After my piece yesterday extolling the pleasures and creative possibilities of cooking and eating vegetables, I got a message from a brilliant chef -- one whose food haunts my dreams -- asking, "An Achatz dish as an illustration for home cooks?"
Fair enough! I'd trotted out the dish in question, by Grant Achatz of the restaurant Alinea, to highlight the level of excitement a vegetable dish can attain. But it's a 20-element composition involving tomatoes, making balloons of mozzarella cheese, spirals of molasses and saffron, and, well, 17 other things, and it's hardly the kind of thing most people would/could/should attempt. (Not that the intrepid blogger Carol Blymire hasn't tried.) And the thing with pointing toward creative geniuses is that it's dangerous -- one person's inspiration is another's totally oppressive, intimidating, why-should-I-bother wall.
So the dish below (one of my absolute standbys) is not going to win any awards for creativity or highbrow excellence, but that's kind of the point. It uses very unfashionable supermarket white mushrooms and even more unfashionable frozen peas. I mean, it's just pasta with peas and mushrooms. But it uses a searing technique to bring out flavor in the mushrooms and pairs that with a gentle warming-through in garlicky butter to keep the peas light and sweet, a complementary range of flavors and depths. It's also a dinner that is almost fully half vegetable by weight, and will be happily eaten by anyone short of those who literally run at the sight of green in their food. That feels pretty creative to me.
A note about the frozen pea: I love fresh peas, but to be honest, peas lose their sugar and tenderness so quickly that unless you're getting them the same day out of the garden, they can be all mealy and boo-hoo. (And we're still a while from pea season, at any rate.) A decent brand of frozen pea, though, can serve you well; frozen within hours of being picked, they keep many of their fresh charms.
Pasta with peas and roasted mushrooms
Serves 3-4 as a main course
- 8 ounces white mushrooms
- Salt and white pepper, to taste
- Olive oil, as needed (a couple tablespoons)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 tablespoons butter (you can use olive oil instead, but butter makes it ... special)
- Pinch saffron (very optional, but very nice)
- 8 ounces pasta, some manner of short shape (bowties, pennette, you get the picture. Or saffron malloreddus, if you really want to be a baller.)
- 10 oz box frozen peas (or fresh, of course, if they're in season)
- ½ cup white wine
- 1½ ounces parmesan cheese, grated fine
- Chopped parsley, thyme, basil, rosemary or mint, to taste (optional, but nice)
- Preheat oven to 425. Meanwhile, set three quarts of water on to boil, and salt it so it tastes nearly like sea water.
- Rub the mushrooms clean of dirt with a towel or paper towel. Cut off the stems if they're long (but use them). Quarter the mushrooms if they're quarter-sized, and cut them in sixths if they're half-dollar sized. Toss them in a bowl with salt, pepper and enough olive oil to coat lightly.
- Heat a heavy pan, large enough to fit all the mushrooms comfortably in one layer, over high heat. Add about a tablespoon of oil to the pan, and when it's hot enough to shimmer but not quite smoke, add the mushrooms. Let sear briefly, then transfer to oven.
- Cut off half a clove of garlic and mince it very fine. Reserve it. Chop the rest, to somewhere between the size of a pea and a BB. In a pan large enough to hold all the peas, mushrooms and pasta, melt the butter over low heat and add the chopped garlic. Let it get friendly; you're not trying to brown the garlic, but slowly infuse the butter with its flavor. Add saffron, if using. If the garlic starts to brown, take the pan off the heat.
- Check on the mushrooms. Give the pan a toss. You're looking for nice browning and, eventually, for them to have cooked and shrunken enough to be almost chewy, about 20-25 minutes total. Put back in oven and continue to roast.
- Cook pasta in the boiling, salted water.
- When the pasta is nearly done, put the garlic-butter pan back over high heat. Add the peas and heat through with a few tablespoons of pasta water. Season with salt and plenty of pepper. Take the mushrooms from the oven and deglaze the pan with the wine, stirring to dissolve all the brown bits, and bring to a boil to cook off the alcohol. Add to the peas. Stir in the raw minced garlic and herbs, if using.
- Drain the pasta once finished and add to the peas. Toss all together, stir in the cheese, taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and possibly a splash of olive oil, butter or more pasta water if it seems a little dry. Serve right away.