Mushroom & Tomato Cream Sauce over Pasta

When I was in college, I was on the rowing team. And the coach my junior year was a particularly big guy named Karl. He had a shaved head, a goatee, and a bio-hazard symbol tattooed on his bicep. Let’s just say Karl was “persuasive.” I could write an entire blog about him. But this blog isn’t about crazy rowing coaches, it’s about food – and in this case, how I didn’t eat very much of it. You see, in rowing (like wrestling) there are weight classes. And when Karl tells you to be a certain weight, you do it. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

The vast majority of my diet as a “lightweight” was made up of steamed cauliflower, raw radishes, boneless skinless chicken breast grilled on my George Foreman, dry brown rice, and raisins. I had all sorts of nutrition-science reasons why this was the perfect combination of food. (All ridiculous, I’m sure.) Not the healthiest deal, but whatever. That’s what I did. Plus an awful lot of sweat runs, and perhaps in the most desperate of occasions, spitting into a cup because a pint of spit equals a pound. Aren’t you glad to have learned that fun fact?

This was all fine except for one time a season: the weekend that we raced in our conference championships up at the NY Athletic Club. We always went up the night before, and stopped for dinner at the home of one of the guys on the team – the Capellini’s. As you may be able to guess from his last name, this was one seriously Italian family. And his mom was one serious cook. Mamma Capellini’s lasagna was legendary across at least three states.

But the problem was, I could never have it. The night before a weigh-in, the last thing I needed was a huge plate of gooey, cheesy, lasagna topped with gravy that had been simmering away on the stove for an entire day in anticipation of our arrival. Oh, if it tasted one-one-hundredth as good as it smelled, her lasagna must have been other-worldly.

I ate salad. Dry. On the upside, it was a nice change from the cauliflower.

Fast forward a half of a lifetime, and I still dream about that lasagna. In fact, I seem to remember being promised that coveted, top-secret recipe on the day that I get married as the ultimate wedding gift. (Chris Capellini, I’m holding you to that!!) But in the meantime I don’t have an Italian Nonna to cook me authentic feasts from the Mother Land, so this freckled, red-headed, pasty-skinned kid has to scrap together what I can from Lidia shows on PBS and Epicurious.

I’m taking the first step by working on perfecting homemade pasta. For Christmas, I got one of those nifty Kitchen Aid pasta attachment for my stand mixer, and I’m chasing egg yolks all over my counter and rolling out sheets upon sheets of pasta in an effort to learn the art. (I’m not quite at the point yet where I’m convinced it’s all that much better than the box.) But I can make a mean sauce, so I’m always trying different recipes to find the perfect compliment to make all the work of making pasta from scratch worth it.

And here’s my latest favorite. It’s a mushroom tomato cream sauce that is velvety and meaty and just plain heavenly. Like any good sauce, it takes time for the flavors to really meld and create a multi-dimensional finished product. So take your time if you can. Pull on your old school apron and grab your favorite worn wooden spoon, and as the sauce’s aroma wafts over you, let your inner-Nonna manifest. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll love this plate of pasta and sauce. Enjoy!

PS – It’s worth noting for the sake of journalistic integrity that Karl actually had a huge soft side, and we took full advantage of the fact that we were the first group of women he had ever coached by torturing the crap out of the poor man. He was an awesome coach and we all adored him.

Pasta with Mushrooms and Tomato Cream Sauce

Click here to print this recipe.
adapted from Gourmet, August 2003
serves: 6 as a main course
time to prepare: 1 3/4 hours (30 minutes active)

1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms (1/4 cup)
1/2 cup hot water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 thick slices of bacon, chopped
1 to 2 large garlic cloves, minced (depending on your preference)
10 oz fresh white mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/3 cup medium-dry Sherry
1 32-oz can whole tomatoes in juice, chopped, reserving juice
2 Turkish bay leaves or 1 California
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup half and half
1 lb dried pasta – preferably pappardelle or fettuccine
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
kosher salt to taste

Soak porcini in hot water until softened, about 30 minutes. Lift out porcini, squeezing excess liquid back into bowl, then rinse porcini to remove any grit and finely chop. Pour soaking liquid through a sieve lined with a dampened paper towel into a small bowl and reserve.

Heat oil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté onion and bacon, stirring, until golden, about 6 minutes.

Add garlic and fresh mushrooms and sauté, stirring, until liquid mushrooms give off is evaporated and mushrooms are lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

Stir in porcini, reserved soaking liquid, and Sherry and boil, uncovered, until most of liquid is evaporated, about 5 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes with juices, bay leaves, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil.

Stir in cream, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 45 minutes. Discard bay leaves.

Cook pasta as indicated in salted water until al dente, drain. Stir basil and parsley into sauce, then toss pasta with just enough sauce to coat. Serve with cheese.

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