- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

After several failed attempts to make a healthy and speedy creamy mushroom sauce for pasta, it

was time to embrace the horror that sometimes healthy has to give way to Parmesan and heavy cream.

It didn’t seem a complicated goal — penne pasta tossed with a rich sauce crammed with a variety of mushrooms.

The error was in attempting a cream sauce that wasn’t heart-stopping. Almost regardless of ingredients, including all manner of yogurts and milks, the sauce curdled long before it could be brought to the table.

That apparently explains why blends of heavy cream and cheese form the base of many of these sorts of sauces. Sure, a roux (fat and flour cooked together to form a thickener) would have solved the problem, but the goal was simplicity.

With the sauce solution in hand, it was time to focus on the mushrooms. Although seemingly obvious, a mushroom sauce really should taste of mushrooms. Too many similar sauces lack that bold flavor.

To remedy this, four varieties of mushrooms are used in this recipe — a blend of white button, baby portobello, shiitake and lobster mushrooms. Of course, other varieties could be substituted. Because they cook down so much, the quantities are easily doubled.

Lobster mushrooms, which are red and meaty, like the crustacean, sometimes can be found fresh. More often they are sold dried in small bags in natural-food stores and the gourmet or produce sections of large grocers.

Dried mushrooms are excellent for this sort of recipe. Whereas fresh mushrooms become exceedingly tender during cooking, the drying process leaves mushrooms with a wonderfully dense, chewy texture.

Except when added to soups, dried mushrooms must be rehydrated before using. Soaking in warm water for 10 to 20 minutes usually suffices. Save the soaking water for stocks or add it to the pasta cooking water in this recipe for an extra boost of flavor.

Despite the decidedly unhealthy sauce, it’s still worth opting for whole-wheat pasta. The heft and assertive flavor of whole wheat stand up nicely to such a rich sauce. Of course, conventional pasta is substituted easily.

Creamy four-mushroom pasta

From start to finish, this recipe takes 30 minutes.

½ ounce dried lobster mushrooms

1 cup hot water

8 ounces whole-wheat penne pasta

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 cups sliced white button mushrooms

1½ cups sliced baby portobello mushrooms

4 large shiitake mushroom caps, thinly sliced

1 cup heavy cream

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Ten minutes before you start cooking, combine the lobster mushrooms and hot water in a small bowl. Set aside.

After 10 minutes, bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions.

Meanwhile, drain and coarsely chop the lobster mushrooms.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and thyme and saute 1 minute. Add all four mushroom varieties and saute 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are lightly browned. Remove the skillet from the heat. Allow it to cool several minutes. Meanwhile, when the pasta has cooked, drain it and set aside.

Once the mushrooms have cooled slightly, return skillet to medium-low heat. Stir in the cream and cheese and heat for 1 minute. Add the pasta and toss to coat. Continue heating until the cheese has melted. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 4 servings.

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