As much as I love to cook – and I really do – every now and then I find myself aching for a way to mix things up in the kitchen to keep things interesting and exciting. I like to challenge myself to use new ingredients or methods, or to use familiar ingredients and methods in new ways.
Recently, my husband and I (mostly I) took stock of what we’d been eating lately to see how we could change things up a bit. We (…I) noticed that we’ve been eating meat almost every night at dinner, and so we (…I) decided that some vegetarian meals were in order. I love cooking vegetarian meals, and I usually eat a lot less meat than I have been (quarantine has me in full-on comfort food mode), so I started thinking about what I could cook that would still feel comforting, but also creative and fun as, after all, that’s the whole point.
The first thing I wanted to make was a hearty pasta dish, and my mind immediately went to mushrooms. The inspiration for this sauce actually came from a soup I had at a French restaurant in Philadelphia years ago – it was a creamy pureed mushroom bisque served with baguette, but I remember thinking that it would have been delicious as a pasta sauce with just a few tweaks.
So, tweak I did, and the sauce is perfect: it’s luscious and thick and super flavorful, it’s only real downfall being its…pallor. The unfortunate reality is that a pound of pureed mushrooms isn’t a super attractive thing, on its own. Once it’s added to some noodles and topped with a bit of bright green parsley, however, it looks far less offensive (which is a good thing) but, more importantly, it tastes absolutely amazing (which is a great thing).
I’ve included the recipe for the sauce, below, but I usually add a few additional garnish when I make this: I like to buy a few extra mushrooms to hold back from the puree (usually prettier varieties, like a shiitake) and I like to shallow fry a couple of sliced shallots and garlic cloves in olive oil until they’re brown and crispy and add them right over the top of the pasta for some added flavor and crunch (I mean, is there any dish that isn’t improved by crispy onions?) I don’t follow a recipe, I just plop the shallot and garlic in a pot with enough oil to cover them, simmer them for about 10 minutes, strain ’em, and scatter them over the dish. If you don’t feel like frying onions for this meal (a sentiment I don’t personally understand) you can always use some chopped walnuts or pistachios for added crunch – honestly the sauce will hold up to whatever you decide to use. Here’s the recipe for the puree to get you started.
Easy Pureed Mushroom & Cream Sauce
- Olive oil
- 4 shallots, finely chopped
- 1 lb sliced white mushrooms
- 4 portabello mushrooms, chopped, stems removed
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 bay leaf
- salt and pepper
In a large pan over medium heat, heat enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan along with about 1 tsbp of butter until the butter has melted and the oil is hot. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. When it boils, which will be when you're about mid way through making the puree, add 1 pound of spaghetti or pasta noodle of your choice and cook according to package directions, about 8-10 minutes, in most cases.
Add the shallots to the hot oil and butter and simmer until they are soft and light blonde in color, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and simmer, 1-2 minutes, until just soft and lightly golden.
Add the sliced mushrooms to the pan and stir to coat them in the shallots, garlic, oil and butter. Add a bit more olive oil if the pan is very dry (no more than a drizzle, the mushrooms will release plenty of their own liquid as they cook).
Add a healthy amount of salt and pepper to the mushroom mixture. I never measure this exactly. You can always add more at the end, if necessary.
Simmer the mixture for 10-15 minutes, until everything is deeply browned.
Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend until everything is smoothly pureed, about 30 seconds. It will look like gray baby food. It's the unfortunate reality of a mushroom puree, but it looks better on the noodles and it tastes amazing!
Transfer the mixture back to the hot pan. Add the cream, nutmeg and bay leaf and stir to combine. Warm the puree over low heat until the pasta has finished cooking, giving the bay a few minutes to impart its flavor. Add about 1/4 cup of the starchy pasta water to the sauce to thin it out a bit, and then add the pasta noodles directly to the sauce and stir until the noodles are totally covered in the puree, adding more pasta water if necessary to help the puree distribute among the noodles. Taste for seasoning and add salt and/or pepper, if necessary.
Serve with parsley, additional sauteed mushrooms, crispy fried shallots, toasted nuts, parmesan cheese and/or any other garnish you like. Enjoy!