Today, we sprang forward. So while the day was brighter for longer, and my mind was made up for light lanky asparagus stalks and creamy-sweet peas, my pantry (and the market) was still stocked for winter. It’s a tough time of year for anyone with a seasonally-triggered appetite. All signs lead to spring yet the grocery store and farmers’ markets are still brimming with hardy winter holdover (yeah, I’m talking to you turnip and rutabaga).
My solution was to let the market talk to me. Rather than walk in with a game plan, I let whatever was looking good plant the seed for dinner. Tonight it was some really beautiful hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, tawny brown and dark rimmed around the edges with curvaceous high-collared tops. Instantly my thoughts turned to cream. Parm. Pasta. Some leftover steamed cauliflower in the fridge. A mahogany-rimmed Black Forest ham in the deli case. A quick saute with garlic was all it necessitated. That and a simple sauce of butter, reduced cream, Parm, some pasta water, salt, pepper. A very un-seasonal hit of fresh basil. Some crumbled blue cheese over the top just because I had it around. A teeny squeeze of lemon gave it a slick of tang, waking it up from an otherwise wintry clutch.
The kids and I ate it with great gusto. My mother-in-law declared herself a hen-of-the-woods convert. It was quick in preparation, light in planning and forethought, and hit just the right balance of rich and bright, creamy and textural. It was like layering a winter sweater with a spring jacket–not a wardrobe pairing that lasts for long, but feels really nice for the time being.
Penne with Ham, Hen of the Woods, and Creamy Cauliflower-Parm Sauce
Black Forest ham adds a hint of smokiness that I really like, especially against the cheese in the sauce. You can totally leave it out for a vegetarian variation, or substitute it with bacon for a richer alternative.
- 1/2 pound penne pasta
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 pound hen-of-the woods mushrooms, broken into individual pieces
- 1 cup steamed cauliflower (or any leftover wintry vegetable), roughly chopped
- 2 to 3 slices Black Forest Ham, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup cream
- 3/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons chopped basil
- Juice of 1/4 lemon
- Blue cheese for crumbling (optional)
1. Boil the pasta in salted, boiling water until al dente. Use a coffee cup to scoop out about 1/2 cup pasta water and set aside. Drain the pasta.
2. Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and a generous pinch of salt (about 1/4 teaspoon) and cook, shaking the pan often, until the mushrooms are singed and brown around the edges, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the cauliflower, ham, garlic, and pepper and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute.
3. Pour the cream and reserved pasta water into the emptied pasta pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Season with black pepper and then add the Parm and remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Stir until mostly dissolved. Add the mushroom mixture to the pan followed by the pasta, basil, and lemon juice. Stir to combine. Taste and season with salt and serve with blue cheese sprinkled over the top.