Back in the Alps in northern Italy, where I come from, fall season means chanterelle season. Chanterelles are a wild forest delicacy, golden looking, with a fleshy cap and body, and a vaguely peach-like aroma. Contrary to most mushrooms that you would find on the shelfs of grocery stores, they cannot be grown commercially. My favourite way to cook them is to make chanterelle-speck risotto. Speck is a kind of cured meat that is typical of the Italian region I come from (Trentino Alto-Adige). It is obtained by curing a boned pork leg in salt and spices like laurel, pepper and juniper, then slow-smoking it with smoke from pine or juniper wood for several months. Put all these jewels together, and you get the chanterelle-speck risotto that I have been eating every fall when growing up. Chanterelles and speck may be difficult to come by in the US, but you can easily substitute shiitake for chanterelles and diced pancetta for speck. The nice thing about this recipe is that it will work perfectly well with them too!
First, pre-cook the chanterelles. This is necessary for three reasons. First, chanterelles are very fleshy mushrooms, so they need some cooking time before they become soft. Second, while they cook, they release a lot of water that you don't necessarily want in your risotto because it could complicate the management of the rice's cooking time. Third, due to the water loss chanterelles may decrease significantly in volume, so you want to measure them cooked rather than raw, to avoid surprises.
Clean and cure the chanterelles, taking away any earthy residue but without trimming them to much. Put them in a pot with just 2 tablespoons of water, cover with the lid and cook on medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Do not add salt or spices until they are cooked, you want to preserve their original flavour as much as possible. Drain the excess water remaining in the pot after cooking
When you are ready to cook the risotto, bring the vegetable stock to a boil in a pot. Once it's boiling, lower the heat so that it remains hot but does not evaporate quickly.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. Add the diced onion, thyme, pepper and the chanterelles. Cook stirring regularly, until the onions begins to soften and turn translucent (don't let them brown).
Add the rice to the pot and toast it over medium heat, stirring regularly for a minute (or until the rice feels warm to the touch). Then turn the heat to high and after a few seconds throw in the 1/4 cup of wine. Let it evaporate, while constantly stirring.
When the wine has almost fully evaporated, add one large ladleful of boiling stock to the rice. From now, cook on medium heat for about 18-20 minutes without ever stop stirring the rice (you need to stir frequently because this allows the rice to release starch, which is what ultimately yields a creamy risotto). Add stock whenever you see that the stock in the pot is almost evaporated, but just enough to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot. You don't want to "boil" the rice, so it should never be fully drowned in water.
After 10 minutes, add the speck to the pot and stir it into the rice. The reason for not adding it at the beginning is that speck tends to become very salty, when cooked for a long time. Keep adding water and stirring until the rice tastes al dente (ideally you should get to this point without having too much liquid left in the pot).
At this point add the parmesan and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Cover with the lid and let it rest (without stirring) on low heat for a few seconds (this will allow the butter to melt on top of the rice). Take off the lid and stir very energetically for a few seconds, until butter and parmesan are incorporated and your risotto reaches a proper creamy texture. Serve with a sprinkle of freshly crushed black pepper .
[ Note: If you substitute shiitake for chanterelles, you do not need to pre-cook them. Just add them in the pot with the onion and follow all the other steps in the same order.]