Typically I prepare this pasta with prosciutto....but as I looked at the chunky little end piece of my American-style smoked ham, I thought it would make a fine stand in for the prosciutto. Since a prosciutto is dry-cured and my Easter ham was wet-cured (brined), I decided to use half again as much as I would have of the prosciutto to make up for the water loss and shrinkage that I knew would occur when the wetter ham hit the sauté pan. But you should (as always) use an amount that pleases you...remembering that the ham in this recipe is a supporting player (providing richness and salt) and it shouldn't be allowed to overpower the asparagus and mushrooms.
When you make this pasta, you will find it to be surprisingly hearty and full flavored. I usually think of springtime asparagus pastas as being light and fresh. But the foundation of the caramelized mushrooms and small amount of sautéed ham gives a rich—frankly meaty—character to this dish (far beyond what you would expect for such a small amount of actual meat).
It made for an especially nice end for my Easter ham...and no matter what kind of ham you have, a perfect dish for an early spring evening.
Penne Pasta with Mushrooms, Asparagus & Ham
2 to 4 T. olive oil
8 oz. mixed mushrooms, sliced in uniform pieces
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
3 oz. smoked ham, cut in a 1/8-inch dice (see notes)
1/4 t. pepper flakes
1 to 2 T. minced Italian flat leaf parsley
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut on the diagonal in 2-inch lengths
1 lb. penne pasta
1/2 to 2/3 c. freshly grated Pecorino Romano, Parmesan or a combination of the two
|Ingredients for half a recipe|
Heat 2 T. olive oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms. Sauté, regulating the heat to maintain an active sizzle, until the mushrooms are browned and tender—about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat, season with salt and pepper, add more oil if necessary, and add the shallots, ham & pepper flakes. Cook until the shallots are soft and caramelized and the ham is beginning to turn golden brown—about 5 minutes. Toss in the parsley and reduce the heat to the lowest setting while you finish cooking the pasta and asparagus.
Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and cook for 4 or 5 minutes—or until the pasta is about half cooked. Add the asparagus and continue to cook until the pasta is al dente and the asparagus is tender—about 4 minutes more. (See notes for alternate method.) Drain, reserving some of the cooking water. Add the pasta and asparagus to the mushrooms along with a generous drizzle of olive oil and toss to combine. If the pasta seems dry, add some of the cooking water. Add a few tablespoons of the cheese and toss again. Divide among serving plates, sprinkle with more cheese and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.
• When I don't have leftover ham, I make this pasta with prosciutto—use 2 oz. for the full recipe. It is ideal for the end bit which can be easily diced into little pieces. When you go to the deli/cured meats counter to get your prosciutto, ask if they have any of the end chunk—this portion doesn't make beautiful, thin slices and they will frequently sell it to you at a lower price (just ask).
• If you are worried about getting your pasta and asparagus to the proper done-ness simultaneously, simply cook the asparagus first: Bring the water to a boil. Salt it and add the asparagus. When the asparagus is cooked to your liking, scoop it out and spread on a baking sheet. Drop the pasta and cook until al dente. About a minute before the pasta is done, add the asparagus to the pan with the mushrooms and toss to combine. Add the drained pasta and proceed as directed.