Pasta alla Carbonara with Kale, Brussels Sprouts, and Bacon

The Italians seem to take pleasure in giving their pasta shapes unappetizing names. They regularly indulge in bowls of orecchiette (little ears), capellini (little hairs), and vermicelli (little worms). Who wouldn’t love a bowl of marinara-topped “little tongues,” (linguine)? And penne technically means “pens,” but, if spelled or pronounced incorrectly (with only one “n”), refers to a gentleman’s naughty bits.

Perhaps the oddest pasta name issuing from that Catholic country are strozzapreti, or “priest stranglers.” The Flying Spaghetti Monster only knows why these short, tubular pastas came to have such a grisly name (though Wikipedia has a few suggestions).

Another thing Italians excel at (aside from giving their food creepy names) is making meals out of seemingly nothing. Do you have a bag of spaghetti and a can of oil-packed tuna in your cupboard? Presto! Pasta col tonno. Do you have pasta, some eggs, and a bit of pancetta? Then you also have pasta alla carbonara. (Carbonaro apparently means charcoal-burner in Italian but the connection, says Wikipedia, is unclear.)

I often see (and make) pasta alla carbonara with spring vegetables, like peas and pea shoots, but lately I’ve been loading it with kale and Brussels sprouts. The vegetables get blanched until crisp-tender in the same water used to cook the pasta, then tossed with sauteed onion and bacon seasoned with a few red chile flakes.

Pasta alla carbonara is typically made with spaghetti or bucatini, but l find shorter pasta shapes more amenable to eating with the vegetables here. I’ve made this dish a few times using gluten-free corn and quinoa penne, but this time I decided to find out how priest stranglers taste.

(Delicious, it turns out.)

A mixture of eggs, Parmesan, and black pepper fortified with a bit of heavy cream get tossed with the hot pasta and vegetables. The heat from the food coddles the eggs into a thick sauce that gently coats the pasta. I had some duck eggs left over from making duck egg salad, courtesy of my friend Amelia, and I used them here, though hen’s eggs work equally well.

Sweet kale and Brussels sprouts love to cozy up to smoky bacon, and all go well with noodles coated in a nappe of creamy sauce. When I have some stashed in the freezer, I use thick cut bacon from the Corralitos Market and Sausage Company outside of Santa Cruz, Jay’s home town. It’s the best.

Topped with extra parmesan and black pepper, a plate of these priest stranglers makes a nourishing one-dish meal. Who’d have thought?

Pazza for Pasta:

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese with Bacon and Collard Greens
Nettle Pesto Pasta
Zucchini Pesto Lasagna

One year ago:

Huckleberry Sprouted Wheat Pancakes

Pasta Carbonara with Kale, Brussels Sprouts, Bacon, and Duck Eggs

This is easily made gluten-free by using gluten-free pasta; corn and quinoa penne is my current favorite for this dish.

Serves 4 as a meal, 6 as a first course

For the sauce:
1/4 cup heavy cream (or ricotta cheese)
2 duck eggs (or extra-large hen’s eggs), at room temperature
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan, plus more for finishing
1/4 teaspoon fine sea or kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for finishing

For the pasta:
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 ounces bacon (preferably thick-cut and smoky), cubed
1 small onion, such as a cipollino, diced
a big pinch red chile flakes
8 ounces brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
1/2 bunch kale (such as lacinato/dino kale)
8 ounces dry pasta (such as penne, strozzapreti, or spaghetti)
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Fill a large saucepan with water, salt it generously, and place over high heat to bring to a boil.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the cream, eggs, parmesan, salt, and pepper until well-combined. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over a medium flame until it shimmers. Add the bacon and fry, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about five minutes. Add the onion and chile flakes, and saute, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender, about 10 minutes.

When the water boils, add the brussels sprouts and boil until bright green and crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Scoop out with a slotted spoon, drain, and add to the cooked onion mixture, turning the heat down to very low to keep the vegetables warm.

Strip the kale leaves away from their stems, discard the stems, and add the kale to the boiling water. Cook for 3 minutes. Scoop out the kale with a slotted spoon and let it cool until you can handle it. Squeeze out the excess water, roll it into a bundle, and use a sharp chef’s knife to slice it thinly. Add the kale to the pan with the onions and sprouts.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, until done to your liking. Drain the pasta well and add it to the skillet. Remove the skillet from the heat.

Immediately pour the egg mixture over the pasta and toss well for a minute or two until the eggs thicken into a sauce from the heat of the other ingredients. If the mixture seems soupy or undercooked, return the skillet to a low flame and stir until it thickens. (If you want to be extra-safe, stick an instant read thermometer into the pasta and make sure it registers at least 170ºF.)

Serve the pasta immediately, topped with freshly ground pepper, parmesan, and parsley.

15 thoughts on “Pasta alla Carbonara with Kale, Brussels Sprouts, and Bacon”

  1. Gorgeous. And I have never thought of how unappetizing those names truly are! Thankfully this pasta is the opposite. I'm just drooling now. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

  2. Loved the Italian translations! But it hasn't changed my enthusiasm for pasta! I would never think to pair the robustness of kale and Brussels sprouts but your marvelous recipe is an excellent dinner idea! The hearty dinner we crave as autumn envelopes us with her chill and still full of flavor and nutrition.

  3. This is fantastic! I can't have dairy, so I omitted the cream sauce with egg and added a bunch of toasted pine nuts, some chicken stock, and a splash of dry white wine or vermouth. It's delicious!!

    1. The kale and brussels sprouts totally make the dish, though! I never would have thought to use them in pasta. When I first made it, I thought I'd need tomatoes or something, but the veggies are sweet enough as-is! I also used pancetta and shallots, since that's what I had on me.

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