By Nancy Hinton
(for Effervescence Magazine, summer 2006)
Boletus refers to a large family of edible fungi quite common in North America and Europe, but growing in many other parts of the world, usually in association with coniferous trees. The season begins in late summer, peaking in autumn monthes. They are easily distinguishable by their classic ‘mushroom’ form with the spongy layer on the underside of the cap comprised of a mass of fine tubes. There are hundreds of species, with maybe twenty or so that are of particular interest, the most highly esteemed being the famous cèpe, or porcini. Other prized ones are the bolet jaune, the bolet bai, the bolet à pied rouge, the bolet bleuissant, the bolet insigne, the cèpe de mélèze, which can each be identified by the color of the cap, flesh and stem, as well as by the types of trees nearby. Although certain species of boletes can be dangerous, these are especially rare in Québec(NA), although a few varieties are indeed bitter, or of little gastronomic interest.
Boletes are best picked small and young when they are at their firmest, because they quickly get sticky and humid at which point they tend to become infested with insects. Because they are moist, they are quite perishable, which is why you seldom see them at the market. They are best kept dry in the fridge on a cloth, and cooked up within a day or two, or immediately frozen or dried for further use. Another good reason to dry them either in a dehydrator or a low oven, is that once dried, some varieties offer up a whole other set of aromas, going from woodsy and peppery to having notes of vanilla and coconut, cherry blossom or moka.
Before cooking with boletus, you should cut the mushrooms in half to make sure they are uninfested. The caps should be wiped with a damp cloth. Washing the mushrooms is to be avoided as they will just become water logged, slimy and impossible to cook. Whether you remove the spongy part or not depends on how soft the sponge is and what you are doing with the mushrooms. It will go to mush when sautéing, but offers intense flavor if texture isn’t an issue as in the case of a soup or sauce. In any case, don’t throw away any trimmings; keep them for a stock, sauce, or a flavored butter or oil.
My favorite ways to use boletus are in soups, sauces, as a spread for toast, or in any preparation with eggs or cheese. The firmer varieties are delicious just sautéed in butter. The heady aroma of many boletus will enhance just about any sauce, stew, stuffing, paté, quiche, pasta or even dessert. I’ve surprised many with boletus crème brulée or ice cream, in buttery caramels, in chocolate chip cookies, even in apple pie! The possibilities are endless, and the fun had in the adventure from forest to table can be quite irrisistible and contagious...