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Eric Akis: Bright green asparagus adds spring flair to creamy pasta

Pasta in a creamy sauce is enhanced with sautéed mushrooms, shallots and garlic, basil, bright green pieces of asparagus and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Rigatoni is tossed in a creamy sauce rich with mushrooms, asparagus and other tasty things. ERIC AKIS

The other day I had a craving for a bowl of creamy pasta with too much freshly grated Parmesan cheese in it. I also wanted to toss something else into it and thought mushrooms and asparagus would be nice, along with some seasonings, of course.

With regard to the mushrooms, I used three different types — white button, brown (also called cremini) and shiitake mushrooms. Brown mushrooms have a deep, earthy flavour and shiitake mushrooms a meaty one with hints of wood and smoke. White mushrooms are mild tasting, so by mixing them with those stronger tasting ones it gave the pasta a nice balance of mushroomy flavours.

To make the sauce for the pasta, I sautéed the mushrooms in olive oil and butter with some chopped shallots until they were tender. You’ll know when the mushrooms are tender when the moisture seeping out of them during cooking has evaporated.

Then, I mixed minced garlic, dried basil and red pepper flakes into the mushrooms, cooked them a short while longer, and poured in some white wine. The wine was simmered and reduced until almost evaporated, richly concentrating its flavour.

To finish the sauce, whipping cream and chicken (or vegetable) stock was added, they were brought to a simmer, freshly grated parmesan cheese was stirred in, and so was some salt and freshly ground black ­pepper.

It was now time to toss hot, cooked rigatoni into the sauce, creating two flavourful servings of pasta you can top with more grated Parmesan cheese at the table.

When cooking pasta, always use a generous amount of simmering salted water to prevent it from sticking together as it cooks. It was once common practice to add oil to the cooking water to prevent the pasta from sticking. But when a generous amount of water is used, there’s no need. And, if you do add oil, it coats the pasta and prevents the sauce from adhering.

Pasta should be cooked “al dente,” an Italian term meaning “to the bite.” When biting into it, it should retain a slight resistance, but not have a hard, uncooked centre. With so many types and brands of pasta available, it’s impossible to give a generic cooking time. So check the package for the suggested cooking time and during cooking, always taste the pasta to see how it’s progressing.

Creamy Rigatoni with Mushroom and Asparagus

Pasta in a creamy sauce is enhanced with sautéed mushrooms, shallots and garlic, basil, bright green pieces of asparagus and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 23 to 27 minutes

Makes: Two servings

2 tsp olive oil

2 tsp butter

4 medium white mushrooms, thinly sliced

4 medium brown mushrooms, thinly sliced

4 medium shiitake mushrooms, tough stems removed, caps thinly sliced

1 small shallot, finely chopped (about 2 Tbsp)

1 medium garlic clove, minced

1/4 tsp dried basil

• pinch red pepper flakes

1/4 cup white wine (see Eric’s options)

1/2 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

175 to 200 grams (about 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups) rigatoni or other dry bite-sized pasta

6 thick, or 8 to 10 thin, asparagus spears (tough lower stems removed), each cut, widthwise, into 1- to 2-inch pieces, and blanched (see Note)

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus some for the table

2 to 3 tsp chopped fresh parsley or thinly sliced green onion, or to taste

Bring a large of pot of lightly salted water to a simmer over medium, medium-high heat. While water comes to temperature, place oil and butter in 10-inch or similar sized skillet set over medium, medium-high heat.

When butter is melted, add the mushrooms and shallots and cook until the mushrooms are tender and the moisture seeping out of them has evaporated, about five minutes. Mix in the garlic, basil and red pepper flakes and cook one minute more. Pour in the wine, bring to a simmer, and simmer until it has almost completely evaporated.

Add the whipping cream and stock to the skillet, bring to a simmer. Simmer one minute, and then remove this sauce from the heat.

When water is simmering, add the rigatoni, return to a simmer and cook until just tender, 10 to 12 minutes (check package for suggested cooking time). Drain pasta well, reserving 1/4 cup of the cooking water.

Set the skillet back over medium, medium-high heat, add the blanched asparagus, and bring sauce back to a simmer. Stir in the 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and then taste and season sauce with salt and pepper.

Add pasta to sauce and toss to combine. If desired, add some reserved pasta cooking water, if you want the pasta to be a bit saucier. If not, simply discard it.

Divide the pasta between two shallow serving bowls and sprinkle with chopped parsley (or thinly sliced green onion). Serve the pasta with additional Parmesan cheese, for grating and sprinkling on at the table.

Note: To blanch asparagus, plunge into a small pot of boiling water one to two minutes. Drain well, cool with ice-cold water, and then drain well again.

Eric’s options: If you don’t want to use wine, omit from the recipe and add the cream and stock directly into the sautéed mushroom mixture.

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Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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