Creamy Spinach & Mushroom Tortellini

It seems like a never-ending battle, trying to evict leftovers from our fridge and stay on top of the new groceries coming in. Four months into pandemic lockdown, I still haven’t mastered the challenges of “shopping for the week.” But my culinary muse has been on some kind of caffeine kick lately, and I’m at it again today with a Meatless Monday-worthy pasta dish, made almost entirely with leftovers. Not to worry, though—I’m sure it would be fantastic with fresh-bought ingredients, too.

This one uses up leftover fresh tortellini from a soup recipe last week, and a few fresh produce items starting clamoring when I opened the fridge, so in they went! Cremini mushrooms, with all their warm, earthy flavor, plus baby spinach, sweet onions and fresh garlic. I happened to have a half bag of sweetly sun-kissed dried tomatoes in the pantry cabinet, and we’re off and cooking. I’m gonna get to the bottom of this cluttered fridge yet!

We are empty nesters, and many of my recipes are designed to serve two people. But doubling a recipe such as this one is easy, as long as you’re mindful about the size of your pan.

It’s creamy, rich and packed with earthy flavor!

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium sweet onion (tennis ball size), cut in half and sliced into crescent shapes

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 handfuls fresh baby spinach, rough chopped

1/4 cup soft sun-dried tomatoes*

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup heavy cream* (see notes for a lighter option)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (something like Pinot Grigio is perfect)

2 cups fresh cheese tortellini (this was half a large package)

Trader Joe’s umami seasoning, optional

3 Tbsp. parm-romano blend* (plus extra for serving)


*Notes

My sun-dried tomatoes are the soft variety, packed in a zip-top bag. If yours are dry and hard, it’s probably a good idea to rehydrate them for a few minutes in hot water before proceeding. If they’re packed in olive oil, you’re good to go.

Want to lighten this up? Here’s a trick that works great in recipes where the fat of heavy cream isn’t as important as the texture. Swap it out in favor of canned evaporated milk. It is more concentrated than fresh milk, but with a fraction of the fat. Give it a try!

If you prefer, you could substitute a vegetable broth for the wine, plus a squeeze of lemon juice or splash of red wine vinegar. This will make up for the acidity the wine adds to the dish.

We go through a LOT of parm-romano blend at our house, and I mention this ingredient in many of my recipes. Rather than purchasing the pre-grated stuff at the market, we buy parmesan and romano in blocks and grate it in our food processor. It’s terrific to be able to reach into the fridge and have a container of it ready to go, plus it’s fresher and more flavorful with no added stabilizers or anti-caking agents. Did I mention we save money with this method?


I’m a visual learner, and if you are as well, have a look at the slideshow before you advance to the recipe. Fair warning: it might make you hungry!


Instructions

  1. Place a large pot of water on to boil over medium-high heat, for cooking the tortellini.
  2. Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add onion slices to the skillet and cook, tossing occasionally, until softened and browned on the edges.
  4. Remove onions to a bowl, add another splash of olive oil to the pan and toss in the mushrooms, cooking and tossing until they are soft and moisture has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Move the mushrooms to the outside edges of the pan and add the spinach leaves to the middle. Toss them around until wilted then add the sun-dried tomato pieces.
  6. Stir in the heavy cream, then add the white wine and parmesan-romano blend and reduce heat. Return the caramelized onions to the pan. Cover and allow mixture to simmer on low heat a few minutes while the pasta cooks.
  7. When water comes to a boil, season with 2 teaspoons kosher salt (don’t worry—most of the salt ends up down the drain). Add tortellini and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Reduce heat to medium and allow pasta to cook at a low boil for about 5 minutes. It’s OK to undercook them slightly because they’ll cook further in the sauce.
  8. Drain tortellini (or use a large straining spoon, as I did) and add to the sauce mixture. At this point, I tasted and decided it need just a little something. Remember the Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning we introduced in the Lentil Moussaka? It’s perfectly at home in this dish, underscoring the flavor of the mushrooms already in the dish, and throwing on just a touch of extra savory depth.
  9. Give it a good toss to thoroughly coat the tortellini, then go set the table. It’s a good time to pour another glass of wine, while you’re at it.
  10. Divide the creamy pasta between two pasta bowls, sprinkle with additional parm-romano blend and serve.

It doesn’t look like leftovers and it sure doesn’t taste like it, but I’ve regained some ground on the shelves of my refrigerator. Plus, we ended up with one lingering portion of this dish, perfect for my husband to reheat for a work lunch. And that’s a win-win!

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Mac and Cheese

It’s one of the world’s most beloved comfort foods. From the blue box variety with the envelope of “cheese” powder to the saltine crumb-topped church potluck kind, macaroni and cheese isn’t particularly sophisticated—it’s just a dish full of noodles, cheese and milk. I have a few ideas why it endures as a favorite:

Everyone likes it
Okay, maybe not everyone. Folks with celiac disease or dairy allergies don’t. Nor would a vegan. But bring it to a dinner party and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a home run.

It satisfies all our primal cravings
If science is correct—that humans are hard-wired to crave fats, carbs and salt—well, this food ticks all the boxes.

It’s versatile and adaptable
Like an essential “little black dress,” you can modify a good mac and cheese recipe up or down to suit the occasion. A stove-top version is great for a quick weeknight dinner and an embellished baked casserole version rocks for a family reunion. Many upscale restaurants have taken it even further by addition of fancy-pants ingredients such as lobster and truffles.

It’s easy to make with ingredients you probably already have
This has never been more important, as we are all looking for ways to make satisfying meals without one more run to the grocery store.

It reheats well
In the oven, on the stove top or even in the microwave. That is, if you actually have leftovers.

