Many years ago, my mom and I went to Portland for a weekend. I don’t remember if we were celebrating something in particular or if was just a chance to spend some time together. I do remember that the purpose of the trip was to shop because then, as now, Portland had much better shopping than Seattle. They also have a MUCH better restaurant scene than we do and as the years pass by, this discrepancy becomes larger and larger.
This was at least 10 years ago, and my mom and I ate at Wildwood, a lovely restaurant that was then, and is now, absolutely committed to fresh and local food. Before farm to table were buzz words in cooking all over the country, Wildwood was doing it and doing it deliciously.
When I announced my intentions to go vegetarian at the age of 16, my mom supported me. She had never liked meat herself and over the next few years, stopped eating it as well. She shares my love of eating in restaurants but also shares my grief in never really eating well when eating out. At Wildwood, we had an incredible meal. As a vegetarian, there is nothing like seeing something on the menu and thinking, “Well, clearly they put as much thought in to this dish as the others.” Very satisfying.
We feasted on a dish they called “Mushroom Pearl Pasta with Sweet Peas and Goat Cheese”. The pasta was actually Israeli couscous – something that I had not tried at that point in my life but have learned to love. It was savory, it was herb-y, it was tangy from the goat cheese, it was a delight.
How do I remember this meal from so many years ago? Well, the truth is, I have the recipe. After we got back to Seattle, I wrote a letter to Bon Appetit magazine asking them to get it for me. They have a section in each issue called R.S.V.P. where people like me write in, describe something incredibly delicious, and beg the magazine to get the recipe for them. Since I didn’t forsee another trip to Portland in my immediate future, I had to be able to make this dish for myself.
After I sent off my letter, I tore open each month’s issue to see whether they had printed my little piece of heaven. Month after month I was disappointed. In fact, so many months went by that I pretty much forgot about it. And then, about a year after that amazing meal, I got a letter from Bon Appetit saying that they weren’t going to print the recipe, but they had obtained it and were passing it along to me.
I was, and continue to be, amazed. I’m sure they receive countless letters each month and the fact that they followed through on this one caused me to pledge my undying support (and subscription) to them. More importantly, I have my recipe. I make it every year when English peas come in to the farmer’s markets.
Let’s talk for a moment about peas. If you go to the farmer’s markets in Western Washington right now, you will see an abundance of peas. Most of them are sugar snap peas. These are known as “mange tout” in France (and in England) which means “eat it all” – you eat pod along with the sweet little peas inside. They are incredible in stir fries and, when they are this fresh, incredible in just about anything. However, what you want for this recipe is English peas, also called shelling peas. These are the ones that you have to open the pod, and remove the peas. It’s a little bit of work but oh so worth it.
If it is not pea season, or if you just can’t be bothered to spend 15 minutes shelling peas, frozen are a very acceptable substitute. In fact, if the fresh peas are less than stellar, you are better off using frozen anyway. Frozen peas are zapped at the peak of perfection and so are always sweet and tender. Unless fresh peas are just right, they can be big and starchy. Be sure to taste them before you buy them. Whichever you choose, hup-to and make this recipe. It is a bona-fide winner.
Mushroom Pearl Pasta with Sweet Peas and Goat Cheese
Adapted from Wildwood Restaurant, Portland OR
Serves 4 generously
I use a combination of portabello mushrooms and cremini mushrooms in this dish. Be sure to remove the gills from the portabello, otherwise the finished dish will look muddy. To trim fennel, cut off the top part (where the green fronds are), slice it in half and cut out the core. Then remove the outer layer which tends to be tough and bruised. Save the fronds to use as herbs.
1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
2 tbsp. butter
2 cups diced mushrooms
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
8 oz. Israeli couscous
Approx. 3 cups of vegetable stock
1/4 cup chopped herbs (I use tarragon and the fennel fronds)
1 cup fresh peas, shelled
4 oz. soft goat cheese
Soak the mushrooms in 1/2 cup of hot water, set aside for 15 minutes to allow them to reconstitute. Place the stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.
Melt the 2 tbsp. of butter in a wide saute pan over med-high heat. Add the mushrooms, a pinch of salt, and allow them to cook until they release their water and start to brown. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a large heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel with a pinch of salt and cook until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the couscous and stir to coat it with the vegetables.
Remove the dried mushrooms from the soaking liquid and give them a rough chop. Add their liquid to th
e pot (be careful not to add the grit that collects at the bottom) along with the wine. Stir until the wine is absorbed, then add the mushrooms (the dried and those in the saute pan) and about half of the stock. Stir, as you would risotto, until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the rest of the stock, turn the heat to low, and cover. Stir occasionally.
When the liquid is mostly absorbed, taste and make sure the couscous is done. It should have a nice chewy consistency but not mushy. Add the raw peas, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Crumble in half the goat cheese and give it a good stir. Garnish each serving with a crumble of goat cheese.