Though a few of them are starting to pop up in high-end groceries and at select farmers markets, for the most part, to cook with them, you either have to hunt them yourself or be willing to pay a lot of money to someone who has.
So how useful can a cookbook devoted to them be? That was the big question when I headed into the kitchen with Antonio Carluccio's new "The Complete Mushroom Book" (Rizzoli, $39.95).
Carluccio is one of those British cookbook authors who have never quite found their audience in the American market. It's not for lack of trying. He's published more than 40 books (four on mushrooms alone), though you'll have to look hard to find them in this country.
Neither is it for lack of quality. His "Passion for Mushrooms" (published in 1989) is one of the best cookbooks on the subject. At least until this latest one.
Published by Rizzoli, better known for lavishly illustrated books on art and architecture than for cookbooks, "The Complete Mushroom Book" is beautifully photographed. Dominated by autumnal shades of brown and green, it is bound to be irresistible to those with a mushroom habit. Call it fungi-porn.
The book opens with a 70-page field guide to mushrooms, both wild and domestic, which includes photographs of most varieties as well as information about where they grow and how to identify them.
Though it is about as complete as any written for the popular market, I do find it a little scary to think about people heading to the woods relying on it to make decisions. The book makes a splendid inspiration for a foray, but do find an experienced mushroom hunter to accompany you when you actually go out.
After the introduction comes the cooking: 150-odd recipes, most of them calling for specific mushrooms. But when a recipe for a Spanish-style mushroom tortilla calls for "green-cracked russulas," is that really the only mushroom that will work? Is pappardelle with fresh porcini pointless without the porcini?
The answer, thankfully, is no, at least much of the time.
That pappardelle with porcini was delicious even when made without fresh porcini (and without pappardelle either, for that matter). I used what I could find at the grocery: some portabellos and some pretty ratty-looking sliced button mushrooms.
These were sautéed with soaked dried porcini in what initially looked like way too much olive oil and butter, and seasoned only with the usual onion, garlic, white wine, parsley and Parmigiano. Then I combined the sauce with perciatelli, a round chewy dried pasta that can substitute for the prescribed flat noodles.
Wow: The essence of wild mushroom pasta without having to tromp through the woods. What made it work so well? It's hard to say — there was certainly nothing unique in either the ingredients or the techniques. But this was one recipe where the alchemy came together perfectly. Doubtless it would be better made with freshly cut porcini, but equally doubtless most of us would only be able to do that once in a blue moon.
Most of the other recipes tested also worked well, even without the exotic mushrooms. The aforementioned tortilla had a rich perfume that seemed like wild mushrooms, despite being made with portabellos rather than the green-cracked russulas.
Though Carluccio lives in England and includes mushrooms (and recipes) with an Asian inflection, he is at heart an Italian cook. His best dishes are all about getting the purest flavor with just a few simple techniques.
The tasty enoki bundles, for example, are little more than slender pale mushrooms (these are cultivated and widely available) lightly dressed in lemon juice and wrapped in thin slices of prosciutto. Even though the mushrooms are Japanese, the end effect is distinctly Italian.
Another of my favorite recipes is the one for pickled mushrooms. Anyone who has traveled in Italy has probably been served a little plate of them as part of an antipasti assortment, just a little something sharp to whet the appetite.
I made Carluccio's pickles with some curious, vaguely porcini-like domestic mushrooms I'd found at a Japanese market (in this case, the actual recipe was nonspecific, calling only for "fresh mushrooms"). When I'd cooked with them before, I'd found them to be extremely fibrous, almost to the point of crunchiness, even after being grilled or cooked in soup. Kind of weird in those contexts, but maybe perfect for a pickle, I thought.