Parmesan Pasta Gratin

I have a wonderful friend who is a vegetarian, and she lives in New York, where my husband and I try to make several trips a year to visit.  For my birthday this summer she got me a book full of recipes from beloved NYC restaurants, and I wanted to cook up a vegetarian entrée from it and use it on the blog in her honor, but the pasta I liked the most had prosciutto in it.  Now, I happen to love this tasty little cured ham, but I knew that would not fly for a veggie-only eater, so I figured I could just remove the meat and we’d be good to go…except that left literally just the pasta and the cheese sauce, which would make for a heavy, coma-inducing meal.The prosciutto, besides being awesome, does the important job of cutting through all that dairy with a salty bite, so I knew it was a simple question of adding in ingredients that would do that same job, but instead of the pig, I’d turn to veggies instead for the task! Ingredients:
1 lb. ziti or penne dried pasta
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. butter and 1 tsp. butter, separated
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 medium shallot, minced
2 medium cloves of garlic, minced
8 oz. baby portabella mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick (you can buy them pre-sliced)
2-3 tbsp. capers, drained and rinsed
1 cup half and half
1 28-oz. can petit diced tomatoes, drained of their juices
1/4 tsp. black pepper
salt
9 oz grated parmesan cheese, or 3 cups

*This dish will serve 6 people.

Step 1:
Fill a large stockpot with water, bring to a boil, throw in a hefty amount of salt, and cook the pasta, until it is about 1 minute underdone.  At this point, drain the pasta then add it back to the pot along with the tomatoes, and stir to combine.  Keep warm, allowing the pasta to soak up any excess tomato juices.

Meanwhile, while the pasta is cooking, heat the extra virgin olive oil and tsp. of butter over medium heat in a 12-inch nonstick sauté pan. (The cheese sauce will be formed in this pan later.  If you don’t want a scorched mess on your hands, it has to be nonstick!)  Add the shallot, garlic, red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt and sauté for about 1 minute.

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Step 2:
Add the mushrooms, another pinch of salt, and cook for 6-8 minutes, until the mushrooms have browned and released their liquid.  They should go from looking like this:
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To looking like this!
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Step 3:
Add the capers and cook for about 30 seconds.  Then add the tbsp. of butter, the half and half, and 2 cups of the parmesan cheese, along with the black pepper.  Turn the heat to medium-high and simmer for 2 minutes until all the cheese has incorporated into the sauce and it has thickened ever so slightly.  It is also somewhere around this step that you want to pre-heat your broiler.
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Step 4:
Add the pasta and tomatoes to the skillet and toss (carefully) to combine.  Transfer to a 9×13 baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining cup of parmesan cheese.
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Step 5:
Place under the broiler for 4-5 minutes until the top is nice and brown.  Serve immediately!*Note, while I have never had a problem using a glass pyrex dish under the broiler for a couple minutes, I cannot advocate this action, as pyrex is technically not broiler-safe.  Like I said, I’ve never had a problem, but there are documented cases of pyrex literally breaking, cracking, or exploding, because of exposure to intense broiler heat.  Don’t be a daredevil, and use a broiler-safe casserole dish if you have one!
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If you noted the use of capers, red pepper flakes, tomatoes, and mushrooms, and nodded your head knowingly, then you are a genius!  These ingredients, whether for their saltiness, spiciness, acidity, or “meatiness”, cut through the sauce and keep it from being too heavy.  This is a very strong parmesan sauce, almost like an Italian mac and cheese.  Serve it up with a glass of wine and a simple salad, and even somebody like me will never miss the prosciutto!~Lauren
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