Saturday, 27 December 2008

Christmas roundup 4: On pancetta, chestnuts and brussels sprouts

Can Brussels sprouts ever be sexy? It's probably not something you'll have spent much time pondering, but you might be surprised to know that the answer is Yes!

Last Christmas, despite the absence of Brussels sprouts on any Christmas table in living memory, I made this Nigella recipe for "Perfect Sprouts" so that my dear Iranian friend G got the right idea about what's involved with Christmas dinner. I was mightily impressed, I have to say. Even with the teeny tiny brassicas available in Japanese supermarkets.

I thought I'd recreate the dish again this year in Australia, where there was a super-abundance of jumbo Brussels that could be had for a song.

It was a good plan, but I ran into a snag in that there was not a chestnut to be had in the whole of Melbourne! I tried the food court at David Jones (which seems more like a waste of space than an international food emporium. Japan does it better with its eyes closed.) I tried every supermarket in town, but nope, nai, nada, nyet. No chestnuts.

Then there was the pancetta. From my experience last year, pancetta seemed to be kind of upmarket bacon in a block. It was definitely not the chilli-hot rolled cured meat that Saffron Papa brought back from the local Bacchus Marsh supermarket. It was the same in all the shops. In Melbourne, it seems, pancetta is spicy! Subsequent research tells me that spicing is quite common, and the meat prepared in many variations from region to region. Still, it did make it harder to please Saffron Mama, who has a physical reaction to the mere mention of a black pepper never mind actual chilli in her mouth!

Undaunted, I substituted macadamias and pecans for the chestnuts, and kept the pancetta cubes nice and big for easy removal by those with more delicate palates. While the macadamias and pecans did not have the same meatiness as chestnuts, they did add a nice little crunch and an Australian touch to this Christmas treat. Reading over the recipe now, I see that I forgot to add the parsley this time. Not to worry. However, it ends up, I think that this recipe, from Nigella's Feast (which I don't own, but devoured cover to cover at Saffron Papa and Mama's), will be a Yuletide staple at the Saffron household from now on.

Nigella's perfect Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, pancetta and parsley

1kg Brussels sprouts
250g pancetta, rind removed, cut into 1cm cubes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
30g butter
250g vacuum-packed chestnuts
60ml marsala [Saffron: or sherry or Chinese cooking wine (Xiaoxing-jiu)]
large bunch parsley, chopped

1 Trim the bottoms off each of the sprouts, cutting a cross into each as you go, or at least a slash. This may not be necessary, but I can't not do it. Then tip them into a large pan of salted boiling water and cook until tender but still retaining a bit of bite, about five minutes or so depending on size. Just spoon one out of the water and test (without burning your tongue and thus ruining the whole lunch for yourself) to be sure.

2 Meanwhile, in a pan large enough to take everything later (or just drain the sprouts and use their pan, once you've drained them), cook the pancetta cubes in the oil, with the rind for more salty fat rendering, until they're bronzed and crisp, but not cooked to the point of having dried out.

3 Add the butter and chestnuts and, with a wooden spoon or spatula, press on the chestnuts to break them up a little. When they're warmed through, turn the heat up and throw in the marsala, letting it bubble away, fusing with the pancetta fat and chestnutty butter to form a glorious savoury syrup.

4 Add the drained sprouts and turn well, sprinkling in half the parsley as you do so. Give a good grinding of pepper; you shouldn't need salt, given the pancetta, but obviously taste to see. Decant to a warmed serving plate and sprinkle over the remaining chopped parsley.


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