Ingredients

1 pound orecchiette pasta
1 pound maitake (hen of the woods) mushrooms, stems trimmed off
1 sweet onion, peeled and sliced thin
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 bunches black Tuscan kale, stems removed, and leaves rinsed, drained and roughly chopped
4 cups strong chicken broth or stock
2 cups freshly grated cheese (Parmesan, Romano, piave, etc.)
olive oil for sautéing
Kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large pot, cook the pasta in salted water until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain the pasta, drizzle lightly with olive oil and toss it. Set the pasta aside until ready to use.
2. In a large sauté pan, using some olive oil, cook the mushrooms with half of the onion and garlic until they are golden and tender, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper as you go. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and allow them to cool down to room temperature.
3. Using the same sauté pan and 2 tablespoons olive oil, cook the kale with the rest of the onion and garlic, stirring occasionally, again seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. This should take about 4 to 5 minutes. Set the kale aside on a plate to cool down to room temperature as well.
4. With 5 minutes to go to finish the meatballs, heat a large cast-iron skillet and add 4 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the pasta and don't stir for 60 seconds; this will allow the pasta to fry in the oil and will result in the crispy golden edges that contribute to the contrast in textures. Then add a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, a pinch of ground black pepper, and stir. Immediately stir in the mushrooms and the kale. When this mixture is hot, transfer it to a large, deep serving platter.

To serve: (If using Steve Johnson's Perfect Meatballs) Using tongs, place the meatballs on top of the pasta mixture and then drizzle the hot chicken broth over the top. Shower the meatballs with the grated cheese and serve immediately.

Recipe courtesy of Chef and Owner Steve Johnson, Rendezvous, 2011.
Most pasta recipes of course boil the pasta and serve it with a sauce. This recipe from Steve Johnson of Rendezvous Restaurant is very different and creates some outstanding results. When Steve visited with Food Columnist Heather Atwood to show her how to make his veal and pork meatballs, he served it with this special pasta made with maitake (Hen of the Woods) mushrooms and black Tuscan kale. Here is how he did it.

First, he put on the orecchiette pasta to boil and sautéed the mushrooms and kale in a large iron skillet. After the pasta finished boiling, he set it aside and heated a large cast-iron skillet with 4 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil got hot, he added the pasta and did not stir for 60 seconds, allowing the pasta to fry in the oil. Then he added a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, stirred, and immediately stirred in the mushrooms and the kale. The result was a pasta dish with crispy golden edges that contributed to a contrast in textures.

The mushrooms in this recipe are a favorite of mushroom foragers this time of year. They have fabulous flavor, a firm texture that lends itself to almost any culinary application, they are usually bug free - at least inside the flesh and are easy to store (just cut up and freeze). They are available to pick anytime from early September to late October and seem to be triggered by the first cold nights of the end of Summer. It is found mostly with dead or dying Oak tree. Once you find one, you can go back the next year and might find it again.

Before even thinking about becoming a Chef, Steve Johnson of lived and studied in France for three years where he found himself as interested in the food as the literature he went to study. From this experience his culinary foundation was created. In this dish, toasted orecchiette, an Italian name derived from the shape of the pasta (small ears), some of Steve’s culinary roots are plainly visible.

Orecchiette probably come from the Provence region in France where a similar type of pasta has been made since medieval times. The pasta is disc-shaped with a hollowed center, usually obtained by pressing the thumb on the disc of dough. The ships leaving for long trips would carry large amounts of this pasta. Some people claim that the French dynasty that dominated Apulia in 1200 (the Anjous) brought orecchiette to Italy where it received its’ current name.

Today orechette is known as a home-made pasta typical of Puglia or Apulia in Southern Italy and are made with durum wheat, water and salt.

First, we're going to do the hint of the of the woods mushrooms.

OK.

I'm just going to give a little bit of olive oil to this pan. And then I'm going to ask you to hand me the mushrooms, please.

Yep.

There we go.

Do this.

Yep.

Are you good?

Yeah.

Do you need salt?

Well, let's see. How about a little bit of salt and pepper?

Now, any mushroom cooking tips?

Well, they tend to soak up the oil quite a bit. So, after I season them with a little bit of salt and pepper, I'm going to give them a stir to make sure that-- I'm going to hand you that.

