticated cooking.

I store my dried mushrooms in my refrigerator, in a small bin on their own, where their concentrated pungency cannot affect other foods, and where they are in turn less likely to absorb outside odors. I happened upon this technique after noticing that my entire cupboard was beginning to smell of chanterelles; also the more I learn about food spoilage, the more I trust my refrigerator. Drying any food will tend to inhibit bacteria, which usually prefer wet environments, but that doesn't make the food immortal. A food that "keeps well" may give you months rather than days, but not years, unless you add chemical preservatives. I don't generally need more than a few months with dried mushrooms, since I find so many uses for them.

Reconstituting dried mushrooms will yield two ingredients: the mushrooms themselves and a rich liquid that you should be sure to use. The trick, depending upon the dried mushroom involved, is to use just enough soaking water, otherwise the resulting liquid will be too weak. I always try to err on the side of less: just enough to cover. I bring the mushrooms in the water to a full boil in a saucepan, simmer about twenty minutes, then I leave them alone another ten. Next I do two straining operations. Using a coffee filter to catch residual dirt or other particles, I'll first strain the flavorful liquid out into a container. I'll then gently rinse off the remaining mushrooms using a metal strainer. In some cases, once both liquid and mushrooms have been separately strained, I will immediately reunite them, especially if they are destined to go together in a soup or stew.

Chanterelles are one of the few mushrooms that keep well when fresh, though they are more widely available dried. The appearance of these fungi is unique: like little three-inch ear trumpets with fluted edges. When fresh, the chanterelle ranges from bright yellow to almost orange; when dried, they are a pleasant woodsy brown. Chanterelles may need to be re-hydrated longer than other mushrooms, perhaps up to an hour. Their fragrant, fruity flavor goes well with meat and poultry, particularly with mild herb mixtures, though if you use them in a soup or stew, you should slide them in toward the end of the cooking time, otherwise they may become tough and chewy. Low heat is the rule with chanterelles. As a separate dish, they respond well to a gentle sautée with butter and garlic. It is reputed (among the French, among whom many things are reputed) that chanterelles go particularly well with egg dishes.

Morels belong to the same species of fungus as truffles. Call them woodsy, earthy, smoky, nutty; by any definition, the flavor of the morel is deep and complex. Morels have considerable visual appeal; they look like mini sponges or honeycombs and are hollow inside; in color they range from brown to a deep black. Morels dry very well. When plumped up, the re-hydrated morels offer more concentrated flavor than the originals and yet maintain their shape and attractive appearance. Though relatively costly, just a few of these little flavor dynamos go a long way.

It seems a shame to mix morels with other mushrooms or competing flavors. The morel is best appreciated on its own, or as the key ingredient in a dish, sauce or garnish. I like to sautée morels in butter, or make a sauce with them, using the soaking liquid I've carefully saved from the re-hydration process. Because morels vary so much in size even within the same batch, cooking times can vary widely, so you have to do some testing. Beyond that, morels require little fuss or expertise; ironic, for something that makes you look so creative.

Porcini mushrooms add powerful flavor; when you open a package of good dried porcinis you should be able to inhale the essence of a deep, dark forest, like something out of Lord of the Rings, with overtones of rustic leather. Fresh porcinis are usually substantial mushrooms; often their stems are nearly as wide as their caps, giving them a shape like a champagne cork. One of the reason porcinis have such complex flavor has to do with their relationship with their ecosystem. Like chanterelles and truffles, they exchange nutrients with the roots of nearby trees (in science, a "micorrhizal" relationship), so the flavor varies substantially depending on the collection region and the species of tree involved.

Because porcinis need to be gathered from wild stock, they are expensive, though their cost doesn't even begin to approach that of the king of edible fungi, the truffle. When shopping for dried porcinis, avoid any that seem to be crumbly. Good dried porcinis should be tan or light brown in color. Many species similar to porcini (but usually inferior to it) are sold in dried form using names like "wild forest mushroom mix," so read labels carefully. All these species-every one of them wild-are members of the boletus group.

Corporate Chef Debbi Dubbs of Melissa's, a major distributor of dried mushrooms, uses dried porcini for a classic Italian risotto:

Dried Porcini Mushroom Risotto: For 4 Servings

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 1/2 cup red wine
3 3/4 cup vegetable stock
juice of half an organic lemon, freshly squeezed
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon organic parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry red wine
3 tablespoons parmesan cheese, grated or shredded
salt and pepper to taste

1. Soak the dried mushrooms in a bowl with the wine for at least 40 minutes. Strain the wine through the cheesecloth and pour into a saucepan. Add the stock and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce heat enough to keep the stock hot.

2. Toss the mushrooms with the lemon juice and set aside. Melt 1 Tbsp. of butter in a pan and sauté the mushrooms until they give up their juices and begin to brown. Stir in the parsley, cook for 30 seconds more, then transfer to a bowl.

3. Heat the olive oil and 1 Tbsp. butter in the pan and sauté the onion until soft and translucent. Add the rice and stir so that the grains are evenly coated with oil.

4. Stir in the mushrooms, add the wine and cook over medium heat until absorbed. Add the warm stock, one ladle at a time, making sure the liquid is absorbed before adding more. When all the liquid has been absorbed, remove the pan from heat, stir in the remaining butter, the parmesan cheese and salt and pepper. Cover the pan and allow to rest 3-4 minutes before serving. (Recipe by Melissa's 800-588-0151 www.melissas.com.)

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