Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Recipe: Capellini with Brussel Sprouts and Pancetta

I haven't mentioned this here, but I am a whore for Top Chef. Seriously. I love it almost as much as I love hockey. I love most of the challenges and often think, "what would I make given those parameters?" Even though I have zero experience with large-scale event cooking and have never worked in a restaurant kitchen, and in the full knowledge that I would, no doubt, screw up everything, every step along the way, I still think it. I don't have any fancy gagetry and I don't work with liquid nitrogen. I loathe foams.

I know my limitations. I am purely a home cook.

But if the challenges were scaled back and the parameters were, 'meet the elements of this challenge in your own kitchen for six people kind of thing,' i.e., cook for this challenge on a small scale and, well, you can see the mental hoops I put myself through watching the show.

This season, the Top Chef All-Stars has been a blast, because they brought back contestants who did very well, but didn't win, so viewers like myself were familiar with the chefs and there were no truly out-classed contestants that made me think, "seriously, why are you here?!" And I actually missed some of them, Jennifer Carroll, the magnificent Carla Hall, Dale Talde, Fabio Viviani and, of course, the Black Hammer, Antonia Lofaso.

Two weeks ago, the nine chefs that remained had a challenge to do family style dinner service at Rao's in NYC (which is how Rao's does service. Big tables. Family style). And this time, I could have crushed the Rao's challenge because it was food to be served family style, because it was, essentially, Italian comfort food.

Three chefs had the antipasti course, three had the primi (or pasta course) and three had the secondi (meat course.) So many options, so many possibilities. And yet, across the board, the three chefs who each had to make a pasta dish f*cked it up. How the hell do you f*ck up pasta? Not to say it doesn't take skill -- it does. But these are great chefs, right? How do you screw up a pasta course?

One of the messed up pasta courses was courtesy of Dale Talde, who I think is very talented and I love watching him cook, but he screwed up his tagliatelli with brussel sprouts beyond repair. First, he made awful homeade pasta. You could see it without even tasting it -- it looked mealy and dry; if you've made pasta even twice in your life, you would have known to just scrap that dough altogether. Then, the shitty pasta was under-sauced and dressed sort of like a salad, instead of cooked properly in the sauce.

Watching it, I kept thinking -- but that should be good. The flavor profiles would be awesome. I love brussel sprouts. I love pancetta. What, I said to myself, is not to like? Assuming you don't just f*ck it up royally, that is.

So, with apologies to Dale, here's a great take on his dish, using dried pasta which makes for a fast and delicious dinner on a work-night.

You will need:
12-18 brussel sprouts
1/4 pound of pancetta (cut in one thick piece, if possible)
5 cloves of garlic
pinch of crushed red pepper
1 pound of dried pasta - I used whole wheat capellini, but use whatever variety you prefer

The prep:
Clean the brussels and quarter them (or half them if they are petite). Toss them in boiling, salted water and cook until they are almost, but not quite tender. I had to take one out and eat it to test it (because I'm a moron, so you may not need to do that.) The point is, you want them to be just a hair away from being cooked, but not quite there, because they'll cook some more in your sautee pan.

Clean the garlic and add it to a deep sautee pan with hot oil. You want to cook the garlic and then you're going to remove it, so don't bother trying to dice it or anything. Just smash the cloves to get the skins off and toss them in there whole.

Cube the pancetta into a fine dice. You want little pieces of pancetta all through the dish. Add the pancetta to the garlic and oil and really cook it down to render the fat from the pancetta. When the pancetta are crisp little cubes of porky goodness, remove the garlic, add the brussels and a pinch of crushed red pepper.

Cook the pasta in a pot of thoroughly salted water at a rolling boil.

Add about a ladle full of pasta water to the pancetta and brussel sprouts and let that reduce. Remove the pasta before it's al dente and add it to your sautee pan to finish for about 1 to 2 minutes.

Serve with grated parmesan or pecorino romano, whichever you prefer. Top Chef worthy, I tells ya.

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