Giant Pasta Shells with a Mushroom and Veg Festival
On my last expedition to search for elusive gigli (lilies) pasta – when are things in stock when you need them? – I came across jumbo conchiglie (ridged shells). As the object of the exercise was to buy a pasta that would take a heavy sauce, these clearly could take more than just sauce, so, with an expanding interest in pasta in general, plans for a mushroom and vegetable pasta dish were underway. The only non-vegetarian element in the dish were some chopped squares of smoked turkey; I felt the smoked turkey breast added both flavour and texture contrast. Vegetarians could leave out the turkey of course, indeed would wish to and in truth the mushroom and vegetables are the main heroes of the dish. The other virtue is that while one could buy in the items especially to make the dish, apart from the mushroom base, it is very much a thrift dish that uses up odd bits and scraps that might be lurking in the store cupboard and freezer as the following will relate.
First and foremost the mushrooms. Sultan at the moment seem to have loose oyster mushrooms that have an impressive taste and were specially bought for this dish in mind. I had some dried shiitake mushrooms that also add impressive taste with the water after soaking and also into the pot went some leftover chestnut mushrooms that needed using up. Waste not, want not. So; soak the dry mushrooms ahead of time in warm water. I tend to break up the mushrooms before soaking as I was looking for mushroom pieces, rather than whole ones. I also try to keep them soaking for a good few hours, to maximise the extracted flavour. The fresh mushrooms were cut in pieces and set aside. As the pasta was jumbo (see photograph with a garlic clove for scale) there was no need to cut very small or purée, though I would with a smaller or different pasta.
The other prep items were spring onion, baby organic carrots and a stick of celery were very finely cut to make the soffritto – the base of the cooking. The turkey breasts were cut in ½ cm – 1 cm squares. It happened we had two large slices in the fridge; I could easily have added an extra slice or two if it had been there, but as mentioned above, it was not a make or break deal. One of the larger baby carrots was julienned for garnish and set aside for last. It happened my much better half had some béchamel left over from the lasagne, so the remains were defrosted in the fridge and augmented with some Ayran drink (Persian yoghurt drink). Garlic was finely chopped, a fistful of Bird’s Eye Baby Sweet Peas and a similar quantity of frozen spinach was defrosted and we were ready. I could easily have used cut beans instead of the peas, though I am particularly fond of the baby sweet peas, but by now, you have the idea.
Starters orders! Olive oil in the pan and the soffritto items tossed in and stirred on a medium high heat and cooked enough to soften, not to caramelise, the garlic next for a few seconds and then the main star, the fresh mushrooms, stirring vigorously. When all the mushrooms were coated and starting to reduce, in the ‘off’ it looks an awful lot of mushrooms, but they do reduce quite a bit, the soaked shiitake mushrooms and liquid goes in. As you reduce the heat, add sea-salt, pepper, dried oregano, a splash of Worcestershire sauce (Lee and Perrins) and the tiniest splash of tomato purée. Stir. In goes the béchamel and ayran (or milk/cream/yoghurt). Stir. Now for the (optional) turkey squares. Stir.
Next on line is the pea/spinach part that goes in the pot and stirred in to combine and once settled, olives and capers, I had some cut black olives an some green Spanish stuffed olives. This was more of a ‘taste’ and garnish, than an integral part of the dish, apart from being a ‘lets use what is in the pantry’ exercise. The stirred result is now put on low heat, after checking the liquidity level. We want a thick sauce, so neither a dry result or swimming.
The pastaZARA™ jumbo shells cook for 12 to 14 minutes in a rolling boil in salted water (add a touch of oil to prevent sticking). When ‘al dente’ spoon into the sauce, combine and spoon into a serving bowl, dust with grated parmesan cheese and garnish with the julienned carrot that was earlier set aside.
It is an ideal mid-week, quick meal, that has taken longer to write up, than to actually prepare and easy to add, subtract or substitute items. In this case the main idea was to have mushrooms as the hero and other vegetables as a supporting cast, cleaning out the freezer in the process while keeping balance to the taste. Apart from the pasta and most of the mushrooms, nothing was bought specially for the dish as in any case we keep a stock of some frozen vegetables in the freezer as a standby and herbs, condiments are likewise used for any number of dishes, so already in the pantry.