Amazon has Inception – which I know many of you loved – on sale today for just $8 on Blu-Ray. I liked it, but thought the film made too many sacrifices to the mainstream demands of Hollywood to make it truly great.
I’ve grown increasingly fond of using mushrooms as a major flavor in all kinds of dishes now that I’ve learned to prep and cook them properly. Mushrooms are high in compounds that trigger the umami (or savory) taste, which is intensified when the mushrooms are dried, while browning the mushrooms caramelizes the sugars but produces a flavor profile much more similar to seared meat than caramelized vegetables. This recipe takes advantage of both techniques to produce a rich, hearty sauce, thickened with pasta water and a little cream, for a filling side dish or a potential vegetarian entree if made with whole-grain pasta or served with some fresh mozzarella dressed with an herb vinaigrette.
(You will hear and read that you shouldn’t wash raw, fresh mushrooms because they are like “sponges” and will absorb the washing liquid. This is nonsense; raw mushrooms are already pretty well saturated, and when Alton Brown tested this on “The Fungal Saute” episode of Good Eats by weighing the mushrooms before and after washing, he found the mushrooms absorbed only a minimal amount of water. So wash them in a colander, then spread them on paper towels, rolling them in the towels to dry.)
I make the sauce for this dish in a stainless steel saute pan that can handle high heat, but I also run the exhaust fan and cover the smoke detector because I’m pushing the oil to its smoking point. High heat is key to browning the fresh mushrooms and I’m not giving that up just because the smoke detector is too damn close to the kitchen.
Pasta con Sugo ai Funghi (Pasta with Mushroom Sauce)
½ ounce dried porcini or other mushrooms
8 oz fresh cremini (“baby bella”) mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed*, and sliced
1 small shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tsp minced fresh thyme
1 pound tagliatelle or pappardelle
Grated Pecorino Romano and chopped chives, to taste
1. At least a half hour before you begin cooking, pour 1 cup of boiling water over the dried mushrooms in a heatproof bowl and allow the mushrooms to rehydrate. Strain through a fine-meshed strainer or through damp cheesecloth, but be sure to reserve the soaking liquid. Chop the rehydrated mushrooms, discarding any particularly tough stems.
2. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box, making sure to heavily salt the cooking water, pulling the pasta when it’s still very al dente. Do not overcook the pasta. When draining, reserve ½ cup of the pasta water.
3. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan over high heat until shimmering. Add a handful of sliced mushrooms, taking care not to crowd the pan – you should still see plenty of the pan’s bottom through the mushrooms – as well as a pinch of salt. Leave the mushrooms until they are nut-brown on their cooked sides, then flip and brown the second sides. Push these mushrooms to the sides of the pan and repeat the process (adding oil as needed) until all mushrooms are added and browned.
(Don’t panic when the mushrooms appear at first to soak up much of the oil in the pan. They’ll release it as the cell walls break down during cooking.)
4. Add the rehydrated dried mushrooms and cook for about a minute, adding more oil if necessary. Add the shallot and garlic and cook for another 60 seconds.
5. Deglaze the pan with white wine, cooking until the pan is almost dry, and add the strained mushroom soaking liquid, cooking until reduced by half.
6. Add the cream and simmer (do not boil) until thickened. Thin as desired with the reserved pasta water (I add about 2 Tbsp at a time, heat through, and check for consistency). You want this sauce to coat the pasta, but not to pool in the bottom of the bowl.
7. Add the thyme and season with salt and pepper. Add the pasta and cook for sixty seconds or until the pasta reaches the desired texture, adding pasta water if the sauce becomes too thick or dry. Serve with the pecorino romano and top with the chives.
Variation: Before adding the heavy cream, add one small can of diced tomatoes with about half of the can liquid and allow to reduce slightly. Omit the pasta water.
* “Baby bella” is a marketing term, as is portobello; those are just oversized cremini. To remove the stems, just pinch the stem right where it meets the underside of the cap, and gently rock it back and forth to loosen it. You should be able to pull it right out. The tips of all mushroom stems become woody and tough, so you at least need to cut off the final half inch, but I find it’s faster to just remove the stems entirely, and it makes them easier to slice.