Some new friends were coming over the other night and I asked them what they ate and they said “we eat meat but mostly vegetables” and that’s when I knew I was going to serve them a pound of cheese. It’s not that I was trying to fatten them up or punish them for being so wholesome, it’s just that I count cheese as a vegetable. But on the off chance they were looking for real vegetables in their dinner, I decided to find a recipe that had cheese AND a vegetable and landed on Melissa Clark’s recipe for baked pasta with ricotta, fontina, and roasted mushrooms.
It’s kind of a genius thing, this recipe? Especially the first step. Are you ready to have your mind blown? You roast the mushrooms in the oven.
Now maybe you knew that you could roast mushrooms in the oven, but I definitely didn’t. Or if I did, I didn’t believe it would accomplish much. After all, my favorite thing to do with mushrooms is to add them to a hot pan with lots of olive oil and butter and to cook all the liquid out of them until they’re deeply bronzed and take in all of the garlic and wine that I add later.
But on a cookie sheet in a 450 oven, you can use way less oil and add some rosemary for a subtle perfume, and they come out just as golden with none of the mess.
These were shiitakes, but Melissa says you can do this with any mushroom and suggests lion’s mane, maitake, or oysters. Shiitakes was as exotic as the mushroom section of Gelson’s gets.
As for the rest of the recipe, you simply boil your pasta in salted water and stir it into a mixture of heavy cream, ricotta, fontina, Parmesan, sage and garlic.
Because I wanted to use the full box of pasta (the recipe only calls for 1/2 a pound), I changed the proportions a bit. So I almost doubled all the cheeses: instead of 5 ounces fontina, I used 8 (because that’s what I had, but 10 would be ideal), instead of 1/2 a cup fresh ricotta (I used Bellwether Farms), I used a whole cup, etc. I also used way more Parmesan cheese than half a cup, because I like to buy it pre-grated at the store (the freshly pre-grated not the canned pre-grated) for recipes liike this so I can add it liberally, especially to the top where it gets all caramelized.
I served this with David Chang’s Brussels sprouts with fish sauce, not an obvious pairing, but Craig requested it and it somehow worked to have another vegetable on the table besides the cheese and mushrooms.
Our guests, Roshan and Karan, were pleased as punch and doubling the recipe had the added advantage of making the casserole look more full and plentiful. To think that their request for vegetables would yield such a hearty vegetable-focused dinner! And we’re not even counting the rosemary leaves, which is a salad unto itself.
Baked Pasta with Fontina and Roasted Mushrooms
- 2 pounds mushrooms (any kind, the more interesting the better)
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 to 3 fresh rosemary branches
- 1 pound Orecchiette
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup fresh ricotta
- 10 ounces freshly grated Fontina
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- 4 – 5 sage leaves finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, grated
Preheat the oven to 450. If you’re using mushrooms that need to be stemmed, stem them! (Shiitakes need to be stemmed and the stems need to be discarded.) Tear the mushrooms into one-inch pieces and toss them with the olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary and place on a cookie sheet. Roast in the oven, tossing every five minutes, until deeply burnished brown on the edges. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season well with salt. Add the pasta and cook a few minutes less than package directions. Drain but don’t rinse! (Rinsing will stop the sauce from sticking to the pasta.)
Now the easiest part: crank the oven to 500 degrees and stir together the cream, ricotta, fontina, Parmesan (leaving some to sprinkle on top), sage and garlic. Taste and adjust for salt; then stir in the mushrooms. Pour into a 9 X 13-inch dish, sprinkle with the extra Parmesan, and bake until it’s bubbling in spots, about 10 to 15 minutes. If you want it extra burnished on top, stick it under the broiler and keep an eye on it. As soon as you get some nice golden brown spots, take it out and serve.