HomeLifestyleFood & RecipesA fallback pasta sauce for when you want a little weeknight luxury

A fallback pasta sauce for when you want a little weeknight luxury

Do you have fallback sauces? Ones you turn to again and again?

This take on the popular mushroom cognac cream sauce is one of mine. Preparing it is second nature to me, and that familiarity brings ease and comfort, making it a go-to when I crave a little luxury on a weeknight.

You cook sweet onion until its translucent and just starting to turn golden. If you want spice, add a little minced jalapeño or serrano pepper, or a sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes. Then, slip sliced fresh mushrooms into the pan and cook them, watching the steam rise as they release their moisture and start to brown around the edges. When the mushrooms and onions are where you want them, drop in minced garlic, a splash of cognac and enough cream to get the sauciness you’re after.

The beauty of a sauce like this is that you can throw it together fairly quickly, and then you can mix-and-match to create a meal based on what you have on hand. Sometimes, I eat these creamy mushrooms over noodles, or I might spoon the mixture into a piping hot baked potato.

Here, I added quick-cooking prawns, heating them until they curled and turned pink, and then stirred in boiled pasta shells, and a splash of pasta water, for a saucier, heartier dish. The sauce is most commonly served with beef, but I like it with seared or broiled chicken thighs or crisp-fried squares of firm tofu, as well as with rice or quinoa.

As sauces go, this one is actually a bit fussier than ones I make when I’m in my get-dinner-on-the-table frame of mind. During the summer, when our potted basil is flourishing, I’m more likely to throw a fistful of the herb, oil, nuts, garlic and parmesan into the food processor to make a quick pesto. Or I might whisk together a pantry-friendly sauce from peanut butter with soy sauce, vinegar, honey and a some sriracha.

I’m always on the lookout for an easy sauce that I can add to my collection. Most often I find them tucked inside other recipes I’ve enjoyed.

So, keep your eyes peeled as you read through recipes and try new dishes. You might discover a new sauce combination that you can slip into your back pocket for weeknight cooking.

Creamy mushroom and prawn pasta

Just a thought: you could eat these creamy mushrooms over noodles or a piping hot baked potato instead

(Scott Scuhman/The Washington Post)

Total time: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Fresh mushrooms, sauteed until just golden, give this dish an earthy base. Its creamy sauce coats the pasta shells making this an ideal bowl to eat while curled up on the sofa watching a movie or reading a book. Or, make a big green salad and open a bottle of dry white wine, such as a sauvignon blanc, to make it the main attraction on the dinner table.

Storage notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Notes: In place of brandy, you can use cognac, white rum, white wine or apple or peach juice.

You can substitute 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes in place of the fresh chile.

In place of the cream, you can use 1/2 cup whole milk or canned coconut milk.


Fine sea salt or table salt

225g medium pasta shells, or your favorite small pasta shape

1 tbsp avocado, grapeseed or vegetable oil

1 small yellow or white onion, chopped

1 small serrano or jalapeño chilli pepper, seeded, ribbed and thinly sliced (see notes)

280-340g fresh mushrooms, such as portobello or button, wiped clean, sliced

1 large clove garlic, minced or finely grated

60ml cognac or brandy (see notes)

180ml light cream or half-and-half (see notes)

24 large prawns, peeled and deveined

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

Pinch ground nutmeg (optional)

Fresh thyme leaves or parsley, for serving (optional)


Bring a medium pot filled with lightly salted water to a boil over medium-high heat and cook the pasta according to package instructions, or until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain.

While the pasta is cooking, in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and just starting to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Add the chilli and the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms steam, releasing their moisture, and start to turn golden, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the cognac and cream. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer, increasing the heat if needed.

Add the prawns, ¼ teaspoon of salt, the pepper and nutmeg, if using. Stir and toss the prawns until they curl, turn pink and are cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste, and add more salt or pepper, if needed. Remove from the heat.

Stir in the pasta and, if needed, about ¼ cup of the pasta water until the pasta is fully coated with sauce. Add more pasta water, about 1 tablespoon at a time, until the sauce is the desired consistency.

Transfer the pasta to a large serving bowl or platter. Garnish with thyme or parsley, if using, and serve.

Nutrition per serving | Calories: 302; total fat: 13g; saturated fat: 6g; cholesterol: 68mg; sodium: 270mg; carbohydrates: 32g; dietary fibre: 2g; sugar: 3g; protein: 11g.

© The Washington Post

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