If our relationship could be encapsulated in a single dish, excluding bread alone, it would be pasta with roasted mushrooms — funghi — and gremolata. And more specifically, that pasta would be shaped like little ears and called orecchiette - literally, Italian for little ears.
This is the pasta I cooked for the first time Rach and I had dinner together back in the spring of 2020. We laugh about it now, but she didn’t eat much, and naturally I was kicking myself for going too far out of some undefined comfort zone. She reassured me it was delicious, and besides, the back-porch conversation was flowing like good wine. Reminiscing on that night later on, she admitted that her nerves wrecked her appetite, and asked to have it again. Now, it’s one of our absolute favorite dishes to make together, and it’s my reflexive dinner choice when the local mushroom grower, Saugatuck Farm in Danbury, has shiitakes available.
I had actually never made this before that date night last year. While that’s not a risk I’d recommend to other folks, thankfully this pasta is remarkably simple to make. And it feels so appropriate for the cool, damp days of spring and autumn when the mushrooms are in-season.
We‘re lucky enough to have Saugatuck Farm nearby growing the most delectably fresh, meaty shiitakes, but really any food-grade mushroom would work. What’s especially great about these shiitakes is that they have substance. That is, they retain their texture through cooking without too much shrinkage. After making sure they’re clean, I like to cut or tear them into rough half-inch pieces. Add them into a large oven-proof skillet with a few smashed-and-peeled cloves of garlic, sea salt, fresh-cracked black pepper, spicy red pepper flakes, and a generous glug of extra-virgin olive oil. Toss it all with a wooden spoon (or with a flick of the wrist if you’re trying to show off) to coat the mushrooms with the seasonings. Roast the mushrooms at 425F until they’re deeply golden brown and smell irresistible — about 20 minutes.
While the mushrooms are roasting, there’s plenty of time to prepare the gremolata. (Now is a good time to get the salted pasta water going, too.) Gremolata is an Italian green sauce that tastes like a breakthrough ray of sunshine on that cool, damp spring day: flavors of verdant parsley, brightly acidic lemon, and sweet, spicy garlic perfectly accompany the earthy, woodsy flavors of deeply roasted mushrooms.
Finely chop some parsley (I don’t bother going crazy with the de-stemming), mix in some fresh lemon zest and juice, and call it a day. It should be zingy — trust me that the flavors are all going to balance out in the final dish.
Typically, a gremolata would have minced garlic as well, but since there’s already garlic in roasting with the mushrooms, that flavor will still be there. If you want to go heavier on the garlic, add in a finely-minced clove or two here.
Once the mushrooms are done, and after I’ve verified that they are in fact delicious, I like to mix half of the gremolata into the still-hot pan to help the flavors all get to know each other. The rest I save to toss in at the final assembling to fine-tune the flavors. I think this way also brings a little bit more complexity to the pasta and helps it retain some freshness.
Fire the pasta in salted water. On that first dinner date, I went with rigatoni, which is my personal favorite pasta shape. I like the way things tend to get stuck inside the little tubes, like a tunnel hiding packages of flavor. Even better here, though, and even more fun to say, is orecchiette. The concave, bowl-like shape of each orecchietta lends itself to the perfect bite in this dish by cradling the pieces of herby mushrooms. There’s an inside joke here too, because Rach and I argue sometimes about who is the better listener. (It’s an ironic argument, if you think about it for a second.) Hence, little ears make sense for our favorite pasta.
When the pasta is cooked al-dente, scoop out and save a bit of the cooking water, then drain the rest. Once drained, throw everything back into the pot to meld: pasta, mushrooms, the remaining gremolata, and a bit of the reserved water as needed. The starch-laden pasta water in small amounts actually helps the sauce to thicken and adhere to the pasta. Serve in bowls and finish with a drizzle of fruity olive oil followed by a dusting of salty, savory Parmigiano-Reggiano. Salute.
Recipe note: The inspiration for this dish came from my favorite cookbook, Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons
8oz mushrooms, shiitakes recommended — chopped or torn into 1/2-in pieces
4 or 5 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil (plus more for serving)
Fresh-cracked black pepper
Red pepper flakes (optional)
1 bundle of flat-leaf parsley — thick stems removed, finely chopped
Half of a large lemon, zested and juiced
8oz dried pasta, any short shape, orecchiette recommended
Parmigiano-Reggiano (for serving)