Sometimes I forget what I have home. I go to the store and buy all sorts of fruits and vegetables, only to open my refrigerator and see that I had some of it already. After finding space to unload everything, I wonder what state of daydream I'd been in when I'd purchased the extras. This week I bought mushrooms, forgetting the existing pound that languished in the vegetable drawer. I scrutinized the two packages and the enormous bin of spinach taking up valuable real estate in my fridge, and considered my options. Spinach and mushrooms are regulars in our house. They work well together in omelets, salads, pizzas—even on their own. But they sing in pasta. I knew what I had to do.
Several years ago we were traveling on the east coast, and we stopped to give ourselves a tour of the Princeton University campus. It’s gorgeous, by the way, if you’re ever in the area and want to walk around. Like out of a fairy tale, the stuff dreams are made of, gorgeous.
We needed to eat dinner, so my daughter texted a friend whose brother was a student there. He recommended a casual Italian place, and we each ordered a pasta dish. Mine had mushrooms, spinach, garlic and fresh mozzarella—can’t go wrong with those ingredients, in my opinion. I was cautiously optimistic about my meal—on some college campuses the only food options are either national chain or local scary.
The food came, and the rest is history. It was amazing. The fresh mozzarella was just a little bit melty, the mushrooms and spinach were flavorful, and the pasta was great. There was a boatload of garlic. In fact, there were over a dozen whole cloves, but they were soft and quite mellow. It was brothy, too (I walked around the rest of that day hiding my splattered shirt—it’s difficult to eat a long pasta with a splashy sauce).
Once home, I wasted little time trying to create my own version of “Princeton Pasta.” In the early iterations I added lots of whole garlic cloves to two cups of chicken broth, cooked separately from the other ingredients, and tossed together before serving. That works, but it also makes another dirty pot, and my family doesn’t like their pasta soupy. So I scaled back on the broth, eventually eliminating it entirely. As far as level of mushrooms and spinach, that really depends on what I have home. I’ve found that you can’t have too many—both of those vegetables vanish as you cook them, so if you want pasta with any veggies, you need to amp up the amount you put in. This night I happened to have two packages of different kinds of mushrooms, portobello and button, so I put both in, and a pound of spinach. As you can see from the pictures, it wasn’t too much.
I added fresh and dried basil. This is mostly because I didn’t have much fresh basil. I planned to use up what I had, but I knew the dried would add flavor, and not be over the top. You could go with one or the other, depending on what you have. I’d say about one teaspoon of dried basil is good—you can use more if you love that flavor. As far as garlic goes, that's up to your tastebuds. I know some people who are averse to garlic in almost anything, and others who must think they're being stalked by vampires. I used three large cloves--I'd say it was the upper limit of garlic for me in this dish. If you have a lot of fresh basil, you could put in ¼ cup or more. Add the dried basil to the mushrooms during cooking, but the fresh basil right before serving, along with the fresh mozzarella. When you put the water up for the pasta, start preparing the vegetables, and by the time the pasta's cooked the whole meal is ready.
My family loves Princeton Pasta. In fact, after I called everyone to dinner tonight, my 13-year-old came in the kitchen and asked, hopefully, “Princeton pasta? I can tell.” By the way, I looked up the restaurant online, to see if I could remember the name of the place—I knew I'd forgotten what they called the dish. According to their menu, my pasta dish doesn’t exist. So either they changed it or I dreamed the whole thing up. Kind of like the Wizard of Oz, but with food. Was it all a dream? A delicious pasta dream? Could the whole thing have been some fantastic culinary tangent my brain went on while I was distracted with something else? It's a bit disturbing, but I did get an amazing dinner out of it. I’m okay with that.
1 lb. pasta
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 ½ lb. mushrooms (or so)
3 Cloves garlic (or so)
1 lb. spinach (or so)
1 tsp. dried basil (or so)
1 lb. fresh mozzarella (sliced into bite size pieces, if necessary)
few leaves fresh basil (or so)
fresh Romano cheese
Set large pot of water to boil for pasta.
Heat olive oil in large sauce pot. Add mushrooms, garlic, dried basil and salt. Cook until tender. Add spinach, stirring, until wilted. Turn off heat.
Meanwhile, cook pasta al dente. Toss pasta with vegetables. Serve pasta topped with fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, Romano cheese and pepper.
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