By Suzette Martinez Standring.
The fragrance of fall is earthy with newly sprouted mushrooms. At Mercato Centrale in Rome, vendors display an array of mushrooms–brown, tan, speckled, and orange-hued. Yet while the fresh harvest is plentiful, dried porcinis are actually preferred in cooking because their flavor is more intense and concentrated. They hold their sliced shapes and the bite remains satisfyingly firm. I discovered this cooking trick in Italy where food is sensual and simple. Even pasta, familiar to all, is made novel with just a twist in preparation. When in Rome, I ate fresh tagliatelle elevated by dried porcini mushrooms and shrimp, the fragrance of butter deepening the scent of earth and sea. The juicy shrimp and firm, rich slices of mushrooms offered heaven in each bite. What was the elusive element that made such a simple dish so special?
There it was again in Florence. I savored linguine sauced in Genovese pesto, with the interesting addition of tiny, diced potatoes and slivers of haricots verts. A special “something” made the pesto-layered ribbons and bits of vegetables unusual. What was it?
Aha! It was mouthfeel, the sensation of distinct textures in the mouth, giving added dimension to the flavor—the taste, combined with the slide of deliciousness on the tongue, the crunch, and the comforting delicateness. Yum! I bit into a slice of porcini mushroom and reveled in its deep, woodsy wonder.
Back at home in Milton, I was anxious to manifest the memories of my Roman meals on my own table.
Here I recreate the dishes I ate in Italy, with two strong suggestions:
Use fresh pasta, which is available in the refrigerated section of most supermarkets. Freshly cooked, al dente noodles offer a mouthfeel different from boiled dried pasta.
Use dried porcini mushrooms because once reconstituted and cooked, they impart a more intense mushroom flavor to the dish.