Arrivederci, Porcini

Even seasoned mycologists will tell you that the traits of mushrooms are largely a mystery. For my sake, I can only hope that one of them is forgiveness.

When I worked as a line cook at Blue Duck Tavern, I was responsible for the daily harvest vegetable ($9)–or “farm veg” in the vernacular of the kitchen–a side dish featuring one or more of whatever vegetables were in season and happened to be in house that day. In theory, I was supposed to come up with the dish each day, but I consistently shirked that responsibility on the premise that I was a novice cook–a culinary school extern, in fact–and that it was therefore too much to ask me to conceive and prep a dish from scratch every day on top of the daunting task of managing my station’s more involved but less ephemeral dishes. (Of course, this meant that the chef–who had many more responsibilities than I did–had to come up with the farm veg. I feel slightly bad about my recalcitrance, but am prepared to live with it.)

Because a poorly planned or inadequately prepped farm veg could throw an otherwise calm day into chaos, we typically mapped out a tentative strategy a few days in advance, doing as much ahead of time as possible so as to ensure smooth sailing on the farm veg’s big day. For example, we might use a lull in service one night to trim brussels sprouts that would then be blanched the following day for use in the farm veg on the third night.

Shockingly, it did not always proceed according to plan. The restaurant was open seven days a week, and I worked five of them, which meant that someone had to cover my station on my days off. Frequently, I would spend all week getting ahead on the farm veg so that my understudy would have an easy go of it, only to return from my sabbatical to find that the farm veg pay-it-forward scheme I’d worked so diligently to engineer had collapsed in my absence. Other times, the chef would have an idea for an upcoming farm veg–one that in theory required relatively little prep work–but fail to actually order the required produce.

As a result, I came to despise the farm veg.

Nevertheless, I worked dutifully to stay ahead of the curve, so that I was consistently putting out a farm veg that met the restaurant’s reputation for tastiness without compromising the quality of my other dishes, while also maintaining my sanity.

On one fateful occasion, I arrived at work without a farm veg plan, and approached the chef to discuss the topic levelheadedly. Having become accustomed to my inability and/or unwillingness to do my own farm veg-related work, the chef took my entreaties in stride, and pronounced plainly that the day’s farm veg would feature roasted wild mushrooms over Anson Mill grits with a goat cheese fondu.

To set his plan into motion while simultaneously taking care of a bit of housekeeping, chef hurriedly asked me to follow him to the walk-in fridge, where I watched him root through a tower of mushroom boxes. As he stacked the boxes in my arms, he noted which I was to use for farm veg, which I was to discard, and which I was to relay to other cooks for one purpose or another. His instructions flew at me fast, but my brain registered them apace, and I exited the refrigerated repository with a clear sense of purpose.

I delivered a portion of the mushrooms to their intended destinations, and carried the remainder to my station, where I proceeded to clean, break up, slice, and otherwise fabricate them into a mushroom medley consisting of a rich and textured variety of bite-sized mushroom morsels, ready for roasting.

Along the way, I came across a rather unsightly batch of fungi in a damp, half-empty box. The mushrooms were rather large, with a passing resemblance to royal trumpet mushrooms with their thick stems and cream coloring. Half of them looked to be on the verge of rotting, and, since I had an ample supply of honey, hen-of-the-woods, and beech mushrooms on hand, I trimmed these misfits liberally, tossing the more questionable ones, and gouging any other parts that were remotely soggy or discolored. I treated the good bits as I had the other mushrooms–I cut them into bite-sized pieces, folded them into the mix, and pan-roasted the hell out of them.

Farm veg that night–as was the case every night an assortment of roasted wild mushrooms were involved–was a hit. When all was said and done, I had enough left over to fill a shallow six-pan–less than a quarter of what I’d started the night with–which I wrapped in plastic and tucked into the walk-in along with my other mise en place.

When I arrived at work the following day, I learned the harsh truth of the matter: those damp, homely mushrooms I’d treated so unmercifully hadn’t been royal trumpets at all. They were porcini mushrooms. Fresh ones. The kind that cost anywhere from $25-$50 per pound. The ones intended for use in a dish for that night’s high-priced chef’s table. And while chef was angry enough at the fact that they had been incorporated into the wild mushroom mix along with their inferior, far cheaper brethren, he didn’t–and still doesn’t–know the worst part: I threw more than half of them away.

I’d like to issue a public apology, first to my chef at Blue Duck, for not following his instructions, for compromising his meticulously planned chef’s table menu, and for unceremoniously dumping good money into the trash.

But, more importantly, I’d like to apologize to the species porcini: we don’t know each other well, but we’ve had some good times together (that week in Italy after my wedding was unforgettable), and I am more than fond of your meaty flavor and creamy texture. I know this doesn’t mean much, but I’d like to think that the pressures of cooking on the clock, where common sense often takes a back seat to haste and the mechanical completion of assigned tasks, was as responsible for the demise of your offspring as any personal failing of mine.

If you’ll still have me, I’d like to get reacquainted over a bowl of fresh pasta and a bottle of Gattinara.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: