Home with the Lost Italian: Embrace spring with this Lemony Pasta with Mushrooms and Spinach

Pasta is a staple in our Italian home, and how we prepare it varies by the season. As we transition from winter to spring, rich and hearty pastas like lasagna and baked ziti give way to lighter dishes, like this Lemony Pasta with Mushrooms and Spinach.

A medium-sized noodle that roughly matches the size of the mushrooms and spinach works best for this dish. In our local grocery stores, where I do most of our shopping, the variety of available pasta noodles is woefully lacking, offering only a basic selection of medium noodles like penne, rigatoni and, on occasion, medium shells.

However, a recent visit to the Fargo Costco store yielded a happy discovery: a variety six-pack of Italian pasta, featuring three different medium-sized noodles, including cassarecce (featured today), gemelli (a spiral noodle) and, of course, the ubiquitous penne. All three will work with this recipe.

The pasta is boiled until almost al dente, drained and set aside to be sauteed with the mushrooms and spinach.

There are several ingredients that are used twice in this recipe, which is indicated by the word “divided” next to the ingredient. For example, this dish gets a burst of lemony goodness from the use of both lemon juice and zest, which are added in separate installments to enrich the depth of flavor.

Seasonings like salt and pepper are added at various stages throughout the recipe, and a half-cup of olive oil is divided into quarter-cups to toast the panko breadcrumbs and to saute the garlic.

A little advance preparation goes a long way to ensuring success with this dish and prevent any missteps with the divided ingredients. Take time to thoroughly read the recipe, prepare and measure all the ingredients and lay out your equipment (like measuring cups and spoons) before you begin. This is a technique the French call “mise en place,” which means putting everything in its place, and it is especially useful for quick-cook dishes like this one.

The flavor in this dish is built in layers, starting with six cloves of thinly sliced garlic which are sauteed over low heat in olive oil for eight or nine minutes, just until the edges start to brown. While this may seem like a lot of garlic, slicing it paper-thin and slowly cooking it over a low temperature will mellow its bite while gently infusing the oil with flavor.

Thickly sliced baby bella mushrooms are added next, along with half of the lemon juice, followed by a hefty dose of fresh spinach, which is cooked just until wilting. Then, the cooked pasta is added along with the remaining lemon juice and zest, sauteed until heated through and tossed with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

For added texture and color, a generous dusting of toasted panko breadcrumbs tossed with lemon zest and fresh basil is sprinkled atop the pasta just before serving.

This vegetarian alternative is the perfect main course for a meatless Monday or Lenten Friday and will also work well as a side dish for fish, pork and chicken. Light, savory and delicious, Lemony Pasta with Mushrooms and Spinach is a springtime staple in our home.

“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.

Lemony Pasta with Mushrooms and Spinach

Serves: 4

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1 pound pasta, medium-size noodles best (like cassarecce, penne, rigatoni or medium shells)

2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, divided

6 garlic cloves, sliced paper-thin (a food mandolin is ideal, if available)

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

6 ounces baby bella mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, divided

2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped

2 tablespoons lemon zest, divided

8 ounces fresh baby spinach

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish

Line a large plate with paper towel and set aside.

In a medium pan, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the breadcrumbs and toast over medium-low heat, stirring often, until evenly golden, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer breadcrumbs to the paper-towel-lined plate to drain; set aside to cool.

Fill a large stockpot with water, add 2 tablespoons of kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until just al dente, about 2 minutes less than amount recommended on package. Before draining the pasta, reserve and set aside 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain remaining water and rinse pasta with cool water to stop the cooking process; set aside.

As the pasta is cooking:

In a large pan, add the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil, the sliced garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic becomes fragrant and lightly golden around the edges, about 7 to 9 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and cook over medium-low, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to soften, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, once the breadcrumbs have cooled, transfer to a medium bowl. Add the chopped basil, 1 tablespoon of lemon zest, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper; gently toss until combined and set aside to use as a garnish when the pasta is ready to serve.

Add the fresh spinach leaves, in batches if necessary, and continue cooking over medium-low heat, tossing often, until the leaves begin to wilt. Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Add the cooked pasta, 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water (add more as needed), the remaining 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of lemon zest. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the pasta is hot and heated through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the Parmesan cheese and toss to ensure even distribution.

Transfer pasta to serving bowl(s) and top with half of the toasted breadcrumbs. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and remaining breadcrumbs, on the side.

Sarah’s Tips:

— The breadcrumbs may be prepared a day in advance and stored in an airtight container at room temperature until ready to use. Add the lemon zest and fresh basil just before serving.

— The pasta may also be prepared in advance and kept at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours before being added to the mushrooms and spinach.

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