I think of the title more as a generic term than a single, hard and fast recipe. That way, I can move ingredients in and out as the season progresses. First there’s the rush to asparagus we’ve all experienced lately. English peas are just appearing, soon to give way to the first young spinach.
I made this last night with asparagus, garlic, mushrooms, and finally the juice of half a lemon to brighten it all up. Ramps are just coming into season, and a handful would be a lovely addition. I used dried mushrooms because I always have them in the pantry to use in a pinch, and also because their soaking liquid yields a rich, dark addition to what becomes the sauce. I used dried portabellas, though dried porcini would be heavenly, too.
The method couldn’t be more simple, nor the results more divine. Lunch leftovers today were every bit as wonderful. Read the instructions through before starting, as it all comes together in about 15 minutes – perfect for a weeknight dinner.
SPRINGTIME PASTA WITH ASPARAGUS AND MUSHROOMS
8 ounces (half a package) dried spaghetti (I used multigrain)
A handful of spring asparagus, about 16-20 stalks (the thinner the better because they are so tender)
1/4 cup dried portaballa mushrooms (or porcini)
12 ounces boiling water
2 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
Juice of half a lemon
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese as garnish; grate it ahead of time as this comes together quickly
Chopped Italian parsley as garnish
- Begin heating a kettle of water to cook the pasta. Add a good 2 tablespoons sea or kosher salt.
- Measure the dried mushrooms into a heat-proof bowl. Pour the boiling water over them, then cover the bowl with a plate to keep in the heat.
- Trim bottom 3 inches off the asparagus stems. Keep them, as we’re going to use them in vegetable stock in a couple of days. Cut the asparagus stalks into 1″ segments. Use a pretty diagonal cut.
- Smash, peel, and mince the garlic. Toss the peels into the same bag with the asparagus stems for stock.
- Over medium heat, begin heating an 8″ skillet filmed generously with olive oil. The olive oil is going to be part of the overall flavor profile, and besides it’s one of the very beneficial fats. When hot, the oil will shimmer or ribbon. Add the garlic. Not more than 10 seconds later, add the asparagus. It will cool the pan and prevent the garlic from overcooking and becoming bitter. Drain the mushrooms, being sure to retain their soaking liquid. Add the mushrooms to the pan. Sauté the ingredients for about 2 minutes, then add the soaking liquid. Turn the heat down to medium-low.
- By this time, your pasta water should be boiling. Add the pasta. I like to use tongs to gently move it around from time to time as it cooks so that it doesn’t sink to the bottom and stick together. Set a timer for 2 minutes less than the recommended cooking time. Trust me.* Set a colander in the sink.
- Meanwhile, back at the skillet, taste a pice of asparagus. It wants to be tender, but neither crunchy nor mushy. If it’s there, remove the skillet from the heat. Add the lemon juice. Taste, then season with salt and some grinds of pepper.
- When the pasta timer goes off, drain the pasta in the colander. If you’ve cooked more pasta than you’ll need for dinner**, use your tongs to lift out about how much you wish. Transfer it to a mixing bowl. Take it to the skillet. Use a large spoon to remove as much of the sauce as you wish and add it to the mixing bowl. Toss the pasta and sauce together, then serve into bowls. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and parsley. Serve immediately.
* First, a note on the pasta. As mentioned, I used multigrain. Friends, I confess that it took me some time to develop a taste for it, and once I did, I have to say I truly love it. I do not eat it because I “should.” I choose to because I love, love, love pasta and could eat it 7 days a week. Except that I can’t eat it 7 days a week any longer. I need to reduce my carb intake, but at the same time refuse to do so in a way that makes food a punishment. I will never give up pasta, so in order to compromise my desire with my need, I use the multigrain stuff most of (not all!) the time. It’s insanely high in protein and fiber (19% and 28%, respectively, of one’s daily value), and contains respectable quantities of vitamins. Does it contain carbs? Of course it does. But they’re bound up in a fashion which retards their breakdown. Do I feel more virtuous by eating it? No, I feel virtuous when I vacuum my house more than once a week. But I do feel more full, more content, more satisfied with less of it, which is part and parcel of reducing one’s carb intake while boosting the benefits derived from consuming them. Think of it as having your cake and eating it too.
Now, for cooking it. For cooking any pasta, for that matter. Always set the timer for 2 minutes less than the recommended cooking time on the package. Always. I taught a class recently where one of the recipes included cooked pasta. One lady mentioned that she didn’t really like pasta because it was always mushy. I asked her why she cooked it to that point, and she explained that that’s the way her mother always cooked it. It was a complete revelation to her that pasta didn’t have to be cooked to mush. Imagine you’re cooking for Goldilocks. By cooking it for two minutes (or more!) less than usual, by the time you drain it, sauce it, and serve it, it will be juuuuuuust right. Not too firm, not too soft. AND by cooking it just right, you’re only adding to the satisfaction factor which permits you to eat less of something. Cake, eat.
**The Solitary Cook method of portioning. I went ahead and cooked a whole half-package of pasta. That’s a lot of pasta. I used about 1/3 of it for dinner last night, and tossed it with about half the sauce. I had a big salad afterwards – great dinner. Afterwards, I transferred the cooled pasta to the same bowl I’d used to toss my dinner, and drizzled a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over, then tossed the pasta so it wouldn’t stick together. I divided it between 2 ziplock bags. I pressed one flat and laid it in the freezer for another time. The other I refrigerated. I stored the remaining sauce in a mircowavable container in the fridge.
My favorite way to reheat pasta is the old restaurant method: empty the bag into a small pan of simmering water. You know how tough pasta can get when it’s microwaved? Well this gets you around that. Alternatively, put it in a bowl with a good 2 ounces of water and microwave covered. Reheat the sauce in a microwave. As soon as the water comes back to the simmer, the pasta will be warmed through but not over-cooked. Transfer it to a serving bowl with some tongs, top with the sauce, garnish with Parmesan and parsley (be generous – it’s a powerful anti-inflamatory), and sit down with a good book and some peace and quiet in the middle of your day.