I’ve had some version of a mushroom ragu in my repertoire for years now. It’s something that developed during my vegetarian years, and over time it has evolved with my tastes. At it’s most basic, it’s a combination of fresh and reconstituted dried mushrooms, sautéed with onion or shallot in olive oil, with herbs and a little blob of tomato paste added.

A splash of Sherry vinegar goes in for brightness, the strained liquid from soaking the dried mushrooms is added back, and the whole mixture is then cooked down to a saucy consistency – just how much is dependent on how I’m going to use it, because this is one dish that is very versatile.

A soupier version makes a great sauce for pasta, gnocchi or polenta; a slightly drier version is great stuffed into crepes; cook it down even more, so the mushrooms are just coated with a rich glaze, and you can mound it on slices of toasted or grilled bread for a snack or canapé – this is a standard at our parties, and it’s always a crowd pleaser.

It also lends itself well to variation – add a little butter to the olive oil for a richer flavor; swap in leeks, shallots, green garlic or scapes as the onion-y component. Change up the herbs depending on the season and what you have on hand – thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, flat-leaf parsley or summer savory all work well. Cepes or dried shiitake mushrooms are lower-priced alternatives to dried porcini, and they still provide a nice depth of flavor; likewise, plain white button mushrooms will serve just as well as fresh shiitake, oyster or wild mushrooms. Fresh or dried morels send it over the top, as does a judicious amount of cream cooked in at the end.

Last night’s version was largely shaped by things we brought home from the farmers’ market – a base of wild baby leeks, sautéed in olive oil until soft and aromatic, a generous amount of julienned purple sage added to season the mushrooms, and a big handful of chopped dulse stirred in and lightly toasted before the liquid was added. The dulse eventually melted into the sauce, imparting a lovely savoriness and velvety texture.

Dinner:  March 24, 2009

I used the sauce to dress farro spaghetti, which made for a dish that was very brown, but was earthy, hearty and delicious. Mike has tried many versions of this ragu over the years, and he said this was my best yet.

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