Now I admit this is probably the sort of recipe that most people have stashed away in their recipe files or their brains, but they might not know it yet. I see this recipe as one of those that can be endlessly varied based on the ingredients you have on hand – seriously, endlessly. The formula basically goes like this: fat + aromatics + deglazing + grain etc. + liquids = delicious. (PS – this is sort of a teaching post. For those of you who know all this already, skip down to the recipe)
Typically, the fat will be either olive oil or butter, a combination of the two, or fat rendered from a meat, such as bacon, pancetta, or any of the dozens of types of sausage meats out there. Aromatics are vegetables typically used to create a base of flavor in a dish, or a soup. The most common aromatics used are onions, garlic, carrots, and celery, but you can also use shallots, scallions, leeks, chile peppers, herbs, and spices. Often, different cultures or regions will have their own particular mix that is commonly used, such as the French mirepoix, which is two parts onion to one part each carrot and celery. More on aromatics here.
You might notice as you are sweating or sauteing your aromatics in your chosen fat that a brown, crusty substance is developing on the bottom of the pan (at least if you’re not using non-stick). If you don’t know what this is, you might think your pan just got a lot more difficult to clean, but never fear, this is what deglazing is for. Deglazing the pan uses a flavorful liquid to dissolve the brown crust and begin developing a delicious sauce. Most commonly, cooks use wine or any of a variety of broths, but practically speaking any liquid can be used – just be sure it’s a taste you like. The liquid will bubble and spatter rapidly, and soon evaporate. Use a wooden spoon to scrape the brown crust off the bottom of the pan – wooden always works best for me. Silicone utensils I find next to useless for this.
Once there is a wet, slightly sticky kind of mixture in the pan, it’s time to finish off the dish with grains and anything else that goes into it, like vegetables or bigger pieces of protein like chicken. Grain in this case most often refers to pasta, but feel free to branch out! In addition to the similarly common rice and potatoes (not a grain, but starchy), there is quinoa, couscous, amaranth, teff, millet, Israeli couscous, and the wide world of legumes: lentils, split peas, chickpeas, beans of all kinds. In this case, pre-cook the grains, vegetables, and/or protein, and then add at this stage.
It’s ready to be finished! To finish creating the sauce, add any flavorful liquids, such as melting cheeses, cream, or broths. Then, as it cooks and thickens, if the sauce needs additional liquid with a little thickening power, the best and easiest option is often the liquid your pasta (or potatoes, etc.) has been cooked in. A ladleful or two of this provides that certain something that can cause a pan full of soft stuff to coalesce into a cohesive sauce. Garnish with anything extra, such as Parmesan cheese shavings, olives, capers, really whatever you want, and you’ve got a delicious plate of food just waiting to be devoured.
Here’s the version I made tonight:
Leek & Bacon Pasta (serves 2)
As you might imagine from the lengthy introduction, I encourage substitutions, omissions, and additions to this recipe.
- 6-8 oz. pasta
- 4 slices bacon, chopped
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 3 medium leeks, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, 2 of them minced
- 4 baby potatoes, diced
- 2 stalks celery, trimmed and finely chopped
- 1/2 c. white wine
- 2-4 oz. soft goat cheese
- Set a pot of water on to boil. When boiling, salt generously and then add pasta, and two cloves of garlic whole.
- While water is heating, add bacon to a saute pan over medium-low heat. Cook several minutes, or until fat has rendered, and bacon is beginning to brown.
- Add butter, and swirl to melt it. Then, add leeks, potatoes, celery, and remaining garlic. Cook about ten minutes, stirring often. If you start boiling your pasta just before adding these ingredients, when the pasta is ready to drain, you will be ready to move onto the next step – no timing required!
- Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 c. pasta’s cooking water.
- When the vegetables are soft, brown, and beginning to stick to the bottom of the pan, add wine, and cook, stirring, until wine has mostly evaporated.
- Add goat cheese, and pasta water as needed to create a creamy sauce.