The people at the Fresh Market off Brownsboro Road must think I’m odd. I recently found myself walking slowly through their just-large-enough grocery, entirely caught up in my own thoughts. I had the rest of the week’s shopping complete, my meticulous list of recipes to test and ingredients to sample marked off, line by line, each item now tucked away in my cart. I had yet, however, to determine what we would have for dinner that evening.
I needed something easy, as is the case with any evening I tackle the grocery store after a long day of work. Wanting a meal that would pair well with the changing, cold weather, I craved something hearty and the homemade spaghetti I had on hand, tossed with a creamy and decadent carbonara sauce came to mind. But carbonara, as simple as it may seem, is a skill I just have not mastered, and the thought of diving back into negotiating raw egg yolks in warm pasta without causing them to scramble even the teeniest, tiniest bit made my pulse begin to race. I continued to weave my cart through the Fresh Market and I happened upon their shiitake mushrooms.
Suddenly, I was on to something. These earthy mushrooms would be wonderful mixed with salty pancetta and tossed in a cream sauce. Now this I could do. But it still needed something. An element to cut through the richness and bring a touch of sweet to the palate. Olives? No – too briny. Peas? Maybe – but I put peas in my pasta all the time. Sun dried tomatoes? Yes! That’s it! Sun dried tomatoes would be the perfect compliment! It was then that I opened my eyes and realized I had been standing in the middle of the grocery, eyes shut for goodness knows how long, ticking items off the imaginary list in my hand. Oops. As the blush began to rise to my cheeks, I made a quick finish of my shopping and jetted home, straight into the arms of a very warm, incredibly gracious bowl of pasta with mushrooms, pancetta and sun dried tomatoes.
Begin by setting a large pot of water on the stove over high heat, so it will be boiling away when it is time for the pasta. I decided to use leeks in lieu of onion or shallots for this sauce. I’ve only recently started playing with the leek and thought it would give a softer, more gentle touch of onion to the dish. I also love the way leeks soften and seem to melt ever so slightly when they are sauteed in olive oil and butter – or bacon fat, in this case. You must clean leeks carefully as they have a great deal of sand hiding between each pale green layer. Cut off the bottom – the root end – and slice the leek in half, longways. Rinse each half under water, moving apart the folds to clean every layer. Slice each half in to two pieces, lengthwise, and slice thinly. You will need one cup – approximately one whole leek.
I adore fresh thyme and it does a lovely job of enhancing the other players in this dish – the leeks, mushrooms and cream, especially. Mince one half tbs of fresh thyme and set aside.
Any mushrooms will work with this pasta, but I love the flavor and texture of shiitakes and they just happened to be on sale. Mushrooms are little tree-shaped sponges gifted to us by the earth. They happily soak up their surroundings giving it back to us in infinitely-flavorful doses. When cleaning mushrooms, simply use a clean towel to brush off the tops. Remove the stems and slice them to a half-inch thickness. You will need approximately one half pound, or three cups sliced.
Oh bacon. It only ever helps, doesn’t it? Cut four ounces into small cubes. Cook the pancetta in one tsp of olive oil over medium heat for five minutes, until the fat is rendered and the bacon is just crisp. Remove to a plate with a paper towel and set aside.
Add the leeks to the same pan and saute for three to five minutes, until they begin to soften and turn opaque. Add one tbs minced garlic, one half tsp red pepper flakes and the thyme to the pot and stir for one minute until fragrant.
Add the mushrooms along with one half tsp kosher salt and one quarter tsp freshly ground black pepper. Saute for two to three minutes until the mushrooms start to soften. Add one half cup of white wine to the pan and stir, scrapping the bottom of the pot with your spoon to break up any bits of flavor stuck to the bottom.
Bring the wine to a simmer and let reduce until only a couple of tablespoons remain, about five minutes.
Add one cup of whipping cream to the pot and stir to blend. Bring the heat to medium and allow the cream sauce to slowly simmer, keeping an eye on the heat to make sure the cream doesn’t burn. So far we have many earth-driven flavors blending away and, while delicious, they are in need of a brighter, mildly sweet component. Finely chop one quarter cup of sun dried tomatoes and add them to the sauce. Still rich, squeeze the juice of one half of a lemon into the mix, a note of acid to cut through the richness. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper to taste.
At this point you want to add a palmful of salt to you pasta water and cook the pasta as directed. I am using frozen, fresh spaghetti, which cooks in three to four minutes. If you are using dry spaghetti, plan for seven to eight minutes.
While the pasta is cooking, simply let the sauce simmer, allowing it to reduce and thicken. As mentioned before, keep an eye on the heat and adjust as necessary. In the last minute of the pasta’s cooking time, remove a quarter cup of the pasta water. It will help thin the cream sauce just a touch. Add one half of the reserved water at first and stir, adding the remaining water if necessary. Taste one final time for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary.
Drain the spaghetti and add directly to the pot. Toss in the sauce over low heat. The warm pasta will begin to absorb the sauce, bringing everything together. Garnish with fresh basil and serve. I was thrilled with the outcome of this quickly imagined dinner, especially after a long, mildly stressful day. Like a warm blanket, the creamy sauced wrapped itself around my shoulders, hugging me in it’s warm embrace. Craving = fulfilled.
Four Dinner Servings (I suggest pairing with a lightly dressed salad)
- one half pound spaghetti
- four ounces pancetta, cubed
- one tsp olive oil
- one leek, cleaned and quartered then sliced thin
- one half tbs of fresh thyme, minced
- one tbs garlic, minced
- one half tsp red pepper flakes
- one half pound/three cups sliced shiitake mushrooms
- one half cup white wine
- one cup cream
- one quarter cup sun dried tomatoes, chopped
- the juice of one half lemon
- salt and pepper to taste