There was a time in my life when I woke up every morning to what is considered one of the most breathtaking views in the world. The Dolomites, that unique part of the Italian Alps that turns pink during sunrise and sunset, were so much a part of my everyday life that I barely noticed them outside of my window.
I am sure that being a teenager at the time didn't help my indifference to nature, busy as I was whispering with my girlfriends, listening to my Walkman, sometimes doing homework but mostly daydreaming about some guy I had met the day before out on the slopes. In boarding school you rarely stop to smell the roses, to breathe in the fresh mountain air, to look at the silver pine trees or admire the snow sparkling in the sun.
Now, however, whenever I get the chance to go to the mountains - any mountains - things are very different. I gasp at the beauty that surrounds me, I rejoice in watching my children run in the tall grass and wild flowers or making snow angels in the winter. I realize those years changed me without me even noticing it. The mountains have stayed within me, in my heart and soul, and few places make me feel so at peace.
I already wrote about going back to visit those mountains. Once every few years we visit an old friend. Our kids play together, our husbands talk airplanes (seriously, how many chances are there that your high school bestie will marry a guy who is as obsessed with civil aviation as yours is?) and we reminisce about how silly and boy crazy we were (did I mention the boarding school was not co-ed?) and about the ups and downs of being a teenager. We still giggle and there is still wine, but it is no longer hidden away in a pillowcase inside a shoebox in a suitcase somewhere in the back of our closet.
My friend and I also sometimes collaborate. This recipe was part of a project we worked on and I couldn't not share it with you, my friends. It is a recipe from La cucina delle Dolomiti by Dino Dibona and was chosen to allow tourists to easily recreate the flavors of those mountains in their own home. To make this you simply have to procure a package of dried porcini mushrooms, an ideal ingredient to carry back in your suitcase because they are so lightweight. If, on the other hand, you haven't been skiing in the Dolomites, luckily for you dried porcini are nowadays readily available almost anywhere and although they are pricey, a few go a long way.
In this essential and effortless soup the (once) humble ingredients really shine through. In old times people from these valleys used to prepare this kind of meal to fill their bellies and warm their bodies during the freezing months using what was available to them from farming and foraging. Potatoes held well all winter and mushrooms were plentiful in the fall and were then sliced and dried for the colder months.
What I loved most about the soup is the incredible flavor these few ingredients can create when combined: its is so much more than the sum of its parts. The texture is wonderful too: the soft, sweet potato nuggets absorb all that flavor and the mushrooms add a subtle earthiness and chew. Every bite tastes and smells like you are walking through the forest, dark fronds towering over you, your steps softly sinking into the warm, dry mossy carpet.
Ingredients (4 servings)600gr/3 medium-sized potatoes
1 liter/4 cups/35 oz. vegetable stock
100gr/3.5 oz. fresh porcini mushrooms or 50gr/1.7oz. dried porcini
50gr butter/about 3tbsp butter (or oil for a vegan recipe)
1 yellow onion
2 garlic cloveschives, for garnish
Peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic. Clean and roughly chop the mushrooms if you are using fresh porcini. If you are using dried porcini (like I did), rinse them quickly with cold water and then soak in hot (but not boiling) water for up to an hour. Set aside the liquid when you drain them.
Melt the butter in a pot over low heat and add the potatoes, onion and garlic. Sauté for about 3 minutes, mixing constantly.
Pour in the stock, bring to a boil and simmer covered for about 20 minutes.
Add the porcini mushrooms. If you are using dried mushrooms, pour in part of the remaining liquid for extra flavor.
Raise the heat and cook for another 10 minutes. Garnish with finely chopped chives and serve.