Monday, February 3, 2014

Pasta with Mushroom Sauce

This pasta dish looks simple, even rustic or humble. Its preparation, however, involves a few tricks that may seem fiddly to busy cooks but which are totally worth the little bit of extra time and talent to create absolutely amazing flavor. Yes, while this photo may make Pasta with Mushroom Sauce look like brownness personified, that brownness has a lovely intensity of flavor that you may not find in any other brownness (without chocolate, that is.)

The sauce for this dish is all familiar, easy-to-find ingredients that just need a little love to get them to sing. Diced onions, carrots and celery (aka mire poix ) are cooked in a touch of butter, then boiled down with some red wine until the liquid is almost gone. Next beef consommé is added to give the sauce a deep beef flavor (I’m guessing that if you’re a veal stock kind of person, this would be the place to use that).

But then, and here’s the most fiddly part of this recipe, the sauce is strained, the vegetables having given all we need from them. The resulting liquid is intensely flavorful, but, wait! There’s more! In the form of sautéed mushrooms that get to absorb some of that beefy sauce even while lending some of their earthy essence to it. Yum.

I used cremini mushrooms, but you could use others that you like. I probably wouldn’t use anything particularly exotic or delicate, but would stick to the sort of “utility” mushrooms like white button mushrooms or portabellos, which are just grown-up creminis anyway. For the wine, I used a Cabernet Sauvignon from California, but any dry red wine that you like is appropriate. Not only is the wine going to add a lot of its own flavor to your final dish, but since the recipe only calls for one cup of it, you might want to drink the rest with your meal, and would, therefore, be better off with one you like. If you don’t know what you like a dry red wine blend from one of the popular (ie, pretty cheap) brands will probably make a good sauce.

I made this dish years ago and have really wanted to try it again. I don’t know what the delay has been. It’s at least as delicious as I remember it, although I think it would be even better with a higher sauce to pasta ratio. Next time I make it, I’ll try using less pasta to make a saucier dish. The range of 6 to 8 ounces of pasta in the recipe below reflects this thought.

While I served this as a main dish, I think it would be fabulous served alongside a steak or roast beef. It’s earthy enough to accompany a casual meal, but fabulously flavorful enough to make that meal a bit special. Because you know there’s one of those mushy holidays coming up that might just call for a special meal made especially for someone special. Just saying.

Pasta with Mushroom Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine

If you’re good at timing your recipes, you can begin cooking the pasta while the sauce is cooking. If you’d rather not have dueling burners, simply cook the pasta first and either keep it warm or run hot water over it just before mixing with the sauce.

A sprig or two of fresh thyme would be a good replacement for the dried thyme if you happen to have some.

Since I thought I may like this dish a bit saucier, I adapted the recipe to include the option of using less pasta over which to stretch the sauce.

6-8 ounces uncooked short-cut pasta (I used whole wheat penne)
2 tablespoons butter, divided
½ cup finely chopped onion
¼ cup finely chopped celery
¼ cup finely chopped carrot
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 (10 ½ ounce) can beef consomme
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon cornstarch

1. Cook pasta in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and keep warm. (See note above with regard to this step.)

2. In a large skillet, melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery, carrot, and salt. Saute 5 minutes or until just beginning to brown, stirring frequently. Stir in the tomato paste and cook 2 minutes more, stirring constantly.

3. Add the wine and bring to a boil. Cook until the mixture is very thick because most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes.

4. Stir in the dried thyme, black pepper, and beef consommé. Bring to a boil and cook until the mixture is reduced to about 1 cup. This should take 3-5 minutes. Strain the mixture through a sieve, retaining the liquid and discarding the solids.

5. Reduce the burner heat to medium and return the pan to the heat. Melt the remaining tablespoon butter. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently until golden brown, about 5 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the water and cornstarch. Set aside.

7. Add the reserved liquid mixture to the mushrooms in the pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Stir in the water-cornstarch mixture and bring just to a boil.

8. Add the cooked pasta and toss to coat.

Makes about 4 servings.


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