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February 26, 2007

Embrace the Mushroom/Pasta Decadence 

Perhaps there is no greater pleasure than combining humble ingredients that permits your taste buds to soar to new heights of delight. We revel in these times, for they reflect not just the unlocked secret where something is more than the sum of its parts, but also sheer audacity. These times require deliberate daring, lest you fly too close to the sun, only to watch yourself fall back to earth on melted wings. 

The difference between victory and coming home on your shield, for instance, hinges sometimes on a decision no more daunting than choice of mushroom. Each has its place, and to use a button mushroom where the shiitake has a more rightful place is the kind of grievous error that once caused ships to flounder on far-flung shoals and reefs.

Like the Portobello, the shiitake has a heft to it. Whereas our good friend the button is good in supporting others, it is not capable of carrying the show on its shoulders. Those who think a mushroom is a mushroom is a mushroom should be hounded from the kitchen, and permitted to do nothing more complex than adding milk to Rice Krispies. 

The shiitake carries with it a meaty flavor and texture and a dignity that makes it, for instance, a good match for our old friend the carrot. The two, when combined to create a pasta dish, create something like a pot roast, while on the other hand very much unlike a pot roast. This is one of those little incongruities that make life worth living. 

Carrots, in a pasta recipe? The question asks itself with the same great sense of incredulity as, “A planet where apes evolved from man?” The answer is yes. We add the carrot here because it brings a sense of earthly sensibility that complements the shiitake.  

When you have sliced your carrot thickly, throw it into a pan with half a chopped onion, two minced garlic cloves, some dried thyme and olive oil. Slowly, the carrot will soften to where you have broken it from its old stiff, rigid self into something limp but not mushy. 

Once rigid limpness is achieved, add your shiitakes. Mix and stir for several minutes, until they become tender. While this cooks, it’s time to address the pasta over which you will lay this concoction. 

We know two things here – all things work well within their own proportions, and a chunked sauce calls for pasta of roughly the same size. Here, you must extend your thinking. What kind of pasta is of similar size and texture, and could hold its own with this sauce. This is a choice you must make on your own, and will have consequences later on. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Choose wisely. 

By the time you have negotiated this minefield, your carrots, mushrooms and onions have softened. If you were to lick the bottom of your pan, you would be rewarded by a robust combination of flavors (in pleasure, pain . . . the hot pan would also sear your tongue). But yet, there isn’t enough liquid to even so much as dampen each pasta noodle. This conundrum confounded our forebears, and caused their brows to furrow in frustration.

Add half a cup of heavy cream. Mix it all together and stand there for a moment. The sauce will begin to bubble and thicken. If you are waiting for a moment in which you can rub your hands together and chortle, this is the time to do it. Your scheme is unfolding as planned, and there are no superheroes or super spies within earshot. The world is nearly yours. 

Once the cream slows to a slow ooze, it’s time to add your final ingredient … shredded Romano cheese. Add enough to just cover the sauce, as if you were laying down a dusting of snow. Fold it into the sauce and turn off the stove. The residual heat in the sauce can now do the work. 

Meanwhile, drain your pasta. Look from your sauce to your pasta. If you have chosen your pasta wisely, it will be hefty and chunked, and probably called penne. If not, consider looking into the mirror and saying, “I am my own worst enemy.” 

While the pasta is still hot, add your sauce and stir until evenly coated. Look at your penne noodles. They glisten with artery-clogging goodness, and sing to you with its own kind of siren song, “Embrace the decadence, embrace the decadence.”

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