It was a Thursday night, shortly after I had moved in with Robert. I was stressing out because we needed to throw dinner together but we also needed to clean the apartment since we had weekend guests arriving right after work the next day. That morning I had mentioned dinner to him and we decided that with a box of pasta in the pantry and some brussels sprouts and bacon in the fridge, we could put together a decent pasta dish. I was just starting to get the hang of how Robert and I could put a meal together with various ingredients we had lying around, as opposed to following a full-blown recipe. (My father-in-law is a chef, so Robert grew up with thrown-together dinners all the time, whereas my mom always follows a recipe.) While I was already on my path to becoming a more adventurous cook, I was still learning.
So as I was stressing out that evening, Robert suggested I go clean the apartment and he would take care of making dinner. (Keep in mind there’s only been a handful of times that one of us has made dinner entirely without any help from the other. We always cook together.) It sounded like a good plan to me: divide and conquer. I wanted to double check the roasting temperature and time for the brussels sprouts, so I turned to one of my favorite books: Fast, Fresh and Green. I found the information I needed in a recipe for roasted brussels sprouts with an orange butter sauce. We had most of the ingredients for it, so we decided Robert would make something like it to be our pasta sauce, bringing the dish together.
I started to feel better about our night and I went about cleaning. I got hungrier and a lot of good smells started to come out of the kitchen. It must have been a long week, because I remember feeling quite stressed and run-down. (I had probably been to the gym earlier, so I’m sure I was also reaching hangry status.) Eventually the apartment was about as clean as it could be, and Robert called to me that dinner was ready.
Like I mentioned, I had moved in not too long before. We hadn’t yet done our Ikea run for furniture, so our dinners were eaten on the bed while watching television. (Now we eat at our coffee table in our living room, while still watching television. It’s our winding-down time for the day.) Thinking back to this eating situation, I’m kind of horrified. But when you’ve moved into a full-blown bachelor pad, you do what you have to do.
Robert handed me a bowl of pasta and I sat down cross-legged on the bed to watch our show of the evening. (Was it Veronica Mars at the time? Or Big Bang Theory?) I took a bite of pasta, my eyes popped out of my head, and I said, “What did you do?! This is amazing!” He smirked and told me that he used a few special ingredients. For one thing, we didn’t have fresh orange juice for the sauce, but we had an orange (“aranciata”) San Pellegrino in the fridge, so he used that instead. (Weird, but I’m still on board …) The other thing was that he used some bacon fat in addition to the butter for the sauce. He is his father’s son, that’s for sure.
The experience of eating this pasta was the first time food ever made me cry. There was a simultaneous feeling of joy (because of how good it was) and immense sadness, because I knew that there would come a time (in the next day or two) when that pasta would be all gone. It was beautiful and tragic. It was in that moment that I first thought, “I need to marry this man.” Not “want” or “should” – NEED. When you have a person in your life who can make you pasta like this on the fly, YOU HOLD ONTO THAT PERSON. And I did. We were engaged less than a year later, but I look back to this moment as when I knew for sure it would happen.
Before I started the blog I knew this recipe would appear on it at some point. The problem was trying to replicate it. Robert didn’t take any notes when he made it, so aside from the original recipe it spawned from, we just had vague memories to work from. It took a few tries, but this version here is the closest I think we’ll ever get to the original. (And to that wistful feeling I get when I eat it. I wish this would magically appear in my fridge every day.) My initial hope was to reproduce it by using zest and juice from a real orange instead of the San Pellegrino like Robert used, but it just wasn’t the same. It’s the bizarre secret ingredient for this thing. You just have to roll with it.
Make sure to taste this one a lot as you near the end of the cooking process to get it exactly where you want it. It might need more salt, or you may want to add more cheese to the sauce, or bacon fat or balsamic or whatever. Just make sure it’s perfection because when you eat this pasta it should be exactly what you want it to be. For me, it’s a symbol of how my husband takes care of me in his own special ways and how he woo-ed me for good with brussels sprouts, bacon, cheese, and a decent amount of bacon fat. They say “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” but that goes for this girl as well.
I’m sharing the recipe now because this week marks our 5-year “date-iversary,” which is the anniversary of our first date. Even though we’re married we still like to celebrate that day with a special dinner or something, and it’s conveniently almost exactly 6 months from our wedding anniversary. Two anniversaries per year is better than one, right? I hope you enjoy this pasta as much as we do.
Illustration at top created with Illustrator and Photoshop.
Prints of my illustrations (along with other products with my work on them) are available in my Society6 shop.
- 1 lb brussels sprouts
- olive oil
- ½ lb bacon
- 1 lb rigatoni pasta
- 2 tbsp reserved bacon grease
- 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp maple syrup
- 2 tbsp orange San pellegrino ("aranciata")
- 2 tbsp cold butter
- reserved pasta water
- freshly grated parmesan cheese
- Heat the oven to 425°F, line a sheet pan with foil and place a large pot of water to boil on the stove.
- Quarter the brussels sprouts and place them on your foil-lined pan. Drizzle with olive oil, toss, and sprinkle with salt. (I like to use sea salt here.)
- Roast for 15-20 minutes, or until browned and caramelized, tossing every 7 minutes.
- While the brussels sprouts are roasting, cook your bacon. Warm a large skillet over medium heat. Once it's warm, add a tiny bit of olive oil to the pan. Place the bacon in the skillet and cook, flipping once, until cooked through to your desired crispness. Take the skillet off the heat.
- Set the bacon aside on a paper towel-lined plate and drain the bacon grease into a small bowl. DO NOT THROW IT AWAY. Once the bacon has drained, chop it up into bite-sized pieces. (PS - We usually make a full pound of bacon here, use half for this recipe and save the other half for other things throughout the week.)
- A few minutes before the brussels sprouts are done (if they're still in the oven at this point), put a nice handful of salt into your boiling water (I usually do about 3 tsp of coarse kosher salt) and add the pasta. Cook the pasta until "al dente" (about 7 minutes).
- While the pasta is cooking, put your empty bacon skillet back on the burner over low heat. Add 2 tbsp reserved bacon grease, the balsamic vinegar, maple syrup and orange San Pellegrino to the skillet. Stir until it comes together. Add the cold butter and stir until it melts into the sauce.
- When the pasta is done, scoop out 1 cup of the pasta water and then drain the pasta. Quickly add the drained pasta to your skillet with the sauce and toss to coat. Add a splash or two of reserved pasta water to help the sauce cling to the noodles. (Alternately, if you have a spider strainer you could fish the pasta right out of the water and straight into the skillet, allowing some of the water to drip in with the pasta.)
- Add the bacon and brussels sprouts to the skillet. Toss everything to coat, and add more pasta water if necessary.
- Add a big heap of freshly grated parmesan cheese to the skillet, and a little bit more salt.
- Taste the pasta and make sure it's salty enough. Add more cheese, bacon grease, maple syrup or San Pellegrino, etc. until the taste is where you want it. Remember that adding more cheese will also add salt. You want a good balance of saltiness, cheesiness, bacon-ness and a sharpness from the orange soda and the balsamic. If it's too savory, add more maple syrup to sweeten it a little. Have fun with it and just make sure it tastes awesome.
- Serve with more freshly grated parmesan. Try not to cry.
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