Celebrate Pennsylvania’s mushroom capital status

Julie Falsetti
For The York Dispatch

The next time you flip a portobello on the grill, take a minute to thank a Quaker.

Legend has it that thrifty Quakers, not wanting to waste space under their raised greenhouses, started the first commercial mushroom business in the New World in southeastern Pennsylvania. Now Kennett Square, a small borough in Chester County, proudly holds the title of Mushroom Capital of the World. Half of the mushrooms sold in the United States are grown there. Pietro Mushrooms, one of the larger facilities, produces 11 million pounds per year.

On a recent mini road trip, I visited Kennett Square. I love all types of mushrooms, but especially the more exotic varieties, so I paid a visit to the Woodlands, the retail store of the Phillips Mushroom Farm. Visitors are not allowed in the production facilities, but a live mushroom exhibit on site showed the process.

In 1980, Phillips began experimenting with growing shiitake mushrooms indoors. Now they are the largest producer of specialty mushrooms in the United States. One look in the refrigerated section of the store, and I was in heaven. With more than 10 varieties of mushrooms on offer, I had to remind myself that there is a limit to how many mushrooms two people can eat. In the end, I bought a half pound each of pioppini (I liked the name) and shiitake.

To showcase my purchase, I made baked pasta with a mushroom ragu. The dish makes a lot, so it is perfect for a large family gathering or a potluck. You can make it with any kind of mushrooms, but for the sauce to really shine, avoid the white button variety.

Pasta With Mushroom Ragu

1 cup boiling water

1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms, (1/2 ounce)

2 sun-dried tomato halves

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 teaspoon thyme

1 pound fresh mushrooms (such as shiitake, crimini or portobello), trimmed and thinly sliced

1 can (28 ounces) peeled tomatoes, chopped, with juices or 4 cups peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 pound penne or ziti

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (11/2 ounces)

5 ounces ricotta salata cheese, grated

In a small bowl, pour the boiling water over the dried porcini and dried tomatoes. Cover and let steep until softened, at least 15 minutes.

In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onions and garlic. Cover and cook over medium heat until the onions begin to wilt, about 5 minutes. Uncover and saute until the onions are just beginning to brown, about 2 minutes.

Scoop the dried mushrooms and tomatoes into a strainer, reserving the soaking liquid. Rinse to remove any grit; squeeze dry. Chop coarsely and set aside.

Carefully spoon about 3/4 cup of the soaking liquid into the skillet with the onions, leaving behind any grit. Add the red wine and thyme and boil for 1 minute. Add the fresh mushrooms, chopped porcini, fresh or canned tomatoes, sugar and salt. Cover partially and simmer until the mushrooms are tender and the ragu is thick, about 20 to 25 minutes. Season generously with pepper.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a large baking dish with a cooking spray, such as Pam.

Cook the penne in a large pot of boiling salted water, until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the mushroom ragu and 1/2cup of the Parmesan and toss.

Pour half of the pasta into the prepared dish, top with the ricotta salata and add the remaining pasta. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4cup of Parmesan over the top. Bake the pasta for about 20 minutes, or until heated through and the top is lightly crisp. Serve at once.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at