I'm not one for meat substitutes. Give me steak or don't, but please don't make me pretend that grilled tofu cloaked under some peppercorn sauce is meant to stand in for a juicy, rare side of beef, or that tofu crumble - for Pete's sake - is meant to be eaten by beings, human or otherwise, in an otherwise perfectly acceptable ragù. It's not that I don't like tofu, because I love it, it's just that I prefer it under more honest circumstances (oh, lord, that sounds pretentious). Tofu is gloriously wiggly, perfectly squishy, the curd of beans and nothing else. Steak is juicy and chewy, perhaps tinged with smoke and subtly gamey - nothing else. They each serve their own delicious purpose, and there's no need to confound them. Right?
My point is that I am not one to look for anything other than the real thing. If I'm in the mood for steak, I buy myself a nice one, I sprinkle it with salt, I broil it, and I eat it. If it's steak I'm craving, I'm usually ravenous, trying to fill some deep-seated hunger, some molecular clamoring for iron and protein. So I don't buy a seitan slab, or a portobello mushroom for grilling, because I've learned that if you trick your body like that it ends up resenting you for it. And who wants a resentful body? Not me. Honesty is the best policy.
All of this to say that when I first read Florence Fabricant's recipe for a meatless meaty pasta sauce, I sort of shook my head and moved to turn the page away. But something made me stop, and read again. Minced mushrooms, okay, but then tomato paste and tapenade for ballast and flavor, mmhmm, red wine for depth and body, yes, and fresh pasta to elevate this into something really good, perhaps. Suddenly, I was making a shopping list and planning dinner.
(Alright, I'm easily swayed. I'll give you that.)
And it's not like this holds a candle to a real ragù. No way, no how. But it's not really supposed to. It's its own splendid little sauce, earthy and dark and interesting, one of the fastest meals you'll ever make (now that certainly doesn't compare to a typical Italian meat sauce) and richly satisfying, much to my surprise. You'll finish your plate and find yourself swiping the sides with bread just to pick up all the little extra smears of sauce.
Perhaps you'll even think, who needs meat? I swear I didn't...
Fettuccine with Mushroom Ragù
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, slivered
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 pound cremini mushrooms, very finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon black olive paste (tapenade)
1/3 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano, or 1 teaspoon dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces fresh fettuccine
Grated pecorino, for serving
1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and onion and sauté until soft. Add mushrooms and cook over medium heat until they wilt and give up their juices. Do not let juices evaporate. Stir in tomato paste and tapenade. Add wine, cook briefly, then season with oregano, salt and, generously, with pepper. Remove from heat.
2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add fettuccine, stir to separate strands and cook about 3 minutes. Drain. Transfer fettuccine to skillet. Add remaining oil. Cook, gently folding ingredients together, until mushroom mixture has reheated and is evenly mixed with fettuccine. Add salt and pepper if needed. Serve, with cheese on the side.