How to Make Earthy, Smoky Penne Boscaiola (Pasta With Mushrooms and Bacon)

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Recipe names don't always make much sense. Take cacciatore, for instance, which is named for a hunter, yet, in all its many forms, it almost never includes ingredients you'd expect someone to bring home from the hunt. The pasta sauce known as boscaiola, however, has the perfect epithet.

"Boscaiola" comes from the word for a woodsman. Taste the sauce and you immediately get the earthy flavor of mushrooms, which a woodsman would have collected in a small satchel while walking through the forest. Underneath it, a wood-fire smoke from bacon, evoking the embers of the wood cut by his own hand, smoldering in the hearth. The sauce is rounded out by onions, a bit of white wine, maybe some garlic, a touch of tomato, and a rich splash of cream.

Of course, as with all things Italian, there are countless variations. Some skip the cream, or the tomato, or both. Some add peas. You get the idea. For my version, I kept the cream and tomato, a combination that's welcome in comforting cold-weather pasta dishes. I also skipped the peas, which are such a strong symbol of spring that they've always seemed out of place to me in a dish that's obviously meant for autumn and winter. But that's just me. If you want some peas, adding them is as simple as tossing in a handful of frozen ones right at the end, just long enough to heat them through.

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The bedrock of the sauce, though, is inarguably the mushrooms, so let's start there. This pasta is best with a variety of them. For most of us, that will mean a collection of cultivated mushrooms, like creminis, shiitakes, and oysters. If you can get some fresh wild ones in the mix, the sauce will be that much better. At the very least, we can all grab a tiny bag of dried wild porcini mushrooms, which deliver a much more intense mushroom flavor.

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Since they're dried, they need to be rehydrated, which I do using white wine—we're going to add the wine to the sauce anyway, so pre-infusing it with porcini essence is the most efficient way to go about it. As soon as the porcini are fully softened, just squeeze them out, add them to the rest of the mushrooms, and reserve the soaking wine.

Next, I sauté some sliced bacon in a Dutch oven or large sauté pan until it's browned and slightly crisp, then remove it with a slotted spoon and add the mushrooms to the rendered bacon fat in the pan. The key to good flavor in the mushrooms is to cook them long enough to get some good color, which means being patient enough to let them dump their moisture, allow it to evaporate, then continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until they're well browned. Mushrooms are incredible sponges, so it's possible you'll have to hit the pan with some oil if it gets too dry.

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With the mushrooms browned, I add sliced onions, minced garlic, and some minced fresh thyme leaves—keep in mind that any woodsy herb, like rosemary, thyme, or sage, can work here. When the onions have softened and turned lightly golden, I add the bacon back to the pot, along with the reserved porcini-soaking wine. (Just be careful not to let any sediment from the mushrooms into the pot, since it can sometimes be sandy.)

Some crushed canned tomatoes go in next. I prefer to start with peeled whole tomatoes instead of buying pre-crushed ones, as they tend to be better-quality and are less likely to contain firming agents that can prevent the tomatoes from breaking down properly into the sauce. Once you've simmered the sauce for a few minutes (which you can do while the pasta cooks), it's time to hit it with a small amount of cream.

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When the pasta is nearly done, it can be drained and transferred to the pot with the sauce to finish cooking. Cooking the pasta in the sauce for the last few minutes is the best saucing technique—we've done the tests, we can prove it. A splash or two of pasta-cooking water is your best bet for loosening the sauce if it becomes too thick.

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Once the pasta is off the heat, I stir in some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and fresh parsley, then serve. I live in New York City, but one bite of this stuff and I can almost convince myself I'm in a cabin deep in the woods, a glowing fire fighting back the cold air as it seeps through the walls. For a few minutes, I am the woodsman.

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