This recipe was originally featured in The 30 Second Wine Advisor's FoodLetter on Thursday, May 5, 2005.

Mushroom ragú

There's something "meaty" about mushrooms - maybe it's that elusive fifth flavor, umami, that the Japanese add to the basic salty-sweet-sour-bitter - that makes a dinner of funghi one of the most satisfying, even wine-friendly, vegetarian options for carnivores.

Today let's try a relatively simple dish that's rooted in both Italian and French culinary heritages, combining a sauce based on classic French technique with a mushroom ragú that intensifies mushroom flavor with a procedure borrowed from Marcella Hazan. It makes an excellent sauce for short pasta but would serve just as well over a bed of steaming white rice.

I made it with a combination of white and brown domestic mushrooms and a few dried porcini, reserving the strained liquid from the reconstituted Italian mushrooms as a key ingredient in the dish. It would be easy to vary it with just about any kind of fresh, wild or dried mushroom that suits your fancy, and if fresh morels or porcini are available in your region, they'd work perfectly.

Other adaptations should also work ... I'm thinking that a bit of chopped fresh tomato or tomato paste might be interesting, and maybe a rational amount of fresh herbs. But frankly, the keep-it-simple rule seemed to apply, and I'm not convinced that adding more ingredients would do anything but muddy the flavors.

INGREDIENTS: (serves 2)

8 - 12 ounces (240-350g) fresh mushrooms of your choice
1/2 ounce (15g) dried porcini or morels or other dried mushrooms
1 cup (240ml) hot water
1 or 2 large cloves garlic
2 tablespoons (30g) olive oil
Dried red pepper flakes or a dried chipotle pepper
Black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons white flour
2 tablespoons heavy cream or crème fraîche


1. Soak the dried mushrooms in the hot water for at least 30 minutes. Rinse and dry the fresh mushrooms and cut them into thick slices.

2. Before you start the rest of the recipe, put your pasta water on to boil or start rice cooking so it will be done when the ragú is finished.

3. When the dried mushrooms are fully reconstituted, lift them out of the soaking liquid, rinse and drain them. Strain the liquid through a paper-towel-lined strainer and reserve.

4. Mince the garlic. Put the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat and saute the garlic with red-pepper flakes to taste (or, if you like a smoky Southwestern accent, a dried chipotle pepper) until the garlic is translucent and starting to turn golden but not brown. Add the sliced fresh mushrooms and salt to taste, and stir until the mushrooms start to wilt and "sweat" a bit. Add about 1/4 cup of the reserved mushroom liquid, saving about 2/3 to 3/4 cup for the sauce. You can add a little water to stretch the liquid if necessary. Stir, add the reserved reconstituted dried mushrooms, and leave the mushrooms to cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally, while you make the sauce.

5. For the sauce, follow the basic procedure outlined in the April 14, 2005 FoodLetter, Theme and variations: Melt the butter over medium-high heat, using a saucepan and wooden spoon or saucier and balloon whisk if you have them, and whisk in the flour until it's fully incorporated. Add the mushroom liquid, a little at a time, whisking until the sauce is smooth and thick. Then reduce heat to a bare simmer, stir in the heavy cream or crème fraîche and the cooked mushrooms, which by this time should have absorbed all their liquid. Keep warm while you're finishing the pasta or rice. If using pasta (I went with a favorite, penne rigate), drain it and stir the pasta into the sauce, then serve in warm bowls. If you chose rice, serve the rice with the mushrooms and sauce poured over and around it.

The classic match with mushroom dishes is Pinot Noir, but our larder was short, so I substituted another earthy red from the Loire, Marquis de Goulaine 1998 "Le Moulin a Tan" Chinon Cabernet Franc. A lighter-style, fruity but acidic Northern Italian red - maybe a Chianti - would go well, too.

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