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SOCAL STYLE: Entertaining

Magical Mushrooms

A Little Culinary Sleight of Hand When Cooking for a Crowd

September 07, 1997|Mary McNamara

The '70s was a bad time for the mushroom. visually, it was cutesified; it showed up on oven mitts and recipe cards, on weird kitchen plaques and stray canisters. Growing up, I considered it an image more than a food item; those mushrooms I encountered on my plate were invariably canned or well disguised by soup matter. Recent years were a little kinder. Mushrooms started showing up in stir fry, on sandwiches even. Grocery stores began offering more than your basic white--meaty Portobellos, smoky shiitakes and delicate straws. Their fame brought them a bit of a diva rep: Mushrooms, it was said, should be brushed, not washed; they should not be purchased after the gills had spread; they should be kept in cloth bags, never plastic.

Now we're all older and a bit more sensible, we know these are culinary myths. A few things hold true--don't buy mushrooms with mushy gills or soft spots--but, by and large, the mushroom is pretty straightforward. It can be served raw, sauteed, stuffed or grilled, and you have to go out of your way to ruin it.

So when I had a few dinner guests on the way the other week, I decided to treat them to pasta ai fungi, if only for the hilarity rating of the name. It's a fairly self-explanatory dish, requiring white, Portobello and shiitake mushrooms, some tomatoes, garlic, a few capers and some pasta. The recipe said it served four and I was serving six, so I doubled it.

This brought the mushroom poundage up to five. Think how happy most of us are when we lose five pounds. Now imagine those pounds in mushrooms. On your cutting board, on your counter, overflowing even your biggest bowls.

Stoically, I sliced--I know people who write cookbooks, and they say they test every recipe. I paused only to open the back door to my brother, who surveyed the scene with widening eyes. I explained that the now-doubled recipe would serve eight. "Eight what?" he asked.

I continued slicing, but by the time my friends arrived, I was near tears. There was an absurd amount of mushrooms. "Oh, my," said one upon entering the kitchen. "Are you making soup?" said another. A third, taking pity after seeing my stricken face, laid a gentle hand on my arm. "Why, they'll shrink right up," she said soothingly. "You'll see."

I hauled out the wok (find me a saute pan that will hold five pounds of mushrooms). As I heated the oil, I prayed for them to shrink; as I added the tomatoes and capers, I prayed for them to shrink; as I put the cover on so that the whole mess could simmer, I prayed for them to shrink. As I drained the pasta, as I grated the cheese . . . and then came the moment when I could pray no longer. I lifted the lid, and guess what? They had shrunk. And the dish, well, it was delicious. The different flavors and textures of the mushrooms gave it variety, the pasta and cheese kept it simple and the capers added that little zing. Doubling the recipe was probably a mistake; the original proportions easily serve six. But it was just fabulous, thanks.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

PASTA AI FUNGI

Adapted from "The New Not-Strictly Vegetarian Cookbook," by Lois Dribin and Susan Ivankovich, (Penguin Books).

(Serves 4 to 6)

1 pound linguini or other pasta

Salt

4 tablespoons olive oil

10 large cloves garlic, pressed

1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced

1 pound Portobello mushrooms, sliced

1 pound white mushrooms, sliced

2 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped or 4 cups canned tomatoes, quartered

1/4 cup dry white wine

3 tablespoons capers

Black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley, plus extra for garnish, or 1 teaspoon dried parsley

1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil, plus extra for garnish, or 1 teaspoon dried basil

1 cup freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

*

Cook pasta in salted, boiling water to cover until just tender, 7 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in large skillet, add garlic and mushrooms. Saute mixture about 7 minutes, then add tomatoes, white wine, capers, salt and pepper to taste, parsley and basil. Cover and simmer on medium heat 20 minutes.

Drain pasta and put back into pot. Add mushroom mixture and mix well. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup cheese over top and toss again. Put pasta in large bowl, garnish with extra herbs and serve. Pass additinal cheese around table.

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