Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country

Creamy spring fettucine with mushrooms and asparagus

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I could never be on Chopped.  I make funny faces when I’m handling a knife, I’m pretty sure.  And I’d constantly wonder what the judges were saying, in quiet disapproval, when I couldn’t hear them.

Not long ago, I saw Scott Conant (the pasta aficionado of the judging group) go virtually apoplectic at the sight of a firehouse cook snapping his spaghetti in half before dropping it into the boiling pot.  Any time I make the dish I’m preparing to share with you, I think about how deeply Scott Conant would disapprove of its technique and I stand up a little straighter, preparing for an imaginary fight.

After all, this technique has the folks at Cooks Illustrated in its corner.  Do you know Cooks Illustrated?  It is the magazine that would result if the Science Olympiad geeks took over the Home Ec kitchen…and then the journalism lab.  Every recipe is a science experiment, and the magazine–a colorless, staple-bound publication with multiple columns of teeny-tiny print on each page–recounts the trial-and-error adventures of each and every one.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that sometimes the resulting recipes will call for 3/4 cup of regular flour and 1/4 cup of cake flour…or 1 stick of cold unsalted butter plus 2 tablespoons of room-temperature salted butter.  The Cooks Illustrated folks are that intense.

Maybe some people cook like that.  But I don’t.  As always, I try to collect whatever wisdom I can from their techniques and analysis, and then I just head off to do my own thing.  The recipe that follows is an example of what happens when I get my hands on good technique–even (or especially) one that would make big-city chefs cringe–and then go all Courtney on it.

This pasta dish has become, at our house, a regular part of the recipe rotation, particularly well-suited to our Wednesday evenings, in the flurry of activity that precedes 6:30 karate class for the big kids.  It really is a quick one.  Just do me a favor and don’t tell Scott Conant…or, on second thought, do tell him.  I’m ready to rumble!

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 onion, thinly sliced into half moons

10 ounces firm mushrooms, thinly sliced

1/2 cup red bell pepper

5 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup white whine

1 cup heavy cream

3 1/2 cups water

10 ounces fettucine

1 lb. asparagus, cleaned, trimmed, and cut into bite-sized pieces

1 big handful of fresh herbs, if you have some lying around (I like basil best, but parsley works, too.)

4 ounces shredded Parmesan cheese

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1. In a large pan with high sides, saute the onion over medium heat until it is soft and sweet.  Then increase the heat to medium-high and add the thinly sliced mushrooms. Stir them occasionally until they brown somewhat.  Then sprinkle with salt and add the red bell pepper, garlic, red pepper flakes (if using) and a generous pinch of salt.  Stir it together.

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2. To the pan, add the wine and the tomato paste.  Stir well.  Then add the heavy cream.  (Yes, it really must be heavy cream–not half-and-half or whole milk.  Heavy cream.  The real thing.  So much depends upon it…)  And the water.  Stir well.

3. Here is the part that would send Scott Conant into cardiac arrest:

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Put the uncooked pasta directly into the sauce in the pan.  (You can even break it in half first, if you want to, just to live dangerously!) Now bring the sauce to a gentle boil and cover the pan.  Simmer it, stirring occasionally, for 10 or 12 minutes.

4.  Test your pasta for doneness and your sauce for flavor.  Add salt as necessary (you’ll probably need a fair amount of it).  When the pasta is almost-but-not-quite done, add the cleaned, trimmed asparagus.

5.  Cook it all for another minute or two, uncovered to allow the sauce to thicken and the asparagus to become slightly tender. Then, off the heat, stir in your fresh herbs and half of your cheese.  Then serve it with more cheese sprinkled on top.  This is best with a lightly dressed salad of fresh greens.

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