[Pasta Gratin with Hazelnuts and Lardons]
Inspiration came from a recent meal at Le Caméléon, during which one of my dining companions ordered a jumbo foie de veau (veal liver). It appeared, a stately Pasha in a mantle of reduced vinegar, with a side of gratin de macaroni au Parmesan served in one of those miniature cast-iron cocottes that are all the rage these days and that you just might be able to afford with a ten-year payment plan.
The liver was good, the glorified mac ‘n cheese was great — bites were exchanged all around — and the idea stuck with me, ready to resurface on my dining room table this past weekend. Because my main dish of Compotée d’Echine de Porc au Cidre was going to have a sweet persona (the cider, the shallots, the gingerbread spices), I had to give it a frankly savory partner to dance with.
I used penne instead of macaroni (this is what I had on hand) and added a sprinkle of toasted hazelnuts and lardons (diced bacon) for bite and flavor, but you can omit or replace these depending on your personal preferences, deadly allergies, and assorted dietary requirements: mushrooms, diced tomatoes, baby spinach or rocket, roasted vegetables, broccoli, brine- or dry-cured ham, quality canned tuna, and leftovers from a roasted chicken would make appropriate substitutes, though not all at the same time. A pasta gratin can also be served as a comforting main dish, with a green salad on the side.
Miscellaneous notes on cuts of meat, bacon, and lardons, because we always need more of those:
– What is referred to as pork belly in English goes by the name poitrine de porc in French (literally: pork chest) or, more fashionably, poitrine de cochon (pig chest).
– In France, if you ask your butcher for bacon, he will give you what is called “Canadian bacon” in the US — round slices of lean, cured pork meat. If you want regular bacon — the artery-clogging kind — the magic words are poitrine fumée. It is classically sold in a thick slice (about 1 cm or 1/2 inch in thickness) so you can dice it to make your own lardons, but if you want bacon for a full English breakfast (good luck finding proper bangers now that M&S has deserted us) just ask for thin slices.
– Bacon-flavored potato chips are available from any French grocery store; I don’t know what sort of bacon they mean by that.
– Pre-cut lardons (diced or matchsticked) in plastic trays are also available from any French grocery store. They are water-injected and full of preservatives; don’t buy them.
Gratin de Pâtes, Noisettes et Lardons
– 600 grams (1 1/3 pounds) small tubular pasta (penne rigate, macaroni, rigatoni, ziti…)
– 50 grams (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
– 50 grams (6 tablespoons) flour
– 2/3 liter (2 2/3 cup) milk
– Fine sea salt
– Freshly ground pepper
– Freshly ground nutmeg
– 60g (1/2 cup) freshly grated parmesan (comté or gruyère would be good, too)
– 150g (1/3 pound) thickly cut bacon (poitrine fumée), diced and sautéed until crisp
– 60g (1/2 cup) hazelnuts, toasted and chopped (walnuts would work just as well)
Serves 6 as a main dish, 8 as a side.
(The recipe can be halved.)
Cook the pasta to an al dente consistency in a large amount of salted water. Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, and leave in a colander to drain.
Prepare the béchamel; have the butter, flour, and milk measured and ready. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the butter starts to sizzle, add the flour all at once and stir it into the butter with a wooden spoon (this is called a roux blanc). Cook for 3 minutes without coloring, stirring continually until the mixture turns from lumpy to creamy.
Pour in the milk and whisk it energetically into the roux blanc, making sure you don’t leave any clumps on the bottom and sides of the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook for a few minutes, stirring with the wooden spoon or the whisk as the mixture thickens. Transfer the béchamel to a large mixing-bowl and set aside to cool for a few minutes.
Season the béchamel with salt, flavor with pepper and a hint of nutmeg, and fold in the pasta. Pour half of this mixture into a large gratin dish (glass or ceramic), sprinkle with half of the cheese, and all of the bacon and hazelnuts. Top with the remaining pasta mixture. (The gratin can be prepared a few hours ahead up to this point: cover with foil and refrigerate.)
Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Sprinkle the gratin with the remaining cheese and bake for 20 minutes, until heated through and golden at the top. Serve immediately.