For all you meat lovers out there (and I'm one of them), this is a recipe that will have you forget that you ever made friends with a T-bone steak. For those of you who have ever eaten freshly harvested porcini mushrooms, grilled and dressed simply with olive oil and garlic, you know what I mean. The ones in the first photo were gathered by a local resident in Cassimoreno, a small hamlet in Emilia Romagna where my cousins Maria Luisa and Angelo have a country home and where nearly everyone hunts for mushrooms in the fall. But alas, we're not as fortunate here in the northeast U.S. to have a mycologist as a next door neighbor -- or a forest nearby with porcini nestling beneath the leaves waiting to be plucked. Fresh ones in the markets where I live are hard to come by, and when you can find them, they're practically as expensive as a flight to Italy.
Fortunately, you can find dried porcini mushrooms in many specialty shops and even supermarkets nowadays. You might pay $6 or $7 for a one-ounce package wrapped in cellophane, and that's enough for this recipe that will serve four people.
These meaty fungi, which you see rehydrated in the middle photo, have an intense smell that will fill your kitchen with an earthy aroma as soon as you open the package. You might be tempted to soak them in hot water, rather than at room temperature, to speed up the process, but that would be a mistake. Too much of the intensity of the mushroom flavor would be released into the water. Speaking of the water, there are two schools of thought on what to do with that water, after you've finished soaking the mushrooms. One Italian chef I listened to regularly in Italy claims you should throw away the soaking liquid because it's full of impurities. I always respected his opinions on food, but this was one place where we parted ways. To me, it would be criminal not to add that aromatic liquid to this recipe. Just make sure you strain it first. I also use canned San Marzano tomatoes in this dish, and they really do make a difference. They are easily available in supermarkets. Grown in an area near Naples, where the volcanic soil influences the outcome of the product, they are much sweeter, much stronger, and less acidic than the typical Roma plum tomatoes that are used by many canners. You can use other types of canned tomatoes, of course, but this dish just wouldn't be the same.
Porcini Mushroom Sauce
(Makes enough for about 1 pound of pasta. Don't use a thin spaghetti here like angel hair pasta. This sauce requires a more robust type, like rigatoni or pappardelle.)
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups room temperature water
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced carrot
1/4 cup minced celery
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
red pepper flakes, to taste
Soak the porcini in the water for an hour or until mushrooms are soft.
Pour the olive oil into a saucepan, then add the minced onion, carrot, celery, garlic and saute until translucent.
Drain the porcini mushrooms, but reserve the liquid. Roughly chop the mushrooms and add to the pan, along with the tomatoes, breaking them through your fingers.
Add 1/2 cup of the strained soaking liquid, wine, and remaining ingredients.
Simmer for about 3/4 hour and serve over pasta.