Tuesday Dinner: Orecchiette Carbonara with Charred Brussels Sprouts

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One of the things I learned early on about The Wife is that she really liked carbonara. It’s a great sauce, and for a long time, I thought it got its name from the black pepper, resembling coal loaded into charcoal burning carbonari.

Apparently,  I was wrong. According to Dr. Jeremy Parzen, a food historian, Italian translator and proprietor of the Do Bianco blog. He mentions the historical significance of the carbonari — a secret society of Italian revolutionaries — and the fact that alla carbonara is a Sicilian cooking style that uses cuttlefish cooked in its ink. So, the coal miner thing is out.

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Parzen writes that in his research the earliest mention of the traditional spaghetti alla carbonara comes from a 1957 travel guide. More from Parzen:

In it, (author Richard Hammond) includes carbonara in his shortlist of pan-Italian dishes and omits it from his chapter devoted to Rome.

“[Spaghetti] alla Carbonara: in a sauce made with egg, cheese and bacon, or prosciutto (ham).”

The gloss is significant: not only is it the first known description of the dish (1957) but it also reveals that it was commonly prepared with different types of cured pork (not just bacon or pancetta); and the fact that it is included in the general overview (and omitted from the Roman overview) also gives us an indication that the dish was already popular in other major urban centers in Italy by the mid-1950s.

So Parzen thinks that the adoption of cured pork is what separates carbonara from a popular 19th century pasta preparation. I’m okay with that. Pancetta, speck and prosciutto are okay by me.

Back to The Wife. I have made this a few times for her over the years and I have never been happy with the final product. It was either too salty or too greasy. The addition of the Brussels sprouts tonight made for a nice extra and presentation, but I really liked the sauce base developed by Philip Krajeck of Rolf and Daughters in Nashville. It’s a nice mix of butter, cheese, pasta liquid and eggs that was surprisingly light.

WHAT WORKED: I think that using only egg yolks, as opposed to the whole egg, keeps it light. You get the creaminess of the yolk without the volume and slime of the white.

WHAT DIDN’T: I should have let the Brussels sprouts char more. They browned in spots but I would have liked them to blacken more.

WHAT DID THE WIFE SAY: It was carbonara, so naturally she approved.

WILL IT MAKE ANOTHER APPEARANCE: Yes and I think that I have my new standby carbonara sauce without the sprouts.

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Orecchiette Carbonara with Charred Brussels Sprouts
Adapted lightly from the original from Bon Appetit, September 2013 edition

  • 8 oz. Brussels sprouts, trimmed, leaves separated and cores discarded
  • 16 oz. orecchiette
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 oz. diced pancetta, guanciale or speck (NOTE: I used more because…I wanted to.)
  • 1/2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
  • 4 tbsp. butter, separated
  • 1/3 cup grated Pecorino romano
  • 2 large egg yolks, beaten well
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil

NOTE: Consuming raw eggs could lead to a bunch of nasty stuff. Eat at your own risk, but love every forkful.

2014-10-28 at 17-03-16In a large skillet over high heat, add 1 tbsp. of olive oil. Add half of the Brussels sprouts leaves, tossing in the oil. When they reduce slightly, add the remaining sprouts. Cook until well charred, about 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

2014-10-28 at 17-20-32Bring a large saucepan of water to boil, salt well, and cook pasta until 1 minute short of al dente and drain.

2014-10-28 at 17-10-09In the meantime, heat the remaining oil in your skillet over medium. Add the pancetta and cook until the fat renders and the meat is browned thoroughly, 4 to 5 minutes. Add pepper, stirring, until fragrant. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta liquid to the skillet, as the pepper will burn (NOTE: I didn’t know that could happen.).

2014-10-28 at 17-13-37Reduce heat to low and add butter tablespoon by tablespoon. Stir in and swirl the skillet, adding additional pasta water if you need it. Transfer your drained pasta to the skillet and toss to coat with the butter sauce. Sprinkle the cheese over the top and toss. Remove from heat and transfer to a serving bowl. Toss with the egg yolks, then add in the Brussels sprouts before giving one last toss. Serve hot with additional grated cheese.

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