Wednesday, July 25, 2012


In my misguided youth (specifically, the college and immediate postcollege years), I had a brief but intense love affair with Noodles & Company. It was a new chain at the time, and “upscale” fast food was still a new concept. My tastes, cash flow, and cooking skills were still at beginner’s levels, so a cheap, convenient place that served plentiful pasta in a variety of styles was ideal for my lifestyle. The quality was decent, and while I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat there now, I wouldn’t turn up my nose if it were the best available option in a pinch. Not that I’ve tested this assertion; there are no locations in L.A., so I haven’t eaten at Noodles in at least 8 years. But I’ve still got a soft spot in my heart for it. Recently we visited A’s hometowm of Bloomington, Indiana, where a few years ago the awesome old movie theatre on the main drag closed and was made over into a Noodles & Company location. This is pretty much the height of corporate soullessness, yet as we walked by it and A shook his fist in rage, I’ll admit that a small part of me was thinking, “Mmm…pesto cavatappi.”

Although the macaroni and cheese (with spinach and tomatoes added) was also a favorite, my most-ordered dish at Noodles was always the pesto cavatappi, a delightfully curly pasta shape tossed with mushrooms, tomatoes, and a pesto-white-wine-cream sauce. It suddenly struck me that this is the kind of thing I could easily make for myself now—and make it better, to boot—and that copycat recipes were probably widely available on the Internet. Sure enough, they were, but they all varied widely, and I couldn’t manage to find one authoritative version I was really happy with. Still, it’s hardly rocket science to toss together pasta, homemade pesto, mushrooms, and tomatoes, so I figured I could wing it. This recipe at Cooking With Cristina seemed the likeliest candidate, since it was based on one posted at Yahoo Answers by a supposed former Noodles cook, but I also threw in a few elements (red pepper flakes, garlic) from this version, just for added zip. (I rarely worry that new things I cook will fail spectacularly, but I always fear that they might turn out bland and boring.) I wanted to use a full box of pasta (I love having pasta leftovers in the fridge and hate half-empty boxes in the cupboard), so I tried to increase the other quantities accordingly (and I increased the vegetables even more, because I love vegetable-heavy pasta dishes). I used my own recipe for pesto, which is just the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook one minus the pine nuts (too expensive, they always seem to go bad before I can use them up, and ever since I started reading about pine nut mouth on the Internet I’ve been mildly afraid of them).

The result was delicious and really did taste like my memories of pesto cavatappi, but it wasn’t pesto-y enough, so I made it again with double the amount. A also thought there could have been more mushrooms, so I doubled those too. These were both excellent decisions. I increased the wine and cream quantities a bit to compensate, although the sauce ended up on the soupy side, so I’m not sure I’d go quite that far next time, which is why I’ve just given a range of measurements below. Overall, this is a wonderfully colorful and flavorful pasta dish that’s easy to make. The wine, cream (such a small quantity it’s indetectible if you don’t know it’s there, yet it adds a luxurious texture), and vegetables elevate it far above basic pasta with pesto, which (maybe because it was one of the first things I learned to cook on my own) always seems a bit dull to me now. A is less passionate about pasta on the whole than I am, but he devoured this one eagerly. I was glad to be able to serve myself a nice dose of nostalgia, but in a way that fits my cooking style today.

2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves
1 cup firmly packed fresh parsley sprigs, stems removed
1 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, plus extra to taste
4 large cloves garlic, divided
½ teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste
½ cup + 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
¼–½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pint (2 cups) cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half
⅓–½ cup white wine
¼–⅓ cup heavy cream
1 pound cavatappi
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Place basil, parsley, 1 cup cheese, 2 peeled and quartered garlic cloves, and ½ teaspoon salt in a food processor or blender and puree into a paste. Add ½ cup olive oil and continue to process until the pesto has the consistency of softened butter. There should be about 1 cup of pesto.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain.

3. While the pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. When it’s warm, add the sliced mushrooms and sauté for about 5 minutes. Mince the remaining 2 cloves garlic and add them to the skillet along with the red pepper flakes. Cook 1 minute, then add the tomatoes and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the mushrooms have released their juices. Add the wine and reduce for about 2 minutes, then add the cream and cook for another couple of minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated (you still want some moisture, but the sauce shouldn’t be too soupy). Add the pesto, stir well, and remove from heat.

4. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with additional grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Serves: 6
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Great.

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