I realize that, to some, roasted mushrooms tossed with pasta might seem a bit primitive and basic—nothing more than a fungal lateral step from buttered noodles. I am clearly not one of those people. I have long loved roasted mushrooms, and not just in the same way I love other foods. They’re something that has a nostalgic evocation for me, but, unlike some other sentimental foodstuffs, doesn’t disappoint upon revisiting.
I was never one for camping. I like forests and nature and rivers and fire pits, don’t get me wrong, but I can only walk so many trails and laze down so many rivers before I need to return to the comfort that chaos and civility bring when being surrounded by four walls and city water. That said, one of the joys of camping were the mushrooms. Banish any romantic or naturalistic thoughts you may have about our pilgrimage from the burbs to wood; we weren’t nearly rugged enough to even know about mushroom foraging, and back then the concept of foraging being “hip” hadn’t quite come into the zeitgeist yet, either. No, the mushrooms I remember were those canned or jarred marinated mushrooms. Packages of foil were filled with halved baby red potatoes and tossed with seasonings and drained marinated mushrooms, then tucked around the coals or floating on a rack above the flickering fire. The mushrooms were already soft from their marinade, but in the fire they crisped and dried a bit while the potatoes bronzed. They were, for me, the highlight of those little aluminum parcels.
It’s perhaps this that explains my affinity for roasted mushrooms and for happily eating them with not much more than some spaghetti. I start out by sautéing them in a cast iron pan in a scant amount of oil before sliding them into the oven. Don’t be alarmed at the dryness of the pan because, after they dry out a bit, they’ll release their own moisture and become incredibly soft inside but still crisp around their edges. Adding a little thyme is such a natural choice here and it brings an aroma that’s reminiscent of fresh, crisp woodland walks in wee hours when the sun is rustling its way out of bed.
Rather than a cream sauce, which somehow makes this concept more acceptable to most, I deglaze the pan with a bit of dry sherry and extra dry white vermouth, the sherry adding a rich brightness while the vermouth softens it a bit (not to mention the vermouth’s alcoholic taste cooks out much faster than wine). Marsala would certainly work in place of the sherry, too, and lend a bit more robustness, but I prefer sherry here for its humility to let the mushrooms be the standout. A splash of pasta water and a mounting of butter create a sauce that’s not quite as thick as a cream sauce, but still substantial enough to cling to the golden strands of pasta in the name of comfort.
Now that I’m thinking about it, think of this more like a mushroom scampi if that helps; toss shrimp scampi with pasta to make a meal of it, but there’s nothing wrong with eating it as is, just as with these mushrooms.
I prefer this just as is, naturally with a scattering of chopped parsley, but there’s nothing to stop you from adding a bit of Parmigiano to the mix, or even sautéing the mushrooms in a bit of bacon fat in lieu of the oil—if the trinity of mushrooms, bacon, and parmesan isn’t a holy one then I don’t know what is.
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