Yep.

Maybe give them a stir to make sure that they're not too dry. And I think they might be, so I'm going to give them just a little bit more olive oil. And now we're sizzling nicely. And I've got the right amount of oil in there. They already smell really good. Could you hand me some sliced onion, please?

Sure.

How about a little sliced garlic?

Garlic? Yeah.

I'm just feelings like I want to give it a little pinch of salt, there.

OK. It's got that nice, toasty brown thing happening. A little crusty.

Yep. I'm just about done here, I think, with these mushrooms.

It looks so beautiful.

If you wouldn't mind holding a plate over here, I can get rid of these. Put them right back on that plate to cool down.

I'm going to do the kale now, OK?

OK.

Give it a little salt and pepper now. Give me a little bit of that onion and garlic again, please.

Smells really good, too.

I do--

I'm sorry, the onion and garlic I'm smelling. Yum.

Yep. The pan was kind of pre-seasoned, you know, with the onion and garlic from the mushrooms.

Right. Now, I have a cooking question.

Yeah?

The garlic and the onion are sliced in a certain way?

Yeah.

Garlic is not minced, it's sliced thinly.

Yeah. I like to use it this way because it's thinly sliced and it starts to melt into the saute with the kale. But it retains its own kind of presence in the dish.

Uh-huh.

So I think I'm just about done with this kale now. I did give it just a little splash of water to help finish the cooking.

Mm-hmm.

Because the skillet was really hot. And there we go.

So, Steve, this is the really interesting part for me.

Well, this is the trick with the orecchiette in that it's one of my favorite cuts. It's a nice, chewy pasta, naturally, when you cook--

Hot olive oil.

Yep. When you cook it in salt and water. And the trick on this is to take that cooked pasta and fry it in a little olive oil in a cast iron skillet so that some of the pasta gets these golden highlights around the edge. And the shape of the orecchiette is perfect for this use because you can see these little ears here.

Oh, yeah.

They are going to get a little-- the ones that are on the bottom in contact with the hot olive oil are going to fry and get golden highlights. So what you end up with is a chewy pasta that's got this crispy texture to it, as well. And it makes for an additional texture contrast that really works well in pasta dishes.

Now doesn't orecchiette mean "little ear"?

That's right.

Yeah, right.

There you go.

The purpose is not to get all of this toasted.

Right.

It's just the ones on the bottom.

We're looking for textured contrast. Most of them are really a golden.

They look beautiful.

You see, like that.

I'm going to add the cooked mushrooms and the kale. And so what's really fun about this is that there's one little trick. You've got an added flavor, which is the fried garlicky pasta.

Mm-hmm

The addition of the texture, which is the crispy chewy texture on the orecchiette. And it just changes things up from regular old boiled spaghetti or linguine

Oh, yeah.

Here we're going to try this pasta dish. I thought I'd put it out on a nice platter.

That is beautiful, Steve.

I'm going to spread it. It smells great with all the mushrooms and garlic.

Yeah, I really smell the mushrooms.

And I'll get those crispy, toasted bits in there.

Talk about textures. Wow. That is gorgeous.

And I'll just give it a little bit of an olive oil dressing here before we dig in.

Oh, that is so beautiful. And it smells so amazing.

And I'll sprinkle it with some grated piave cheese.

Wow.

And there you've got a real nice, satisfying pasta dish. It smells almost like meet, doesn't it?

It does. That's the mushrooms, right?

Yeah. They've got that meaty texture. So this is kind of a vegetarian pasta that even meat-eaters would love.

So can I taste this?

Why don't you dig in?

I would love to. I'm going to make sure I get a little bit of kale, and pasta. Wow. That is so unusual. The texture thing is incredible.

That's what I was looking for was a "wow".

That is a "wow".

Terrific. It's really satisfying. And I love mushrooms. In addition to this pasta trick, I love mushrooms. But I also like eating a lot of healthy, sauteed greens.

Well, the mushrooms with that toasted orecchiette-- that is really divine.

Pretty tasty.

Yeah.

That's great.

Thank you very much.

I'm glad you like it.

Hope you come back. Or I'll go to your place.

[LAUGHTER]

[CHIMES]

Toasted Orecchiette
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