Matsutake mushrooms are the truffles of Japan. The fall arrival of the dusky fungi, artfully displayed in wooden boxes on sprigs of pine, like high-end shadow boxes, is marked by a frenzy and the abandoning of fiscal reason: A small handful of premium matsutake can run you over 8,000 yen, or $100. This is a lot of cash for a mushroom that isn't going to make you see sounds. They are, however, firm, fragrant and earthy, with that forest-in-the-rain smell that is as distinctly Japanese as the porcini is Italian. Despite their meatiness, the mushrooms have a delicate flavor you don't want to smother with cream, herbs or garlic. Cooking them — steamed with rice, sliced in soup or simply grilled over coals — is high pressure. Once in Tokyo I bought a slightly bruised pair on sale for about $20, but I still stood a long time with the knife in my hand, like someone about to cut a diamond for the first time.
Here you can pick up a far larger variety (holy smokes, practically patio umbrellas!) for just a few bucks. And that means you can cook them without fear of blowing your produce/utilities budget for naught. The taste, while slightly different, is still marvelously heady — a mushroom lover's mushroom. Portobello, shiitake: Watch your back. The matsutake should be around for another couple of weeks, so gorge on them while you can.
This recipe calls for steaming them with sticky Japanese short-grain rice. It's beyond simple and brings out the mushrooms' beautiful aroma. If you have a rice cooker, lovely. If not, follow the stove-top directions. You may have the urge to substitute brown rice, but this one time, in the name of seasonal extravagance and the solo flavor of this noble mushroom that people on the other side of the planet are dipping into the kids' college fund for, resist. I won't tell anyone. Cross my heart and swear on a $100 mushroom.
Matsutake Gohan (matsutake rice)
Serves 4 to 6.
Ingredients and method:
2 ½ cups uncooked short-grain white rice
3 ¾ cups cold water
2 matsutake mushrooms, gently cleaned and sliced into thin, 2-inch pieces 3 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon mirin 2 teaspoons dashi powder 1 3-inch strip of kombu 2 tablespoons sake 1 ½ teaspoons salt
Rinse the rice in cold water, rubbing it gently and swirling it in the pot before draining off most of the water. Do this several times until the water runs mostly clear. You could skip it, but my grandmother will rise from her grave and haunt you. (She was hardcore like that.)
Drain off the last of the rinsing water and add 3 ¾ cups cold water. If you are using a rice cooker, measure and wash rice for three cups cooked and fill the pot with cold water to the 3-cup line. If you have time, let it sit an hour before cooking.
In the meantime, toss in the sliced mushrooms, soy sauce, mirin, dashi, kombu, sake and salt. Stir the water until it's a uniform color, but let the mushrooms float on top.
Stovetop: Cover and bring the pot to a boil over medium heat. Turn it up to high for about a minute, keeping the lid on. When the minute is up, take the heat down to low for another 4 to 5 minutes, then put it on the very lowest setting for another 10 minutes. Remove the pot from heat.
Rice cooker: Hit the button that makes the rice cook. This is why I own a rice cooker.
After the cooked rice has stood covered for 10 minutes, remove the lid and let some steam out. Carefully (steam burns are the worst) mix the rice and mushrooms with a rice paddle or wet wooden spoon. Use a cutting motion to break up the surface, gently turning the rice over to distribute the mushrooms. Are there little bits of brown stuff at the bottom? Good. That's the best part. Serve in small bowls and enjoy.