Mushrooms are the Brad Pitt of vegetables: a character actor with leading man looks; a fungi that can turn even a supporting role into the best part of dinner. You can turn them into a humble soup or throw them on some old toast, and you’ll feel glamorous AF. Mushrooms’ deep flavor makes them a natural complement—or better yet, the perfect substitution—for beef, the George Clooney of the meat counter. They can be the basis for a sauce, they can add richness to simply prepared grains, and they can shine when served nearly naked as a side dish that will threaten the star power of any entree. They even have the ability to make boneless, skinless chicken breasts (the Tom Cruise of meats) taste like a revelation. This is because mushrooms have, in technical jargon, “umami up the wazoo,” and if you’re a fan of the fifth flavor, you are going to love this pasta.
I developed this recipe after coming across a new technique for sauteing mushrooms in a Cook’s Illustrated article that broke every rule I’d been taught. Because mushrooms are highly porous, conventional culinary wisdom has always dictated that they shouldn’t be washed with water, and that they should be cooked in small batches in a scorching-hot oiled pan so their moisture could quickly evaporate. But the truth is that mushrooms are so porous that neither of those things actually do any good: any water they absorb from washing will be released while cooking, and no matter how hot your pan is, mushrooms will suck up all the oil like little sponges. Instead, Cook’s Illustrated recommends you accept mushrooms for what they are, understand that you’ll never be able to change their behavior, and know that if you grace them with patience, they’ll eventually come around.
After washing the dirt off a melange of button, cremini, and shiitake mushrooms under running water, I threw them straight into a Dutch oven with a hefty pinch of salt, clamped on the lid, and turned on the heat. A few minutes later the mushrooms were vigorously boiling in their own juices, which would have driven me to panic in my younger days. I stirred in a bit of olive oil, stepped away, said a prayer, and told myself to trust the process. Eventually all the water boiled away, leaving the oil-coated mushrooms on their own to caramelize to a deep amber brown. My darling readers, I swear to you that these were the finest mushrooms I have ever tasted in my personal or professional life. This truly is a life-changing technique, and most certainly worth the wait.
Though this recipe takes a decent amount of time to come together, nearly all of that time is inactive, requiring little more than occasional stirring. It’s built on the backs of two whole pounds of mushrooms, because when something tastes this damn good, I don’t believe in skimping. In that vein I added even more umami to this dish by adding miso and Parmesan cheese (when it comes to making pasta, I do not come to play). With this new approach, you’ll never need to settle for mediocre mushrooms again.
- 2 lbs. assorted mushrooms (use any kind you like)
- 1 quart vegetable stock
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp. white miso
- 3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 lb. pasta (I used spaghetti, but any pasta will do)
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, plus additional cheese for serving
- 6 large leaves sage, torn into small pieces (optional)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Rinse the mushrooms under cold running water; wipe any dirt away with a paper towel. Pluck off the stems, then add those stems to a large saucepan with the vegetable stock and water, cover, and place over medium-low heat to simmer.
Cut the mushroom caps into fat slices and add to a Dutch oven with a heavy pinch of salt, then cover and cook for 5 minutes over high heat. Remove the lid, add the olive oil, and continue to cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms caramelize. (If anything sticks to the pan and starts to burn, add a few tablespoons of water, scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze, and keep on cooking.)
Reduce the heat to medium, stir in the onion and cook for 3-4 minutes until translucent, then stir in the garlic, thyme, and miso and cook for another minute. Place a wire strainer over the pot and pour in the hot mushroom stock, stir in the cream, add the pasta and turn the heat back to high. Boil for 12-14 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Stir in the Parmesan cheese and half the sage, if using. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired. Serve sprinkled with extra Parmesan and remaining sage.