Taste of Italy: Try my easy pasta recipe for a satisfying autumnal meal
Having grown up in a town in southern Austria that was less than an hour's drive from the Italian border, I sometimes feel like I'm almost as Italian as I am Austrian. That may certainly help explain why I love to include pizzas and pastas on the menus in many of my restaurants, including my flagship Spago and even two Italian-style restaurants in Las Vegas: Lupo (which means Wolf) and Cucina (kitchen).
So I thought I'd share a favorite autumnal pasta recipe: my penne with sauteed mushrooms, glazed shallots, and broccolini. It's wonderful to serve for dinner any time during the season, and it makes a good choice if you're looking for something different to cook on October 9 for Columbus Day, the annual observance of Christopher Columbus' arrival on American shores.
Many people consider autumn to be mushroom season, as wild specimens thrive in damp woodlands at this time of year. When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother would certainly take my siblings and me on autumn hunts for wild mushrooms (though I urge anyone considering doing so today to be extremely cautious, as it takes knowledge and experience to avoid potentially hazardous specimens).
Fortunately, most supermarkets today carry commercially grown mushroom varieties that were once considered wild; or that at the very least have fuller, richer flavors and more robust textures than the mild cultivated mushrooms many Americans grew up eating. My recipe calls for fresh shiitake mushrooms and oyster mushrooms; but you should feel free to substitute other types you might find in stores, such as portobellos, cremini, chanterelles or porcini. Even those common, cultivated mushrooms will work fine, too, if you take care to brown them enough to enhance their flavor.
In this recipe, I complement the meaty, earthy flavor of the mushrooms with garlic (which I first double-blanch briefly in boiling water to remove some of its harshness) and chunks of shallot that I caramelize and coat with a tangy-sweet glaze of balsamic vinegar. You can prepare both of these items in advance, if you like; then, the main recipe itself will be ready in no more time than it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta.
To make the dish even more satisfying, colorful, and nutritious, I also include some broccolini, a slender cousin to broccoli. You'll find it in many produce sections and farmers' markets today; but you could substitute regular broccoli, asparagus or chopped, de-ribbed kale leaves.
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Whatever green vegetable you include, the result will be a hearty one-dish meal suitable for a weeknight family supper or a casual dinner party. Add some crusty bread and a robust red wine, and you'll have a satisfying autumn feast, Italian-style.
PENNE WITH SAUTEED MUSHROOMS, BALSAMIC-GLAZED SHALLOTS, AND BROCCOLINI
12 ounces (750 g) penne, or other tube-shaped dried pasta