Gemelli with mixed mushrooms & thyme: $2.30/serving

Despite Portland’s reputation as a bourgeois-bohemian utopia, not every neighborhood is a paragon of progressivity and educated food consumption. In fact, odds are if you’re under 40, work in a profession that requires a liberal-arts degree, and still insist on living in more than 800 square feet within city limits, your neighborhood probably teems with options for brass knuckles and powdered urine for drug tests, but not so much celery root, rye berries, or artisan goat cheese. Normally this dearth is the case for much grumbling and rending of garments, but every now and then it pays unexpected dividends, usually at the expense of confused supermarket checkout clerks used to ringing up cases of Top Ramen and Mountain Dew. I’ve had pine nuts rung up as macadamia nuts and expensive Walla Walla sweets rung up as cheap yellow onions, but my absolute favorite grocery-store goof of all time is for mushrooms.*

The bags used for the mushrooms are paper sacks that say, simply, “MUSHROOMS,” with a line drawing of a pile of button mushrooms. It doesn’t matter what you’re buying—shiitakes, oyster mushrooms, chanterelles—they all go in the MUSHROOMS bag. Because 99% of the time button mushrooms are exactly what people are buying, some clerks just ring the bag up as such. I carefully separate different types of mushrooms into individual bags, but on some occasions—including this one—the clerk doesn’t even bother to look in them. Which is why, budget-wise, I was able to use shiitakes in this fabulous vegetarian weeknight meal. Any variety of mushrooms will work well, but be sure to always include the porcini for their incomparable flavor.

*A note on ethical misgivings: You yourself shop at this particular location of a certain god-awful, everything-that’s-wrong-with-this-country chain at least once a week for 3 years, and we’ll discuss them then.

This particular recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart and makes 4 polite-sized servings. (A garden-lettuce side salad should be enough to make up the difference.)

• 12 oz. gemelli: 80 cents
• 10 oz. button or cremini mushrooms, washed and sliced: $1.25
• 8 oz. shiitake mushrooms (or any other kind of mushroom), washed and sliced: $1.25
• 1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms (these are cheapest in bulk. Some co-ops or health-food stores sells them that way—in Portland, Food Front does): $4.03
• 1 medium shallot, minced: 5 cents
• 4 T butter: 24 cents
• 1 T chopped fresh thyme (garden): $0
• 1/2 cup dry white wine: 44 cents
• Salt & pepper to taste: 2 cents 
• 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese: $1
TOTAL: $9.18/4 = $2.30/serving 

Start a pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.

Pour 1 1/2 cups boiling water over the porcini and let sit, covered. (Alternately, put them in a microwave-safe bowl with the water, cover with plastic wrap cut with several slits in the top, and microwave for a few minutes. Let sit.)

Melt 1 T of the butter in a large skillet (10 to 12 inches should work fine) over medium heat. Sauté the minced shallot until translucent. Add the wine and reduce until almost evaporated, about 3-5 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the button/cremini and shiitake/other mushrooms.

Cook until all their liquid has been released and they’re starting to brown, about 6-8 minutes.

The pasta water should be boiling by now—cook pasta the until al dente. Drain, reserving about 1/3 of the starchy cooking water, and return pasta to the pot.

Meanwhile, carefully lift the reconstituted porcini out of the bowl with a fork and chop them. Pour the soaking liquid through a paper-towel-lined sieve to strain out sediment.

When the mushrooms are done, reduce heat to medium and add the thyme, porcini soaking liquid, and chopped porcini, cooking until the soaking liquid is reduced by half, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the mushroom mixture to the pot with the pasta. Add the remaining 3 T butter and about 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, stirring to combine. Add some reserved pasta water if it starts to get dry.

Serve sprinkled with the rest of the cheese.

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