Fall is my favorite season, and one of the best reasons to love the Fall is all the wonderful food you get to eat! The sprightly but rather thin dishes of summer give way to more substantial fare: game, soups and stews of all kinds, pumpkin and other squashes, beans, apples, pears and, perhaps best of all, mushrooms!
Wild mushrooms are not quite in season yet where we live–it is actually still late summer, after all, if you want to get technical about it–but I decided to start early with this lovely and easy dish of penne with a mushroom and tomato sauce.
You start, as these dishes often do, with a soffritto, this one consisting of some cubed pancetta and a crushed garlic clove sauteed in olive oil over moderate heat. (As always, make sure that the garlic hardly browns.)
Just as soon as you get a good whiff of the garlic’s aroma, add some roughly chopped mushrooms (125g or 4 oz. for 2 people), raise the heat to high, give the mushroom a good flip (or a stir if you’re feeling timid) to coat them with the soffritto-infused oil and continue sauteing. Very soon thereafter, add a pinch of salt to encourage the mushrooms to give off their liquid. Continue until the mushroom liquid as evaporated completely. You will begin to hear the mushrooms sizzle. Now add a few sage leaves and a sprig of parsley, both nicely chopped, a good grinding of black pepper, and mix well with the mushrooms.
When the mushrooms are quite tender and just begin to brown around the edges, add a good dollop of passata di pomodoro or crushed canned tomatoes. (The amount here is variable according to your taste, but remember that this is a mushroom sauce, not a tomato sauce!) Lower the heat and allow the sauce to simmer gently until the tomatoes have reduced and separately from the oil, having turned a nice darkish color, somewhere between red and mahogany.
Meanwhile, you will have cooked your penne (about 150-200g or 5-7 oz. for 2 people) in well salted boiling water until very al dente. Add the penne to the pan, mix well and allow it to simmer gently for a few moments with the sauce. Serve immediately.
NOTES: The choice of mushroom is yours. Fresh funghi porcini would, of course, be wonderful. On this late summer evening I used a store-bought mix of ‘baby bella’, oyster and shitake mushrooms that worked very well. Reconstituted dried porcini or other mushrooms would also work fine (in which case you should add the mushroom water to the sauce and let it reduce along with the tomatoes).
In a pinch, you can even use button mushrooms, but the dish will obviously be less interesting. One trick (not my own, but one I read about in one of Marcella Hazan’s books) is to mix button mushrooms with reconstituted dried mushrooms: you first add the dried mushrooms to saute with the soffritto, then the chopped button mushrooms, then the filtered water in which you have soaked the dried mushrooms. Allow the mushroom water to evaporate. The button mushrooms will absorb the intensely mushroom-y flavor of the dried mushrooms and their liquid, turning them into a fair facsimile of wild mushrooms in the process.
If you want a vegan version, simply omit the pancetta. The fresh sage lends a lovely subtle flavor to the sauce, but even better would be nepitella, an herb that is often described as a cross between basil and mint and sometimes called “mint thyme” in English. It is often paired with mushrooms in Italy but, as far as I am aware, not commonly found elsewhere.
This sauce also goes very nicely with fresh egg pasta, in particular with pappardelle or fettuccine. This dish is not served with grated cheese.
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