Another Use For Caramelized Onions: Heather’s Pasta With Mushrooms and Peas

Deeply caramelized onions are not just good for Indian food: in my opinion, they improve nearly any recipe from any cuisine. I used to use browned onions as the basis for a sauce/gravy for meatloaf with Jamaican jerk spices that I made for my Pakistani personal chef clients, and they loed the sweetness and savor they brought to the meal. In fact, I tend to use them whenever I make any kind of gravy, or as the basis of braising liquid or a pan sauce.

They are particularly good with any sort of cream-based pasta sauce as they bring depth and color to the finished dish, and they keep the dreaded “blands” away, especially when used in a vegetarian sauce.

Last weekend, Morganna wanted me to make Pasta with Prosciutto and Peas for Tom, who hadn’t had it yet. There was only one problem with that idea–Heather was coming to eat with us, too, and she is Muslim. And while the rest of the family may be of the opinion that prosciutto is of divine origin, the Koran disagrees on that point. Morganna shrugged her shoulders and said, “Make a vegetarian version of the sauce for Heather.”

That was easy enough. I had fresh shiitake and baby portabellas in the fridge, and it wasn’t really that much more trouble to make two pans of sauce, one large and one small.

So, I was lucky enough to get off work and go home early–about forty-five minutes before the restaurant closed. I ran home and started prepping for two pasta sauces, one with peas and mushrooms and one with peas and prosciutto. (When Morganna told Galen, one of the other cooks, that I had gone home to make dinner for seven people after working a busy Friday night in the kitchen, he said, “That’s crazy. That’s the kind of crazy I like, but that’s still crazy.”)

For the record, two pasta sauces are not much harder to make than one. It just requires a bit of timing and the ability to multi-task.

For the mushroom version of the dish, I browned the onions even more than I did for the prosciutto version, until they were lightly crispy on the edges. This added more flavor and a nice, deep color to the dish. The mushrooms took on the flavors of the onions and were sauteed until they were lightly crisped on the edges as well, adding another layer of flavor to the dish. I used one dried shiitake in the dish, and used a mixture of the soaking water and sherry to deglaze the pan, scraping like mad to get every crisped, browned bit of onion and mushroom into the sauce.

Then, in went the cream to reduce, and it was a matter of stirring now and again and waiting. Once the sauce was nearly the thickness I wanted it to be–enough to coat the back of the spoon, in went the thawed frozen peas for a few minutes of simmering, and a bit of freshly shredded Parmesan cheese. Then the pasta was tossed in and a bit more salt and freshly ground black pepper was added.

The result?

Fantastic flavor from a vegetarian pasta sauce.

Flavor that was just as good as the original, sacrilegious, pork-infested sauce. In fact, on certain days, I think I would like the mushroom version even better, because the darker onions mixed with the richness of the mushrooms really made the sauce special.

It was well worth what little trouble it was to make it. Heather was happy, the rest of the family was happy, everyone had something great to eat and I was happy to have a new pasta sauce option for the coming summer months when about all I want to eat is pasta and vegetables. (Unless it is rice and vegetables–I like that, too.)

Heather’s Pasta With Mushrooms and Peas

3 tablespoons butter or olive oil (I used olive oil)
2 1/2 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (optional–or use any red pepper flakes to taste)
3 baby portabella mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 fresh shiitakes, thinly sliced
1 dried shiitake mushroom, rehydrated in boiling water, squeezed out, stem removed and cap thinly sliced (keep the soaking water)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups frozen peas, thawed (I just take the bag out of the freezer while I do prep and let it sit on the counter and they thaw right out)
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
al dente pasta (I like the campanelle shape for this sauce–it grabs the peas and mushrooms and holds the sauce)
1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leafed parsley (optional)


Heat the butter or olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet or pan. Add the onions, sprinkle them with salt and cook, stirring, until they turn a deep golden color. Add the Aleppo pepper or other chili pepper flakes, and the mushrooms, and cook, stirring. When the onions are half-cooked and are nearly finished letting off their liquid, add the garlic and cook stirring, until they onions are a deep mahogany brown and lightly crisp and the mushrooms are cooked and slightly crisped on the edges. The garlic should be golden and fragrant.

Deglaze the pan with the sherry and the mushroom soaking water–leave the last bit of the water in the soaking bowl, as there is always grit and dirt that sank to the bottom of the bowl and you don’t want that in your sauce. Scrape up all the browned bits, and allow the alcohol to cook off, then add the cream, and cook, stirring, until the cream will coat the back of a spoon.

Add the peas and Parmesan, and cook until the peas are hot and brilliant green, and the cheese has melted and incorporated into the sauce. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, add the al dente pasta to the pan, remove from the heat, and stir and toss to coat the pasta thoroughly. Stir in parsley if you are using it and serve immediately in warmed bowls.


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  1. I’m going to try this with both pork and mushrooms.

    Comment by Sherri — March 28, 2008 #

  2. Found your blog a couple weeks ago. Love it! Am making this recipe tonight. I had all the ingredients and it sounded wonderful!
    Passed your blog address on to my son and daughter, both foodies who love to cook. My son made his wife a wonderful homemade meal yesterday for her birthday. 🙂

    Comment by Kim — March 28, 2008 #

  3. I also use browned onions for a vegan gravy I make during the Holidays.

    Comment by vegoftheweek — March 28, 2008 #

  4. Thanks for showing us how to veggie this one up. I’ve used your original recipe with soy ham, tofu/soymilk cream, and almond parmesian (and it is awesome!) but I like that your new way eliminates the processed ingrdients. I’m gonna try it.

    Comment by sgt pepper — March 29, 2008 #

  5. Caramelized onions do make almost everything better…If only I could figure out how to make them faster and still be as good.
    Must ponder that…maybe big batches then the fridge…

    Comment by katie — April 4, 2008 #

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