There are a million “best ever” mac and cheese recipes out there, but taste is subjective so I’m not going to make that claim here. This really is about the cheese sauce, and your technique can make or break your dish. I’ll admit that I hardly ever make this dish the same way twice. I change up the type of pasta depending on what’s in the pantry, and I use whatever leftover bits and pieces of cheese we have in the deli drawer at the time. But the main formula is the same and each step has a purpose. In case you’re wondering:

What is the best cheese for macaroni and cheese?

I like to start with American cheese, which is processed with salts and enzymes for super melting ability. If you are averse to the idea of American cheese (first of all, why? And read this), or if you just don’t have any, you may substitute a lesser amount of real cream cheese, which also has some stabilizers for a creamier sauce, but it’s bland so you’ll need to season it more. The rest of the cheese is your choice, but go with something that melts well: medium to sharp cheddar, Monterey jack, Havarti, Gouda, fontina, gruyere or even a bit of brie (without the rind) are delicious. Avoid super-stretchy cheeses such as mozzarella or Swiss and hard or crumbly cheeses such as feta, parmesan and manchego. Also, freshly shredded cheese is best. Pre-packaged shreds are coated with modified starch substance that keeps the cheese from clumping in the bag. Guess what else it does? It prevents even melting.

What kind of pasta is best for macaroni and cheese?

Consider mainly shape and texture, but if you’re looking to step up your game, also peek at the ingredients. Pasta made with “durum” or “semolina” flour (same thing, two names) provides a richer, deeper flavor than “enriched wheat” flour. If you like whole grain, that’s fine, too. Look for shapes with curves, nooks and crannies to grab onto your creamy cheese sauce. Elbows are classic, but rotini, fusilli, orecchiette, ditalini, and shells are all going to work well. Look for pasta labeled as “bronze cut,” which has a rougher texture, ensuring even greater hold on the cheese sauce.

What is the best way to cook pasta?

No matter how much pasta you’re cooking, use a large pot, at least 6 quarts. There’s a very scientific reason for this, but suffice to say it gives the pasta room to move so it doesn’t stick and clump together. Add kosher salt once the water is boiling. Adding it too early could damage the surface of the pot. Don’t be stingy with the salt; use about a tablespoon, and don’t worry—most of that salt will end up going down the drain. Regardless of what you’ve “always been told,” do not add oil to the water. It doesn’t prevent a boil-over and it does not prevent the pasta from sticking. On the contrary, it hinders your sauce from clinging to the cooked pasta. For the same reason, don’t rinse your cooked pasta.

Ready to get cooking?

Still as creamy as can be, and ready to serve.

Follow along, but by all means flex my basic recipe to suit your taste and your inventory. The best part of cooking is making it your own.


Ingredients & Tools

3 Tbsp. butter (salted or unsalted)

½ cup finely chopped onion (I like sweet, but use Spanish, shallots, white, red or whatever)

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk (see sidebar notes)

About 8 oz. real American cheese (the kind sold by the pound in the deli, not the pre-wrapped slices)

2 packed cups good melting cheese, freshly shredded (see sidebar notes)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

¼ tsp. white pepper

¼ tsp. dry mustard powder

12 oz. box good quality pasta (see sidebar notes)

One more tool you’ll need…

A 2-quart covered casserole dish, if you should decide to go one step further (better) and finish your mac and cheese in the oven. In memory of my maternal grandmother, who taught me all the basics of cooking, I’m using this beautiful vintage casserole. Gram gave this to me many years ago, when I moved into my first apartment. I simply LOVE this dish!


Instructions – the Béchamel (fancy French word for “cream sauce”)

Over medium low heat, melt butter in your heavy-bottomed saucepan and add onions, simmering very slowly until they are soft and translucent. Do not rush this step. You don’t want the onions to brown, only to soften. This step should take about 6 to 8 minutes. Get the rest of your ingredients lined up, because it will go quickly from here.

When onions are soft, season with salt and pepper then sprinkle flour over them and stir to coat well. Increase the heat to medium and cook until bubbly and just turning golden.

Add milk slowly but all at once, whisking constantly to create a smooth mixture. Add dry mustard and white pepper and continue to cook over medium heat until mixture is just simmering and slightly thickened. Add cubes of American cheese and whisk until melted and uniform consistency.

Add shredded cheese, one cup at a time, and whisk after each addition until smooth. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, remove from heat. At this point, you have a lovely creamy cheese sauce.

Want to take it up a notch to pure decadence? Use an immersion blender to whip the sauce into a completely smooth and silky consistency. Either way is fine, but if you have the stick blender, I highly recommend it.


Instructions – the Pasta

Fill your stockpot with cold tap water and place over medium-high heat until water comes to a boil. Add a generous spoonful (about a tablespoon) of kosher salt and stir to dissolve. You have one shot at seasoning your macaroni; don’t miss it. Do not add oil to the cooking water.

Add the pasta to the pot all at once and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Cook according to package instructions for “al dente” or “firm” texture. You don’t want the pasta to be too soft or it will become mushy later when you bake it with the cheese sauce. Drain pasta in a colander, shaking to rid all excess water, but do not rinse it.

Instructions – Assembling for Baking

Combine sauce and pasta together in the cooking pot, folding gently to incorporate everything into a nice even mixture. This may seem overly cheesy, but please use all the cheese sauce. Remember that during the baking time, a lot of the sauce will be wiggling its way to the inside of your pasta shapes. More is better! Spoon into a buttered casserole dish and let cool slightly while you preheat the oven to 350° F. Cover and bake about 40 minutes then remove cover and bake 20 minutes more. Enjoy!

I love the baked-on cheesy crust that forms on oven mac and cheese.
You can hear and feel how gooey and creamy the sauce is, from the first spoonful!

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