Farfalle with Mushrooms, Prosciutto and Peas

I am not sure why but I often get asked for either directions or money when I’m walking somewhere. David told me once that it was because I usually smile when I’m walking and that’s what makes me approachable.  

I’m not sure if I was smiling on my way to work one day in New York but a very worried looking gentleman, who was pacing back and forth on the steps leading up to Lincoln Center, stopped me.  He was a very polite man, who apologized for stopping me. You see, just a short while ago he got a call telling him a family member (I think it was a grandparent) had suddenly taken ill and had been rushed to the hospital in serious condition. He was on his way to the hospital himself, but he mistakenly got off the subway at the wrong stop only to find that he had no money to get back on the subway let alone catch a bus or cab to take him the rest of the way.  He was extremely sorry for having to ask me to help him out with a dollar or two in these, his most desperate of times, but he really needed the money so he could be on his way. What a predicament I thought, this poor, poor man, worried sick over his dearly beloved grandparent’s sudden hospitalization, and him stuck so far away and not even a dime to use the payphone. What a terrible situation to be in. 

The only problem was, this was the exact same story he had told me just two days earlier, when he apologetically stopped me on the exact same steps of the exact same building. On that day, I had no money to give him and I could only wish him luck as I continued on to work. On this day, after he finished talking, I told him how sorry I was to hear about his grandparent(s) and then I paused for just a second or two before adding how I might have believed his story more if I hadn’t just heard it from him two days before. He looked at me and, brazenly undeterred by my statement, said, “You have to admit it was a good story though. That should be worth a dollar, right?” This caught me off guard and I chuckled a little. I told him that sure, it was good story, but that I didn’t have any money on me, so I could not help him out. “What’s in your pocket then?” he asked.  Now I was really taken aback… “what’s in my pocket, are you kidding?”. I assured him I had no money in my pockets and again started to step away and continue on to my destination. “Show me”, he said. Wow! This guy was like a dog with a bone. At this point most people would just continue walking, but I was young, I hadn’t been in the city very long, I was still a small town kid at heart, so I stepped back over to him and politely told him I wasn’t going to show him my pockets and he needed to believe me when I say the only thing I have in my pocket was my watch… … … “Can I have that?” he asked.  All I could do was laugh and say, “No, I’m not giving you my watch” and I finally left him behind on the steps awaiting another person he could tell his story to.  I saw that fellow many times on my way to work after that, and when I did… I would go around to the side entrance instead of walking up the steps to the front. 

Being asked for money while I lived in New York was an almost daily occurrence. On the subway ride to work barely a day went by that someone wouldn’t step onto the train and, just after the doors closed, loudly ask everyone if they could spare some change for whatever reason they had that day.  Some folks even worked the entire train moving from car to car as it sped on its way. Sometimes there were teams of people and sometimes it would be one person who would play the guitar for a minute or so and then hold out their hat while they walked up and down the car.  This was just a part of living in the big city I guess, and it didn’t take too long to get used to it, and in some way at some point, it just became background noise. You learned to tune it out and carry on, not out of malice but out of the realization that if you tried to give something to everyone who asked for spare change you would need to take out a second mortgage or get a second or third job to make ends meet. 

It’s always better with freshly grated cheese

 It was almost impossible to walk anywhere without being asked for money and in the busiest places of the city, like along 42nd street (especially in Times Square), Grand Central Station, or Columbus Circle, you would get asked multiple times.  When you walked through those places people were always standing on the corners repeating, “spare change… spare change… spare change…” except for the one guy who stood by himself on the corner of 42nd and Broadway, screaming at the top of his lungs into a megaphone… “Jeeeeessuuuuuuus Chriiiiiiiisssst…” over and over and over again. To each his own, right? 

