BY Davies Wakefield
Risotto with Morel Mushrooms and Pinot Noir
My mother used to tell me about her childhood in Eureka, Illinois during the depression when she would go out into the woods on the Pifer’s family farm to hunt for morels. In those days the family never ate the morels fresh, but dried them and used them in chicken stews or with a Sunday braised beef. She always remembered those meals fondly and talked about them as she got much older.
The Pifer family was one of the original families that settled in Eureka, Illinois. My mother’s great grandfather Michael Pifer started a tin and hardware store on the northwest corner of the downtown, across the street from the county courthouse in 1859. In 1959, on a visit to my grandparents, I sat in a wooden straight back chair by an old Franklin stove in that same building listening to my uncle Charlie Pifer regale me with stories about the good old days while he spat into a spittoon between puffs on his cigar and occasionally took a swig from a half pint of Jim Beam that he kept in his desk drawer. A 10 year old is as curious as a cat, and I lifted the top of that spittoon to see what was in it. I have never had the urge since.
The old tinning business was changing into a heating and air conditioning establishment back then and Charlie was just easing his way out of the business as his sons took over. I hiked back to grandpa’s house where his 92 year old aunt was fixing a pot roast with new potatoes and carrots that she dug out of the garden that day and a handful of dried morels thrown in as well. They still cooked on a wood stove then and there was the distinctive smell of coal and bacon fat in the kitchen, but the earthy aroma of that pot roast still lingers in my mind and I flash back to that day whenever I use morels in a recipe. The morels are like Marcel Proust’s madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past.
It is in this interest that I selected this recipe. The morels were harvested in our yard last April. We found some out by the barn early in April that were the black kind and then later on that month we found the larger tan varieties under our white pines in a little spot that catches the afternoon sun. When you hold them, freshly picked, in your cupped hands, the earthy forest floor aromas are intoxicating and tempt you to immediately eat them. I have found after thirty plus years of collecting them that using them after drying them intensifies the flavor. So this recipe uses our dried morels plus some fresh button mushrooms.
I am using a slightly modified recipe of that consummate Italian Chef Marcella Hazan who sadly passed away last year. Dried morels instead of dried porcini are used and I’m throwing in some sautéed fresh button mushrooms as well. Other than this the recipe reflects her elegant style of northern Italian cuisine.
Wild Mushroom Risotto
2 cups Arborio rice
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 large yellow onion finely diced
2 ounces dried morel mushrooms plus the soaking water
4 ounces shitake mushrooms
8 ounces button or Crimini mushrooms
5 cups beef broth
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Reconstitute the dried morels in 2 cups of boiling water for 20 minutes. Squeeze out water and set the mushrooms aside.
Thinly slice the fresh mushrooms and sauté in two tablespoons of olive oil until all the moisture is rendered (about 20 minutes). Set aside.
Heat the beef stock in a separate pan to just below boiling.
Heat a tablespoon of butter and olive oil in a pan over low heat and sauté the onion until translucent.
Combine the two cups of rice with the onion mixture and stir to coat the rice for about a minute.
Start adding the broth to just cover the rice and adjust the heat to a bare simmer. Stir until broth is absorbed and add more broth to cover and continue stirring.
After 10 minutes start adding the mushroom soaking water and continue gently stirring the mixture.
After twenty minutes add all the reserved mushrooms and start to sample the rice to test for doneness. The dish is done when the texture is creamy and the rice is soft to the tooth.
Add the remaining tablespoon of butter and Parmesan cheese and serve.
The wines that I’ve paired with this meal are all Pinot Noirs from three different areas that are emerging as significant and ideal growing areas for Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is the ideal pairing for this dish for a variety of reasons. This is an elegant dish. The bland nuttiness of the Arborio rice is a template that readily takes on the earthiness of the mushrooms and the earthiness and minerality of Pinot Noir. The umami flavors of the parmesan cheese also match well with the Pinot Noir.
The first wine is from the extreme northern part of Italy called the Alto Adige. It is from the foothills of the Alps in the South Tyrol growing area also known for crisp Pinot Grigio. This area is closer to Liechtenstein and Innsbruck Austria than it is to Milan; it is also predominately German speaking. It is on the same northerly parallel (47th) as the famed Burgundy growing area of France that produces Nuit St. Georges and Beaune. The winemakers name is Ulrich Ambach, hardly a traditional Italian name.
The San Pietro Alto Adige 2012 Pinot Noir, 13% alcohol, and $16.50 is produced by a South Tyrol agricultural cooperative. The oenologists trained at the viticulture school in Trentino are some of the best in all of Italy. They select the finest lots of wine to be bottled by the cooperative. This wine is an elegant near perfect match for the risotto. The nose is ample with ripe berries, while the fruity, sapid spice notes and ripe tannins fit perfectly with the earthiness of the mushrooms. A bite of the food demands another sip of the wine.
The second wine is the 2013 Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir, 2013, 13.5% alcohol and $9.00. This wine is from the central Casablanca valley which is just miles from the Pacific Ocean and the Humboldt Current which streams low salinity cold water from Antarctica up along the west coasts of South America. This current keeps the wine growing areas near the coast cool and foggy; perfect for growing Pinot Noir.
This wine is deeper in color and higher in acidity with definite notes of raspberry and cherries on the nose. The smooth, fresh taste with medium concentration, pairs well with the creaminess of the risotto. This is a real bargain for a wine that is 80% hand harvested and from a company known for its organically raised and harvested grapes.
The last wine is from the iconic Argyle winery which is located right on Rt. 99w in Dundee across the street from the Dundee Bistro. The red iron rich soils of the area are home to some of the best wineries in Oregon. The Argyle 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 13% alcohol and $19.00 is fully representative of the Willamette valley. Following 6” of rain in September, a dry sunny October led to a small but beautiful crop that is fully represented in this wine. The nose is spice and forest floor with notes of black tea, while the palate is tart but with weight that offers dark cherry and building density. The light color belies the weight of the wine which goes along perfectly with this risotto and will stand up to a variety of duck preparations including Peking duck with hoisin.