Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pasta with Tomato-Mushroom Sauce

The 30th anniversary of Earth Day was a few days ago, April 22. To re-commit to Earth Day's ideals, one really easy thing people can do is to add one more meatless meal per week.

I've got a great one: Pasta with Tomato-Mushroom Sauce. I found it in a back copy of Real Simple magazine.

This is a wonderful vegetarian recipe. (In fact, if you leave off the cheese sprinkled over the top, it's vegan!) I think even most meat-eaters will love it, because the mushrooms and whole-wheat pasta add a hearty, chewy satisfying quality. And with the green escarole in the red tomato sauce, it's a visually satisfying dish, too.

Plus, a lot of this recipe can be made in steps and held for later. If you're short on time, you can dice the onions, mince the garlic, slice the mushrooms, and chop the herbs one day, then store them and assemble the sauce the next. Or do as I did, and make a double batch on the weekend, then eat half and freeze the rest for another day. That's a boon for people who work full time.

Begin by heating up olive oil in a large skillet or pot over a medium flame:

While the oil is heating, dice the onions. I like to cut off the top and bottom of each onion, slice once from the "north pole" down through to the "south pole," then lie them on their flat face, for stability. From there, it's an easy thing to create an even dice:

Speaking of stability, I usually cook with one or more dogs underfoot. They can't resist the chance to catch something yummy I may drop! It can be very dangerous, because you can trip on them. If you have the same problem, watch out! Or banish them to another room while you cook. Here's Pao at 4 months and Mu Shu at 4 years, hoping I'll drop something:

After the onions are diced...

...go on to the garlic.

Peeling garlic is really easy. Pull the cloves off the main bulb, place the flat side of a large knife on them, and give the knife a little thump. You can use the bottom of a heavy glass or a can of something if you prefer. This slight squishing releases the skin from the garlic, and it peels right off.

No need for another silly, one-purpose tool in your kitchen drawer, cluttering up things.

Cloves of garlic vary in size. Obviously, if the recipe calls for, say, six cloves and you have some honkers and some itty-bitty ones, you're fine. It's not rocket science.

Here's a kitchen tip: If you use your knife to scrape together a pile of diced food, use the back side, not the blade side. Using the blade side dulls your knife quickly.

When the oil in the pot is hot, add the onions and half the salt and pepper:

While the onions are cooking down a little, wipe off the button mushrooms and slice them up. I bought a couple of these big baking sheets for roasting vegetables and oven-baking fish, but they come in very handy to corral food that I'm prepping:

Slice the button mushrooms up. You'll have quite a pile:

Measure out your dry red wine. It doesn't have to be anything too pricey, but neither should you cook with rotgut wine, either. Crummy wine = crummy pasta sauce.

After a few minutes, the onions have softened and look a little translucent:

Toss in the sliced mushrooms and garlic, give them a stir, and let them cook together with the onions:

BTW, this is my new kitchen timer (below). I'm very hard on my timers and usually have to buy a new one every couple of months. I drop them on the floor, melt them because they're too close to a burner, drop them into boiling water. You name it; I've probably done it.

Usually I buy a small, digital one that can clip to my apron. But this time the grocery store was all out of that kind, so I got this retro-looking dude. He's kind of cute:

While the onions and mushrooms are simmering, grab your escarole, and give it a wash in a bowl of water. If you don't know what escarole is, that's okay! I usually forget and have to ask a friendly person in the produce section. This is Ms. Escarole:

After you swish it around in some clean water, pick it up and plop it on a clean tea towel:

Give it a rough chop. You can chop right on the towel, if you're careless like me. Or transfer the leaves to a proper cutting board and cut it up there. It'll look something like this after the chop:

If you don't like/can't find escarole, you could substitute rainbow chard or fresh spinach. Both would work fine.

This is the reason you want to wash your greens before adding them to the sauce. That's fine, gray grit in the water, there:

After the garlic and mushrooms have cooked for a few minutes, pour in the red wine. It gives the veggies a slight pink tinge. Not particularly appealing, but the tomatoes, which are added in a bit, correct all that:

Chop some fresh herbs up well. Here I have parsley (top pile) and oregano (bottom pile):

Plop the escarole and chopped herbs into the pot. The pot may look full to overflowing; don't panic! The escarole cooks way down in a few minutes:

Toss the remaining salt and pepper in, too:

This is what it looks like after just a few minutes more:

A superior sauce relies heavily on a superior canned tomato. Please try to use the best you can find. San Marzano probably makes the finest canned tomatoes I've ever tried. (I once opened and tasted four or five different canned tomatoes with the gals in my cooking group, and we were amazed at the variety in taste. San Marzano was the winner, hands down.):

It's a gorgeous red color. They sell whole canned tomatoes, too. This is their crushed:

Pour that big puppy in there:

The beautiful reds and greens are masked in this photo, below, by the steam rising up of the sauce. I guess if I were a true food photographer, I'd remove the sauce from the stove and let it cool so I could get a good photo of how pretty and appetizing the colors are. But I'm just a home cook, so this will have to do:

This sauce just gets better if prepared ahead of time. If you are making the sauce to serve later, allow it to cool for a bit on your counter, then remove it to the fridge. (If you put a big-a** pot of very hot sauce in your fridge, it could drop the fridge temperature down too low and compromise your other foods):

When you're ready to serve the sauce, bring it gently up to a nice, hot temperature, then add in some thinly sliced (a.k.a. julienned) basil leaves, stir them around, and pour the sauce over the cooked penne pasta. Add some freshly grated cheese (or not, if you're vegan), and you're good to go!

Pat yourself on the back for adding one more meatless day into your week. The Earth will thank you.

Pasta with Tomato-Mushroom Sauce
My comments appear [in brackets like these]--Juli.

1 pound dried whole-wheat penne pasta
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. button mushrooms, sliced
1/3 C. dry red wine
4 C. torn escarole (optional) [or try fresh spinach or fresh chard]
3/4 C. chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley and oregano)
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 C. thinly sliced basil leaves
1/2 C. freshly grated Pecorino Romano [or Parmeggiano-Reggiano] [delete for vegan recipe]

Cook the penne according to the package directions.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saucepan or saucepot over medium heat. Add the onions, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, and 1/4 tsp. of the pepper and cook, covered, until the onions are softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and mushrooms and cook, covered, for 6 minutes more. Add the wine and cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Stir in the escarole (if using) and chopped herbs, season with the remaining sale and pepper, and cook for 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and heat through. Stir in the basil. [If making sauce ahead of time, refrigerate it without adding the basil. When you're ready to serve, heat the sauce through and then stir in the basil a moment before serving.]

Transfer the pasta to a serving dish, spoon the sauce over the top, and sprinkle with the cheese.

Real Simple offers this tip: Although Parmesan and Pecorino Romano are often used interchangeably, they're quite different. If you prefer a richer, more buttery flavor, use Parmesan; for a saltier, sharper bite, try Pecorino Romano. [I prefer Parmeggiano Reggiano, which is buttery, slightly sharp, but also has a nutty quality.--J.]

Serves 4.


  1. Sounds and looks delish! Wish I could eat tomatoes...*sigh*

  2. Huh... this looks really excellent. I'm going to have to try this... :-)



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