So today, I thought I would share one of those recipes that won’t break the bank and send you into the streets asking your friends and neighbors for spare change. It is also one of those Italian “peasant food” dishes that I like so much.  This is one of those Roman dishes that were traditionally served for Sunday lunch year round, but you might find is especially comforting on a cool summer night when you just want to relax and watch that DVD box set of “The Soprano’s” you have stashed away. Pasta al Forno, an Italian phrase that translates to “baked pasta”, is really any kind of pasta and sauce that are baked together, like lasagna, or manicotti, or a host of other baked pasta dishes. But this dish is less fussy; It comes together faster, doesn’t need a long bake time and like I said won’t break the bank.  Here we are going to be mixing pasta with sautéed mushrooms, peas, and some prosciutto, then cover it in a béchamel sauce before baking and that’s about as complicated as it gets. You don’t even need anything special to make this, just a sauté pan, a saucepan, and a baking dish with a 2-quart capacity. You can serve this on it’s own or add a salad, maybe some roasted vegetables and some crusty bread, and you’ve got what we Italians call… cibo di comodità (comfort food).

Here is how I made this batch:

Ingredients

  • 1 pound fresh cremini mushrooms

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced

  • ¼ pound prosciutto (or cooked ham) very thinly sliced and then coarsely chopped

  • 1⅔cups (8 ounces) frozen petit peas

  • ¾ pound farfalle pasta

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour

  • 2 cups whole milk

  • 1 cup (4 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

  • Salt and pepper 

  • Oil or butter for greasing the baking dish

Directions

Set the oven to 350°F with the rack in the center position. 

Take a baking dish which has a 2-quart capacity and oil or butter the dish (I use butter myself, because it sticks to the sides of the dish a bit better).

Clean the mushrooms well and separate the stems from the caps. Chop the stems and use a small knife to remove the gills from the caps unless they are small and tight, then cut each cap into 6 to 8 wedges, depending on their size. Set the cap wedges and the stem pieces aside for now. Honestly, I never remove the mushroom gills, but I always make sure I get fresh, moderately sized, mushrooms from the market so I don’t have to worry about that. 

Place a large sauté pan (or a large skillet) over medium-low heat (I use a 12–inch, non-stick sauté pan) and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Allow the oil to heat and when it’s hot add the shallots and sauté until they soften and begin to color, which takes about 4 minutes.

Toss in the prosciutto and cook for 1 minute more, then use a slotted spoon to remove the shallots and the prosciutto from the pan into a small bowl and set that aside.

To the now empty pan add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and place over medium heat. Again let the oil get hot, then add the mushroom caps and stems allowing them to sauté until any liquid they release is gone and they start to brown, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle the mushrooms with a little salt to season and when the mushrooms are golden, about 2 minutes more, return the shallots and prosciutto to the pan.

Add the peas to the pan, and stir to combine everything well. Cook just a few minutes to blend the flavors then remove the pan from the heat. At this point leave everything in the pan, just take it off the burner. 

The next two steps you’ll do at the same time. Basically you’re going to heat the water and cook the pasta and while that’s happening you are going to be making the béchamel sauce.  So… 

Bring a large pot of water (about 4 quarts) to a boil and then add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta, stirring for the first minute and occasionally thereafter. Check your package directions for cooking times and note that we will want to pull the pasta about 1 minute or so before it is al dente.

While the water heats and the pasta cooks make the béchamel.

Melt the 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over a low heat and then add the flour and whisk it constantly until it starts to brown, about 2 minutes.

Still whisking constantly very gradually add the milk.

Increase the heat to medium and cook, still whisking, until the sauce thickens and is just about to boil, about 10 minutes. 

Remove the béchamel from the heat and add ¾ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon pepper, stirring to distribute evenly, then stir the béchamel into the mushroom and pea mixture.

When the pasta is about a minute or so from being al dente, drain the pasta, but not to dry. NOTE: If your pasta is done well before the béchamel is ready, drain the pasta but reserve about ½ cup of the water, which you can use to remoisten the pasta as needed (you’ll only need to do that if it’s very dry or has stuck together).

Add the pasta into the sauced, pea and mushroom mixture.

Add in ¾ (3 ounces) of the Parmesan cheese and mix until everything is well combined then spoon the pasta mixture into the prepared baking dish. 

Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan cheese over the top of the pasta and dot with the butter pieces.

Place the baking dish on a sheet pan, (just in case anything drips over the sides) and bake just until the cheese melts, about 15 minutes, then serve hot, right from the dish.

Riley kept checking in on us to see when dinner would be ready.