We had one of my favorite winter pastas for dinner last night—Orecchiette with Shredded Brussels Sprouts and Bacon. Since I noticed a few days ago that I hadn't posted a pasta recipe in a couple of months, I thought I would share it here. Brussels sprouts may seem like an odd thing to turn into a pasta sauce, but one of the things I love about pasta is that almost anything, if given an appropriate treatment, can be used to dress pasta.
I have been making this recipe for so long now, it is like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers at the end of a long day. Which made it perfect for yesterday—a day filled with lots of cooking, then shopping for more cooking...with lots of snow shoveling tucked in between. The recipe is based on a vegetable side dish in Alice Water's Chez Panisse Vegetables—and indeed it makes a pretty wonderful side dish, but I like to have it on pasta for a quick, satisfying, one-dish meal.
As you read the recipe, you may have a slight feeling of déjà vu. I hadn't thought about it before, but this dish has a lot in common with the Warm Cabbage Salad that I posted a few days ago. Both dishes feature a member of the cabbage family, shredded and cooked in a base of onions, garlic, herbs and then accented with a salty pork product, nuts and cheese. In one, the cabbage is barely cooked, so that it retains a bit of crunch, and is then finished with a bit of vinegar to become a salad. In the other, the baby cabbages are braised to softness and tossed with noodles to make a hearty pasta dish. This is one of the things I love about cooking—how much difference small details can make.
I don't always top this pasta with minced walnuts and finely grated Pecorino—most of the time I top it with toasted breadcrumbs. Either finish adds crunch. The breadcrumbs add sweetness, the nuts and cheese add salt. How you finish it will depend on your mood. This really is a very easy going dish. If you don't have red onions, use yellow onions or shallots instead. Pancetta in place of the smoked bacon is also very nice. On the occasion when I prepare Brussels sprouts this way as a side dish, I usually dispense with the breadcrumbs, nuts and cheese altogether. Sometimes I tuck in a diced sautéed apple—always a happy combination with cabbage, bacon and onions. However you choose to prepare it—on pasta or as a side—if you have never thought to shred and braise Brussels sprouts, much less toss them with pasta, I hope you will give this dish a try. Maybe it will become one of your favorites, too.
Pasta with Shredded Brussels Sprouts & Bacon
1 to 1 ¼ lb. Brussels Sprouts
4 to 5 oz. bacon, cut cross-wise in ¼” strips
1 medium red onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced (optional)
pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
a few sprigs of thyme, leaves picked and coarsely chopped
¼ c. chicken stock or water
1 lb. orecchiette or farfalle
Extra virgin olive oil
4 to 6 T. Toasted breadcrumbs
Cut out the stems, and separate the sprouts into leaves. Thinly slice the hearts.
Cook the bacon in a large sauté pan over medium to medium-low heat. While the bacon is cooking, quarter the onion lengthwise and then thinly slice the quarters crosswise; set aside. When the bacon is nearly crisp,
transfer it to a plate using a slotted spoon. Return the pan with the bacon fat to the stove and increase the heat slightly (medium to medium high). Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, until the onions are wilted and nicely caramelized (about 5 minutes).
If using, add the garlic, pepper flakes and/or thyme and cook, stirring, until fragrant—about 1 minute. Add the sprouts to the pan along with the bacon. Stir to coat the sprouts with the bacon fat. If the pan seems dry (if the bacon was very lean) add a little olive oil. Reduce the heat and add the stock or water and season lightly with salt.
Cover and cook until the sprouts are wilted and tender—about 10 minutes. Check the sprouts occasionally as they cook; if they seem dry, add more stock or water.
While the sprouts are cooking, 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 until al dente. Drain. Add the pasta to the Brussels sprouts.
If the pasta seems dry, add a splash of the pasta water. Season with black pepper and salt, if necessary. Divide the pasta among shallow pasta/soup bowls and drizzle each with a bit of good quality extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs and serve. Serves 4 to 6
(Recipe adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters)
To toast breadcrumbs: In a food processor, process sliced/torn bread (crusts removed if they are very hard), until bread is in uniform soft crumbs. Spread crumbs on a rimmed cookie sheet and “toast” in a 300 degree oven until golden brown and dry, stirring occasionally (about 30 minutes). Drizzle crumbs with olive oil and toss to combine. Crumbs can be used immediately or cooled and stored airtight at room temperature for a week or so.
Variation: Instead of breadcrumbs, top the pasta with toasted and finely chopped walnuts (4 to 6 T.) and a generous grating of Pecorino.