Mushrooms roasted a day ahead team up with caramelized onions, a green bell pepper roasted directly over a stove burner and saffron pasta for a delicious weeknight quick meal. Recipe below.
The calendar says it’s summer. But until just the other day, the thermometer said it was October. The winter that wouldn’t end has come to a grudging close—the ice on the Great Lakes finally vanished, just a few days ago.
What this has meant for us in the Midwest is enduring autumnal weather—cool nights and, in the daytime, half-hearted jabs toward hot. To be honest, I love it. I hate when the temperature soars! But this perpetual sweater weather definitely has its down side. My tomato plants (which have not been in the ground very long) are looking, frankly, puzzled. The basil is not much bigger than when I put it in the ground. And of course the ongoing cool is not great for the farmers and the crops.
But one thing on the upside is that I am still using the oven. I’ve been experimenting with a Burmese coconut cake recipe from Bon Appétit, and, while the oven was in action, I roasted some asparagus and cashews—and a bunch of mushrooms. The latter was my favorite part. There’s so much you can do with these lovelies once they are done—chop them up to add to a chicken salad, toss into a red sauce or top a pizza, add to a quiche, or just pop ‘em in the gob for a snack. This time, one thing we did was put together this quick weeknight pasta dish. When we had the roasted mushrooms, the rest was easy. Everything else we had in the house and you probably have most of it too. The dish has a lot of steps, but all of them are simple.
By the way, I love saffron pasta because it is a simple way to include beautiful saffron flavor in an everyday context. The flavor of saffron is one of those love/hate things. If you love it, as I do, you think it tastes oceanic, mysterious, faintly bitter, romantic. If you hate it, you think it tastes like gasoline or a kitchen accident involving a bottle of perfume. If you are among the latter, I am sorry for you, and please see Kitchen Notes for—not a substitute, but a workaround.
Saffron Pasta with Roasted Mushrooms,
Caramelized Onions and Bell Pepper
1 pound mushrooms
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 green bell pepper
1 pound saffron pasta (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 cup chicken stock (or mushroom or water for a vegetarian version)
1/4 cup half and half
Roast the mushrooms. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Snap off the mushroom stems and freeze them to use in a stock later. Using your hands, toss the mushroom caps in a bowl with one or two tablespoons of olive oil and some salt. If you wish, you may also add a peeled, slivered garlic clove, or fresh finely minced thyme or tarragon.
Line a baking sheet or pizza pan with foil or parchment paper. Arrange the mushrooms cap side up on the pan—they should not be touching each other. Roast in the oven for 20 about minutes. If you have too many mushrooms for this size of pan, use a larger pan, or use two smaller ones side by side. Make sure that your shelves are not so crowded that the heat circulation in your oven is impeded.
After about 20 minutes, the mushrooms should look nice and dark brown. If they are not yet darkened, roast for two or three minutes longer. Once they are ready, take the pan out of the oven and turn each cap over so it is resting on its top. Put back in the oven for 5 to 7 more minutes. Take out of the oven—they’re done!
Caramelize the onions. Put 2 tablespoons of butter (or you can use 1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil) in a big heavy-bottomed skillet. Heat the pan over a medium flame, melting the butter. Add the onions and stir to coat them with the butter. Then just let them cook. Check on them every few minutes and give them a stir. But you don’t have to hover over them constantly. They will slowly shrink and gradually turn an ambery brown. Don’t let them turn black. When the onions are a rich translucent brown color, scrape them into a bowl. Deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup of broth, or water, scraping up any fond that clings to the pan, and add that to the onion bowl.
Prepare the pepper. While the onions are cooking, roast the green pepper. Wash the whole pepper, then turn on a gas burner on the stove and lay the pepper directly on the burner. As you tend the onions, turn the pepper around and around with tongs, so it gets blackened and blistery all over. Put it in a paper bag and fold the top. Set aside for ten minutes.
Start putting things together. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil to cook the pasta. Meanwhile, put a little olive oil in the pan you cooked the onions in and turn the heat under it to medium-low. Take the pepper out of the bag—it will be limp. Slice it into skinny long slivers (discard the inner workings and the stem—by discard I mean add to your compost pile). Sauté the slivers in the pan until they are heated through, then add the roasted mushrooms to the pan to heat them through. Put the caramelized onions and any liquid in the bowl back into the pan, add the stock and stir everything together gently.
While all this is going on, cook the saffron linguine according to package directions, timing it so it finishes cooking just as the vegetables are all heated through. Now things will start happening quickly. When the pasta is nearly done, scoop up a cup of the pasta cooking water and set it aside. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the pan of vegetables. Gently stir everything together. With a light hand, add a bit of the cooking water to coat and liquefy everything; add the half and half and then salt to taste; stir until heated through. Elegantly divide onto serving plates, grate a drift of Parmesan over everything, and serve. Delicious.
Can I make this with plain pasta? Yes, I’ll allow it. I think saffron linguine is especially delightful with this recipe. But not everyone loves saffron, and pretty much everyone also likes dishes that use ingredients you are likely to already have in your pantry. That is, for this dish, you can use any kind of pasta you prefer. As we are always saying here, it won’t be the same, but it will be different. Having said that, I do recommend a linear pasta for this dish.
Where did the onion go? Keep in mind that caramelizing onions involves a lot of shrinkage. You will start with what seems an enormous volume of onion, and at the end you will be asking yourself why you did not make more. But you could make more. Caramelized onion freezes wonderfully, in tiny bits, and then you will always have some available, say to top a burger or add to a sauce.
What else can I do with saffron pasta? Serve it with a sauce including seafood, or simply one with tomatoes and a bit of cream. Or just toss it with some olive oil sautéed with a little garlic and some parmesan. That and a leafy salad would make a satisfying quick dinner.
Can I use a red bell pepper? Sure! You can also used commercially canned roasted red peppers, as well as commercially packed roasted piquillo peppers imported from Spain.
What to drink with it? This is nice with a simple, crisp white wine, or a good beer, or, if the weather is feeling coolish where you are, a glass of medium sherry with plenty of ice.