Food and Drink: Just add water for flavour - A few dried Italian porcini, cheaper than fresh wild ceps and much easier to find, will animate the most humble pasta or meat dish

I lugged a drying machine back with me from Switzerland last summer - for drying foodstuffs, not clothes. It was cumbersome on the plane, but I considered it worth the effort - though I was a little disappointed to see the same model on sale in this country a few weeks later, and for only a fiver more.

I had been inspired by the Lerchi family, with whom we'd spent a good deal of time while filming in the Swiss mountains. They used a Dorrex (pronounced perilously like a certain rubber article, much to our childish delight) to dry fruit, herbs and vegetables. As a leaving present, the Lerchis gave us a generous bag of dried wild mushrooms. I was so taken with the idea of drying my own wild mushrooms that I had to buy exactly the same machine.

I imagined myself bringing back sacks of mushrooms from autumnal walks, eating some fresh, and drying the rest for the winter. Fine in theory, but my few walks yielded zilch in the way of fungal bounty. I've dried some apples, pears and plums - extremely good they are, too - but not a single mushroom.

Instead, I have continued to do what I've always done: buy mushrooms in small packets from the Italian deli down the road. In Italian, our caps, or penny buns, and the French ceps are called porcini (piglets); and their botanical name is Boletus edulis. But whatever you wish to call them, they are one of the most highly rated of all wild mushrooms.

They are also the most widely available dried mushroom and a bargain buy. While you may seem to paying a fortune for a tiny amount, they cost much less than most other sorts of dried mushroom - except the ones you've picked and dried yourself - and the power they carry is tremendous: enough to animate plenty of other cheaper ingredients. They cost less, mushroom for mushroom, than fresh ceps from some chic greengrocer (you are unlikely to find fresh ones anywhere unchic), and they are available all year round.

It must be said, however, that there are dried porcini and dried porcini. Most delis carry the cheaper sort, which are excellent. They come neatly wrapped in 1/2 oz (15g) or 1oz (30g) packages, stapled in rows to a piece of cardboard, like a packet of peanuts at the pub.

The glitzy food stores in this country, and the ones in Italy aimed at knowing tourists, sell the prime pieces of dried porcini - larger, pale tan, elegantly displayed in clear boxes or pretty baskets - at a correspondingly prime price.

These are the dried mushrooms to buy as presents for your nearest and dearest, or that someone you want to impress. They may be the bees' knees of porcini, but I've never been totally convinced that they are as massively superior as their presentation suggests.

Though dried porcini may be short on substance, they have the most exuberant, full, earthy taste. Combine these mushrooms with ordinary cultivated ones, and you have the best of both worlds.

Try adding them to a mushroom soup, or a sauce, or just sauteeing them with button mushrooms in butter, with a little garlic, some parsley and a final slug of white wine. If you happen to be partial to beef stroganoff, you can really beef it up with a tiddly packet of porcini. Mushroom risotto is better than ever with a shot of dried porcini. And on their own, they make a good addition to stuffings for poultry.

However you choose to use them, the first step is always the same. To rehydrate: place the dried porcini in a small bowl and cover with hot water. Leave for at least 20 minutes to soak and soften. Pick the pieces out carefully and pat dry on kitchen paper or a clean tea towel. Leave the soaking water to settle for five minutes or so; by this time, the grit from the mushrooms will have sunk to the bottom. Carefully pour off this wonderfully flavoured water, leaving the grit behind; or strain the water through a muslin-lined sieve. Even if you are not using the water in the recipe, don't throw it out. Think of it as mushroom stock, and freeze it. Then it can be used in a sauce or soup, or to make a mushroom gravy.

Instead of water, you can soak the dried porcini in sherry or

wine. I prefer a medium-sweet or dry sherry for this purpose. Use it cold, and leave the mushrooms to soak for longer (at least half an hour).

Tagliatelle with porcini sauce

One of the easiest and most appetising ways of mixing dried and fresh mushrooms is in a creamy sauce for pasta. The sauce can be made in advance and reheated. For a bit more oomph, soak the porcini in sherry rather than water.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1/2 oz (15g) dried porcini, soaked

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2oz (55g) butter

12oz (340g) button mushrooms, finely chopped

1/4 pint (150ml) double cream

squeeze of lemon juice

2tbs chopped parsley

salt, pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

12oz-1lb (340-450g) tagliatelle

Preparation: Chop the porcini and strain and reserve their soaking water. Cook onion and garlic in butter until soft, but not browned. Add porcini and their soaking water, and simmer until water in evaporated. Add chopped fresh mushrooms, salt and pepper, cover pan and stew for a further 20 minutes.

Remove lid and simmer until liquid has almost all evaporated. Add cream and nutmeg to mushroom sauce, and simmer together for 5 minutes, until thickened. Draw off the heat and stir in lemon juice and parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Meanwhile, cook tagliatelle in boiling salted water until al dente: fresh pasta should take just a few minutes; dried may take up to 10 minutes. Drain well, and serve with the mushroom sauce poured over it.

Baked halibut with porcini crust

In this recipe the mushrooms are mixed with breadcrumbs to make a crisp crust on top of pieces of halibut (if you can't get halibut, use the freshest cod).

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1/2 oz (15g) dried porcini, soaked

1 1/2 oz (45g) fine white or brown breadcrumbs

leaves of 1 large sprig of thyme, chopped

3tbs olive oil

4 halibut steaks, weighing 6-8oz (170-225g) each

salt and pepper

Preparation: Season the halibut with salt and pepper. Drain the porcini and strain the soaking liquid. Chop the porcini finely and mix with the breadcrumbs, thyme, salt and pepper. Stir in the olive oil, mixing well to make sure each crumb has soaked up its fair share. Press half the mixture on to one side of each steak, covering the surface thickly. Lay the steaks, crust upward, in an oiled, shallow, oven-proof dish. Spoon about 4tbs of the soaking liquid around them.

Roast at 200C/400F/gas mark 6 for about 20 minutes, until the crust has browned and the fish is cooked through.

Roast chicken with porcini

This is such a good way of lifting ordinary roast chicken right out of the ordinary, and of keeping it moist while it cooks. Butter, flavoured with porcini, thyme and lemon is smeared between the flesh and the skin before the chicken goes into the oven. And that's all there is to it.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1/2 oz (15g) porcini, soaked

2tbs chopped parsley

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

finely grated zest 1 lemon

juice of 1/2 lemon

2oz (55g) butter, softened

1 small onion, quartered

1 free-range chicken

salt and pepper

Preparation: Drain the porcini and pat dry. Save the soaking water (strained first) for another dish, or for making gravy. Chop porcini, parsley, garlic and lemon zest together very finely. Mash with the lemon juice, butter, salt and pepper.

Gently wiggle your fingers under the skin of the chicken, easing it away from the flesh on the breast and upper thighs without pulling it right off.

Now - and I find this easiest with fingers, but you may prefer to use a spoon as well or instead - push the flavoured butter between skin and flesh, smearing it as evenly as possible. Put the onion quarters inside the cavity of the chicken.

Weigh the chicken and calculate the roasting time. Allow 15 mins per pound (450g), plus an extra 10 minutes. Roast at 220C/425F/gas mark 7, basting frequently with its own juices. If it threatens to burn, cover with foil.

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits