A starter fit for a king’s feast: fresh, raw porcini (cep) wild mushrooms, thinly sliced and barely seasoned with fine salt, finer olive oil and a feather of best Parmesan.
Porcini, ceps, penny buns
‘Porcini’ means ‘little pigs’ in Italian. Those noble wild mushrooms were known under that name already in Roman times. In French they are ‘ceps’, and in the UK they are known as either, even though there exists a perfectly serviceable, English name for them: ‘penny buns’.
Possibly because on British Isles they are rarer than dodo, the name didn’t stick.
They are such a star ingredient that less is definitely more with porcini. If you cook them, do it simply: sauté gently in butter, with only salt, pepper and some chopped parsley for seasoning.
But as an alternative, eat fresh, smallish, healthy specimen raw in a salad.
How to prepare fresh porcini?
If you’ve foraged them yourself – which probably means you’re Scottish as only that’s where they will reluctantly grow in Britain - you’ll be aware your treasure might have been attacked by worms.
As much as you, also little worms love them and sometimes a healthy looking on the outside specimen is riddled with holes inside and not fit to be eaten.
Foragers know to cut off the stalk at the ground level with a knife since you should never, ever pull wild mushrooms out with their spores or none will ever grow inn that spot again. The cut stalk will reveal whether you’ve won or lost to the pesky worms.
What to do with shop-bought porcini then?
If you have spent a small fortune on a punnet from the market or had it delivered from an online supplier, you need to check the mushrooms carefully straight away for worms. The little blighters may travel from one infested mushroom in the batch to all the others.
If they’ve been picked responsibly, the end of the stalk should be cut with a knife, as mentioned above. You‘ll then be able to immediately inspect it for holes.
You might have to slice off the end of the stalk to see better. In either case you still need to cut the mushroom lengthwise across the stalk and cap – it might be deviously riddled further up.
Cut out the infested parts and the rest of the ‘shroom is fine to eat.
How to clean wild mushrooms?
I’m reluctant to wash mushrooms in general, and especially wild fungi soak up water like a sponge. Which means that when cooked, they release an awful lot of moisture and shrink to nothing.
For some reason water draws natural moisture out and makes them mushy. That’s also why if you cook wild mushrooms, season them with salt at the very end, when they’re off the heat.
Never soak mushrooms: they can be cleaned with a small knife by scraping the stalk and cap, or with a soft brush and paper towels brushing off the dirt.
If they are really very mucky, use water very sparingly: dip them in a bowl of cold water for a couple of seconds, shake off and pat dry.
How to store wild mushrooms?
If you definitely need to wash them, do it just before cooking. Once cleaned and inspected, they will last for three to four days in the fridge, either in a bowl covered with cling film or in a plastic tub, tightly sealed.
But who would want to wait three days till they can feast on porcini?
How to make porcini salad?
Less is more, I’ll say again. Slice the porcini thinly and arrange them prettily on a plate.
Find your best sea salt, fill the pepper mill with peppercorns and grab the bottle of the finest extra virgin olive oil. It will only take a few grains of salt, drops of olive oil and the thinnest drizzle of lemon to season your salad.
Aged Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano, whichever you appreciate more, shaved paper-thin can be scattered over the plate but make sure it doesn’t detract attention from the main ingredient.
And definitely do not share your feast with anyone except the loved one!
More porcini recipes
Keep it simple: the nicest cooked porcini are quickly sautéed in butter.
With a bountiful crop you could also cook some with cream and Parmesan – absolutely gorgeous.
And even a small amount of porcini will make a dish of penne with wild mushrooms into a special treat.
More raw salad recipes
If you’re happy to experiment with raw vegetables that are usually only served cooked, try the raw asparagus salad next season.
Beetroot comes ready cooked, soused in vinegar, right? Wrong – try them raw, in the herby beetroot salad, for the proper taste of the vegetable. Super-healthy too.
Fennel is much nicer raw than cooked, in my humble opinion. And combined with sliced orange, it’s just perfect.