What To Cook In Cold Weather


Photo by Maria Robledo

To try wild mushroom ragù macaroni, click here for the recipe.

One of my favorite cooking strategies is to a make a big batch of something that I can use as a mutable base to improvise appealing dishes with whatever I have on hand. In cooler months, that something often is a wild mushroom ragù, a rich, hearty, meaty, stew-like sauce made from an abundance of mushrooms cooked with plum tomatoes, onions, and red wine--no meat. It's an ideal sauce for when you need to serve both meat-eaters and vegetarians. Freezable, it allows you to forge wonderful dishes, even when your life gets wild and you don't have a moment to spare.

The ragù is easy to make. Use any of the cultivated "wild" mushrooms available--shiitake, cremini, oyster, portobello--along with a few dried porcini mushrooms to beef up the flavor. Saute some chopped onion and garlic, add the mushrooms, tomatoes, and wine, and cook them all together until you have a very thick sauce. Freeze it in 1- or 2-cup containers, to draw upon at a moment's notice.

The possibilities are endless; here are a few.

For dinner parties, I often use the ragù to make a big baked, pasta casserole layered with ricotta salata or fresh mozzarella cheese and gratineed on top. My friend's ancient Italian grandmother called it "the Big Macaroni". I can assemble it ahead and bake it at the last minute. For a fine home-alone supper, scoop up the warm ragù with thick store-bought rosemary potato chips.

The possibilities are endless; here are a few:

• Wild mushroom ragù makes a fine stew unto itself, with a sprinkling of Parmigiano. To up the protein, stir in shredded rotisserie or roasted chicken or leftover roast meats once the stew is hot.

• The ragù is delicious on pasta such as pappardelle, ravioli and orecchiette. Rather than mixing the ragù right into pasta, I like to toss the cooked pasta with grated aged sheep's milk cheese or Parmigiano Reggiano and a little pasta cooking water to form a creamy coating; then I spoon the ragù on top. The pungent cheese acts as a catalyst between the rich sauce and the pasta, heightening and balancing all the flavors.

• Spoon some ragù into the center of a simple risotto or polenta.

• The ragù is a great sauce to use in lasagna, as well as in gutsy innovations on traditional eggplant parmigiana.

• To make quick pizzas, spread the ragù on rounds of frozen pizza dough and top with shredded fresh or smoked mozzarella, then bake in a hot oven.

• Use the ragù instead of meatballs in warm hero sandwiches.

• Top the warmed ragù with a poached or fried egg for a fine breakfast.

Wild Mushroom Ragù

You may prepare the wild mushroom ragù up to three days ahead and refrigerate, covered, until ready to use. Or freeze it up to 2 months.

Makes about 4 cups

• 1 cup boiling water
    • 1/2 cup (1/2 ounce) dried wild mushrooms, preferably porcini or morels
    • 1 pound fresh wild mushrooms such as shiitake, cremini, oyster, porcini, morels, or Portobello's, in any combination
    • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
    • 2 medium onions, chopped
    • 3 garlic cloves, minced
    • 1/2 cup dry red wine
    • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
    • One 28-ounce can Italian peeled tomatoes, chopped, with their juices
    • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)
    • About 1/2 teaspoon sugar, to taste
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • Freshly ground pepper

Pour the boiling water over the dried mushrooms in a small bowl, cover and set aside to soak until softened, at least 15 minutes.

Wipe the fresh mushrooms dry a damp paper towel.Trim off the tough ends and discard. If you are using portobellos, cut out the black gills and discard. Cut larger mushrooms into 1/4-inch-thick slices through the stem; leave smaller ones (under 1 inch) whole.

In a medium saucepan, combine the olive oil, onions, and garlic, cover, and cook over moderate heat until the onions begin to wilt, about 5 minutes. Uncover and sauté until they are just beginning to brown, about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, scoop the dried mushrooms into a strainer, reserving the soaking liquid. Rinse them under cool water to remove any grit and press them with the back of the spoon to squeeze out the water. Coarsely chop them and reserve.

Carefully spoon about 3/4 cup of the soaking liquid into the saucepan with the onions, leaving behind any grit. Add the red wine and thyme and boil for 1 minute. Add the fresh mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the canned tomatoes and their juices, the tomato paste if desired, the dried mushroom mixture, the sugar, and the salt. Partially cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender and the ragù is thick, about 15 minutes. Pepper generously.