Thursday, September 22, 2005

horror stories from my kitchen: not for the squeamish

Yesterday just before 6pm Letizia announced that a couple of her friends were coming over for dinner. “I’ll cook!” I insisted, and hurried out to the Mercato delle Erbe to get provisions. Since it was our last dinner together before she leaves for Santa Cruz, I needed to pull together something special very quickly.

It is porcini mushroom season, and I found some fat ones at a stand that I’ve bought from before, a little more expensive than some of the neighboring stalls but always the best quality. I told the grocer what I wanted to make, explained my budget constraints, and he helped me pick out two big funghi. Then I found some regular white shrooms to cut them with – getting the flavor of the porcini without having to buy a 29 euro kilo. Sometimes I wonder whether a drug habit might be cheaper than my tastes in food.

While I was there I also bought two kinds of plums: deep purple prunes with a grey blush and translucent gold and pink ones just because I thought they were the prettiest things I’d ever seen. I think I “awwwed” over them the way most people do with kittens. Picked out some pears and a box of “uva fragole”, which are actually nothing more than Concord grapes, a native American variety. They’re not unlike the wild scuppernongs my brothers and I used to squeeze out of their leathery skins in North Carolina, just smaller and not leathery. (since when does MS Word autocorrect the spelling of scuppernong? How did that make it into the dictionary???) Uva fragole are used here to make a wine, fragolino, which I haven’t yet figured out – I think it’s a sweet dessert wine. Better than Manischevitz, I’m hoping. Final stop: a shop where I knew I could find fresh tagliatelle.

Back at home I started cleaning my funghi and put water on to boil. I very carefully brushed all the soil off the caps of my porcini but the stalks are stubborn, so I started scraping with a knife. One careless swipe cut further into a stalk than I intended and revealed…tiny squirmy white worms. I managed not to drop the knife on myself (the “coltellone”, big knife I purchased my first week here, to the dismay of cutlery-shy Letizia), and not scream (I didn’t want Letizia to know anything was going wrong) and calmly pared away what I thought was the part of the stalk infested with these vermin. Even further up the stalk I found the same hideous wriggling. Dropped everything and googled “how to prepare fresh porcini”, hoping to find a solution, which I did: they're harmless. One article even suggested they’re a good sign, since the worms go for the tastiest mushrooms. I double and triple checked to confirm, I really didn’t have to throw these out or soak them in something? So, totally creeped out, I came back to the kitchen to finish cleaning and chopping the mushrooms and just tried not to touch anything that was moving.

I sautéed the porcini and white mushrooms, in olive oil until they gave up all their liquid, then further until the liquid evaporated. Mushrooms are like sponges, they hold amazing amounts of water. Cooking out the water concentrates the woodsy flavor. In a separate pan, I cooked two cloves of chopped garlic, then added the garlic and oil it was cooked in to the mushrooms, now sitting off the heat waiting for the pasta to cook. Seasoned the funghi up with salt and plenty of black pepper and fresh parsley, and grated a ton of good parmesan (another “Is this more expensive than gold?” product). Done until guests arrived, when I’d cook the tagliatelle and toss with funghi sauce, reheated a minute to meld the flavors.

Then I prepared the cheese course, washed and arranged my pretty fall fruits on a platter and laid out honey and fig preserves and cheeses that I’d brought back from Stresa (thanks to US Customs, the grandparents couldn’t take them back!).

This was all a big hit, and we had a laugh that it was the American who prepared an Italian autumnal dinner. I had moments of creepitude eating the tagliatelle, but comforted myself with the thought of the many other times I’d happily eaten porcini in ignorance of the creepy-crawlies, as our guests were doing. Let’s write Randy Cohen: “Is it unethical to serve your guests creepy crawlies without their knowledge, if they’ve surely eaten them every other time they’ve had porcini mushrooms? What if they’re vegetarian?” I hope I don’t ruin porcini for anyone.

I'm devastated that Leti is going. We've been such good roommates and friends. I have plenty of company in missing her though, I bet we'll be lamenting for weeks on Via del Pratello that she's left.


Blogger mcbickle said...

bleh. ugh. ew.
did the worms actually get cooked and then served with the tagliatelle? i'm confused, and i'm actually not sure i want to know. ew.

September 22, 2005  
Blogger finnegan said...

Actually, I was initially appalled at those wormy squirmies---now I only shop for the porcini loaded with them. When I get home, I carefully pick them out eat them straight away raw. They are FANTASTIC! Taste just like Italian chicken.

September 23, 2005  

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