I've gone on about how the appearance of Matsutake Mushrooms are the harbinger of autumn in Japan. But the season is fleeting, and their disappearance from store shelves spells the coming of winter ahead.
Last week after the FoodBuzz Festival, I had the pleasure of wandering around the Mission district in San Francisco. After peering into Delfina Pizzeria like a stray dog, and indulging in three scoops of ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery, I was drawn into the Bi-Rite market across the street for a peek. The moment I stepped across the threshold, I knew I was in trouble. It's a "gourmet" grocery store, but unlike most high-end places, they seem to have enough turnover that everything was incredibly fresh and relatively inexpensive.
As I meandered through the well stocked produce section, my eager eyes flitted from tuber, to legume to green, like a kid in a candy store. My attention deficit came to an abrupt halt when my eyes hit the mushroom basket. Tucked away in a little corner next to the Chantrelles were four mushrooms that looked suspiciously like Matsutakes (pine mushrooms). I picked up one of the gorgeous thick-stemmed specimens and took a deep protracted breath and was greeted by the damp cedar-like aroma of my favorite fungus.
Then I saw the price.... $19.99/lbs! Was this a typo? Maybe they meant per ounce? Or perhaps this was a cheap knockoff of unknown origin? And yet there they were, like four pristine eggs, waiting to unfurl their splendid caps and release the most heavenly perfume a detritus-eating organism could possibly emanate.
Before my brain had time to process this find, my hands had greedily added them all into a brown paper bag. That's when the produce guy commented that this was the last batch of the season.
Winter's a comin' and this called for something a little heartier than the usual consommés and rice dishes I make with matsutake. Something rich and buttery with al dente pearls of rice that stick to your teeth. Something deeply comforting and nutty, and yet mild enough to allow the vibrant, earthy flavors of the Matsutake to shine through. I was craving a risotto.
I ended up going with a classic risotto recipe, substituting in kombu dashi for its mellow flavor and high glutamic acid concentration. I used sake instead of white wine to reduce the acidity of the finished risotto, and I topped the whole thing with the Matsutake caps and Japanese panko breadcrumbs toasted in browned butter.
The result was nothing short of divine. The risotto was rich, toothsome and creamy with three layers of umami coming from the mushrooms, dashi and cheese. The mushrooms on top brought the aroma of Matsutake to your olfactory glands, and the toasted panko added a light crunch on top that burst into a toasty pool of browned butter with each bite.
- Prepartion: Soak an 8"x 2" piece of dashi kombu (dashi kelp) in cold water overnight or reconstitute powdered dashi in water according to the package directions to make 4 cups of kombu dashi. Put the dashi and salt into a saucepan and heat until steam rises from the surface. Cut the stem from the cap of the mushrooms. Julienne the stems into matchsticks. Slice the caps into ⅛" thick pieces.
- Heat a large non-stick frying pan with 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil until hot. Add the shallots and julienned matsutake stems until the butter is browned and the mushrooms take on a light brown color. Add the rice and fry for a minute, stiring to coat each grain of rice.
- Add the sake and stir until it has evaporated, then add two ladles of dashi and stir constantly until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding dashi 1 ladle at a time, stirring constantly until the rice has reached a texture you're happy with. Stop at about 3 ½ cups for al dente risotto.
- While the risotto is cooking, heat a second pan and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Fry the matsutake caps until they are browned and season lightly with salt and pepper. Transfer the mushroom to a plate, then add the remaining tablespoon of butter. Add the panko and toast the breadcrumbs in the butter, stirring constantly until they are golden brown. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
- When the risotto is done, add the cheese and remaining butter and stir until they are incorporated. Taste for salt and more if necessary. Plate the risotto and top with the sauteed matsutake caps and toasted bread crumbs.