My first visit to Italy was a culinary tour. I was — and still am — intoxicated by the glorious country with its magnificent mountains, lush countryside, playful piazzas, and grand churches and structures. During our trip, I was excited to visit the Italian equivalent of American mom-and-pop stores, offering the best in meats, produce, bread, oils and sweets and then prepare and enjoy a meal, complete, with an afternoon glass of wine, with my wonderful travel mates. You can read about my first Italian adventure here.
Did you know that spaghetti with meatballs generally do not appear on menus in most restaurants in Italy? You can get them separately, but you would get the pasta first, as the primi and polpette (meatballs) next as a secondo. If you order them together you will most certainly blow your cover as an American tourist!
One of my favorite books ever is Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. The author travels to different parts of the world in a quest for peacefulness following a difficult separation and never-ending divorce proceedings. The Eat part refers to her mission of pure pleasure….eating her way across Italy with “no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal.”
Anyway, in the book, Ms. Gilbert’s first meal in Italy is Pasta Carbonara, devoured at a little trattoria in Rome. Traditionally, Carbonara is made with bacon, peas, garlic and eggs tossed with a long pasta, like spaghetti, fettuccine or linguine. When we had dinner at M.’s house, she chose to make a version using pancetta and Brussels sprouts tossed with little pockets of pasta called orecchiette, meaning small ear.
The recipe calls for separating the leaves of the spouts (a loving but laborious task!), but M. used the shredded Brussels sprouts from Trader Joe’s...she's so smart...and efficient. She also infused the olive oil with garlic because everything is better with garlic. The reviews from the original article say that the key to this dish is getting a good crispy char on the spouts….this helps balance the rich and wonderfully-salty pancetta sauce. Other than the the pasta and sprouts substitution, this Carbonara is made exactly the same as its customary counterpart, but I have to say, our crew loved the substantialness of the orecchiette and the subtle, sweet notes of the sprouts paired beautifully with the pancetta!
Orecchiette Carbonara with Charred Brussels Spouts
By: Philip Krajeck, Bon Appetit Magazine
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed, leaves separated (see note above)
12 ounces fresh orecchiette or other fresh or dried small pasta
2 ounces pancetta (Italian bacon), finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup grated Pecorino plus more
2 large egg yolks, beaten to blend
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over high heat. Working in batches, add Brussels sprout leaves and cook, tossing occasionally, until charred in spots and crisp-tender, about 5 minutes; transfer to a plate and set aside. Wipe out skillet.
Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente (about 5 minutes for fresh pasta). Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook, stirring often, until slightly crisp, about 4 minutes. Add pepper and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Immediately add 1/2 cup pasta cooking liquid to keep pasta from burning; reduce heat to low and gradually add butter, swirling skillet and adding more pasta cooking liquid as needed, until a thick, glossy sauce forms.
Add pasta to skillet and toss to coat. Add Pecorino; toss to combine. Remove from heat; mix in egg yolks. Add reserved Brussels sprout leaves; toss, adding pasta cooking liquid (or hot water) as needed to thin sauce. Serve pasta topped with more Pecorino.