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Some folks see marriage and relationships as some sort of magical game of acceptance of differences; loving the other person for exactly who they are, no changes required. I see it as a gradual wearing-down process. A long, determined badgering that slowly breaks down your mate and rebuilds them into something you love even more. (I love you honey, but don't you want me to love you even more?).
The biggest surprise my wife had for me after we got married was a doozy. "You know how you like to cook pasta? Well, I don't really like pasta," she said to me. I'm glad she waited until after we'd been joined under the eyes of the law or we might never been able to work past this statement. I mean, who doesn't like pasta?
Excellent, I thought to myself, a new project to work on, my fingers slowly tapping together as I did my best Mr. Burns impression while hatching my plan to win her back from the dark side.
We've made progress since then. These days it's only long, skinny, noodle-shaped pasta that she takes real issue with. She still doesn't make special requests for pasta, but when I made this particular dish of mushrooms, brussels sprouts, and orecchiette, she not only finished her plate, but actually ate the leftovers for the next two meals in a row. (This, of course, had nothing to do with the fact that they were the only leftovers in the fridge).
There are two requirements for sauces that work well with orecchiette, those thick little ear-shaped nubs:
A) The sauce must be relatively rich and emulsified with fat and liquid in order to coat the ridges that have been painstakingly imparted onto each piece of pasta.
B) The sauce must have little bits and pieces of powerfully flavorful stuff that gets caught in those little cups.
Normally, this is accomplished with crumbled sausage and broccoli rabe. In this case, though, thinly sliced mushrooms cooked down in olive oil until well-browned take on the role of flavor-provider for the sauce. As they brown, a gorgeous fond builds up in the bottom of the pan, which forms the base for a pan sauce made with a little butter, lemon juice, and vegetable or chicken stock. Plenty of minced shallots, garlic, and picked fresh thyme leaves pack the aromatic punch that gets scooped into the little ears, while some grated Parmesan and a splash of pasta cooking water helps everything stay thick, saucy, and emulsified.
Brussels sprouts are a natural pair for orecchiette—when separated into individual leaves, they have the exact same shallow cup shape and ridged exterior that the pasta does, making them perfect vehicles for the mushroom sauce. I sear mine in a bit of olive oil to enhance their nutty sweetness, set them aside, then toss them into the pasta and mushrooms at the last moment to retain their bright green color and crunch.
The real key to this dish is in the final moments, and here's the trick. It's not a new trick, but I can't stress its importance enough: undercook your pasta slightly and finish it in your sauce, along with a good amount of its cooking water. The pasta will absorb a bit of the sauce as it finishes cooking, but more importantly, that pasta cooking water will help to emulsify the butter and chicken stock together, transforming something that was watery and greasy into something that evenly coats your pasta and vegetables in a thin layer of flavor.
Want to know how to improve the sauce-enhancing effects of pasta water even more? Use less of it. Forget the old advice to boil your pasta in a giant pot of boiling water—the need to do that is a myth that has been debunked many times now. Use just enough salted water to cover it. By doing this, not only do you save energy (no need to heat up a giant pot), but you also end up with water that is more highly concentrated in starch—just like the water in a pasta machine at a big restaurant.
Eat up, dear! And, by the way, if anyone needs relationship advice, I offer free consultations.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.