Monday, March 12, 2012

Medley of Cauliflower & Brussels Sprouts with Bacon & Toasted Breadcrumbs

The recipe I'm posting today was inspired by a missed opportunity....a dish that I didn't taste when I had the chance. It was served at a Christmas party I attended in late January. If this seems like a strange time of year to be attending a holiday party, you should know that people who work in the food industry typically have their holiday parties after the holidays (everyone is too busy to have a party during the actual holiday season).   This year two of the holiday parties I wanted to attend were scheduled for the same Sunday evening in January. Not wanting to miss either party, my friend Nancy and I chose to attend both, leaving one early and arriving slightly late at the other. The first party was held by a good friend who owns a catering company. The food spread was amazing (it always is). But since I knew I was headed to another bountiful table, I ate lightly. While Nancy and I drove to the next party, we compared notes about what we had eaten at the first. Nancy wanted to know if I had tasted the medley of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts with bacon. I had not. She couldn't believe it (I must have a reputation when it comes to vegetables...and bacon...). She assured me that I had really missed out...that I would have loved it.

On a recent evening, as I was staring into the vegetable drawer in my refrigerator trying to come up with something for dinner, my eyes fell on a partial head of cauliflower and a handful of Brussels sprouts. Realizing I didn't have enough of either one to make an entrée (or even a side dish) for two, and remembering the dish that I had missed, I decided that I should take the opportunity presented to taste these two vegetables in combination.

At that point all I had to do was decide how I would prepare them. I'm fairly certain that my friend's dish was prepared by first roasting the vegetables. And I considered doing just that. But before I did, I thought I would poke around on line a bit to see how other chefs and cooks were treating this combination of vegetables. Much of the time, it seems these two vegetables make their appearance together in a gratin...something I will have to try...but the recipe that really caught my eye was a quick pasta built around a sauté of the two.

The sauté for our dinner came together easily and quickly. The pasta I had seen on-line included anchovies and breadcrumbs—a wonderful combination—but I wanted to use bacon (as my friend had in his side dish). So I started by crisping large squares of bacon (to match the large chunks of vegetables) and then used the bacon fat for the sautéing. Once the vegetables had acquired lovely golden brown patches from their sauté in the bacon fat, I added garlic and thyme, reduced the heat and covered the pan briefly so the vegetables could finish softening in a steamy environment. To finish, I returned the bacon to the pan along with a shower of toasted breadcrumbs.

If you have never made toasted breadcrumbs, it's just about the easiest thing in the world. Please don't use something out of a can or a box. Simply take some day old (or older) bread and grind it up in the food processor. A nice hearty loaf is preferable (one without olives, nuts, fruit, etc.), but anything other than a soft commercial sandwich bread will do. Grind the bread to the coarseness (or fineness) that you prefer. Spread it out on a baking sheet and toast it in a 350° oven until golden brown. You will have to stir it regularly or some of the crumbs will become charred before others have taken on any color at all. The toasting time will depend on the quantity of breadcrumbs and the freshness of the bread. Fresh bread takes longer (the crumbs have to dry out a bit before they will begin to brown). In general, expect it to take 10 to 20 minutes. When the crumbs are uniformly golden and crisp, drizzle with a small amount of olive oil—just enough to add a bit of moisture and flavor—and toss to distribute. I love finishing pasta dishes with toasted breadcrumbs—they add sweetness and crunch. So that I will always have some within easy reach, I occasionally make up a large batch, put them in a zip lock freezer bag and store them in my freezer. They keep very well for a month or two.

The cauliflower and Brussels sprouts were wonderful together. I liked this crunchy, salty, slightly bitter, slightly sweet combination so well on the pasta that we had it again last night as a side dish to go with a pork chop and some sweet potatoes.

As a nice bonus, this medley of sautéed vegetables turns out to be very practical for a small household. It is rare that I have the need in my household of two to use an entire head of cauliflower. So it is nice to have an idea to add to my regular rotation of winter recipes that uses up a small portion of a head. Although, I liked it so much that I may end up purchasing cauliflower for the express purpose of making this dish...

Medley of Sautéed Brussels Sprouts & Cauliflower
with Bacon & Toasted Breadcrumbs

1 1/2 to 2 T. olive oil
2 or 3 strips bacon (about 2 oz.), cut cross-wise into generous 1-inch squares
6 oz. Brussels Sprouts, trimmed and quartered (about 1 1/2 c.)
6 oz. Cauliflower florets (scant 1-inch sized—about 2 c.)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 T. picked thyme, coarsely chopped
3 to 4 T. toasted breadcrumbs
1 to 2 T. minced Italian flat-leaf parsley

Warm 1 T. of olive oil over moderate heat in a 10-inch sauté pan. Add the bacon and cook, stirring regularly, until the bacon is beginning to crisp. Remove to a plate.

Increase the heat to medium-high. Add the sprouts and cauliflower. Sauté, tossing occasionally, until well-browned in spots—about 4 or 5 minutes. If the sautéing vegetables seem dry (this will depend on the fattiness of the bacon), drizzle in a bit of olive oil (1/2 T. or so). When the vegetables are golden, season with salt and add the garlic and thyme. Continue to sauté until fragrant—another minute or so.

Add a splash of water (about 1/4 cup) to the pan and toss to combine. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to very low. Cook until the vegetables are just tender to the tip of a knife....2 to 4 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat and cook until any remaining water has evaporated off and the vegetables are once again sizzling in the fat. Return the bacon to the pan and toss to combine. Add the breadcrumbs and parsley and toss again.

Taste and correct the seasoning. Remove from the heat, drizzle in a bit more olive oil if you like and serve.

To prepare as a pasta sauce:  About the time you cover the vegetables, drop the pasta in a large quantity of boiling salted water; cook until al dente. I used Farfalle (6 1/2 oz. for this amount of vegetables), but any short sturdy pasta would be fine. Scoop out and reserve a small amount of the pasta cooking water before draining the pasta. When the vegetables are tender and sizzling, add the bacon and reduce the heat to very low, keeping the vegetables and bacon warm while the pasta finishes cooking.  Add 3 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs to the cooked vegetables. Then toss in the drained pasta, followed by the parsley. Drizzle in 1 or 2 T. of olive oil and toss to coat. If the pasta still seems dry, add some of the pasta cooking liquid. Toss again. Taste and correct the seasoning. Divide among two plates and top with more breadcrumbs.

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