French in a Flash: Pâtes aux Cêpes (Tagliatelle with Porcini Mushrooms and Crème Fraîche)

I first had Pâtes aux Cêpes, or pasta with porcinis, during an enormous fit of order envy. I was having dinner with my stepfather in Nice after I had just arrived. And whenever I'm lucky enough to touch down in Provence, I make a beeline for pistou. In Provence, the French version of pesto is smashed together with sun-ruddy tomatoes, packed with basil and garlic, and slick with olive oil. It's gorgeous—except for this one time, when it was literally jarred green pesto mixed with heavy cream. Such a disappointment.

And then across from me sat my happy stepfather with his usual Cheshire Cat grin, swirling fresh tagliatelle (Provence's favorite pasta—it's everywhere) around a fork studded with fresh porcini mushrooms and his favorite (and hometown) Normandy cream. I asked for a taste and regretted it immediately because once you taste heaven, who wants to come back down to earth?

Since fresh porcinis are no picnic to find, this is my year-round version. I roast regular baby button mushrooms with garlic, thyme, and olive oil in the oven, along with rehydrated dried porcinis, until they are crisp, tender, and caramelized. Then, I create a sauce from just crème fraîche and the hot water I used to reconstitute the porcinis. The sauce is surprisingly light and so full of flavor that it instantaneously stains the fresh tagliatelle ribbons I toss into it. The mushrooms shrink up and drink in that olive oil and garlic flavor, punctuating the whole dish. It's extravagant, sinful, authentic, and perfect for impressing vegetarians. Tonight I'm having leftovers with a drizzle of truffle oil. Not too shabby.

This recipe may seem very Italian, but the cuisine along the French and Italian Mediterranean are one and the same, sharing ingredients—and often terms—for the same local produce and dishes, then influencing and cross-influencing each other over the years. Last summer while staying in Menton in France, I'd drive across the Italian border to go to the local farmers market, then back to cook. These foods only come down to us in Italian because it's through our Italian-American population that we got to know and love the food. With a little French influence, like crème fraîche, the dish is very much French.