We had just arrived back from a wonderful week away, and the thought of lumping into the kitchen and making anything that seemed the slightest bit taxing made me feel exhausted. We had driven eleven hundred miles over the course of 36 hours and I was in need of an easy night. I also knew that the moment we got home and as I struggled to get the bulging car unpacked, I would be asked the dreaded question, “what’s for dinner?” with no regard for my weary, sleep deprived body! Well, on a different day that would have sent me over the edge, but I had anticipated how things would play out and was prepared.
No grocery shopping had been done which didn’t really matter as I had lots of things in my garden to add punch to the dreariest of ingredients. And, I had a bag of spinach that had somehow made it’s way into our cooler on the trip home? That, along with the few things with a long shelf or fridge life helped me make the transition from tourist to cook in an instant!
As it turned out, the ingredient that saved the day was, bacon! I am constantly amazed at how this cured (or uncured, as the case may be) bit of meat can transform something dull, into something zingy and interesting. Bacon comes from different parts of the pig depending on the country. In America, bacon generally comes from the belly and has lots of streaky fat. It is good fried until the fat becomes crispy. This is known as streaky bacon (or more properly, lardons) in parts of Europe and is used for cooking because of the excellent fat content. The part of the animal used for bacon in Europe comes from the back or side (In Ireland, we called them rashers), and have more meat than fat, and is usually cooked for a lot less time than their American counterpart. It is meatier, with just a fat rind on the edge. I know when I arrived in the United States it took me a long time to get use to the bacon, and I was horrified at how they seem to burn their meat to a crisp! Now I appreciate how the meat from the belly needs a little crisping up!
Bacon has so many great things going for it; it has salt, can be crispy or meaty, smokey, or sweet, depending how it is treated. It is the ingredient that can be added to win over the finickiest eater, and is a powerful catalyst when trying to get kids to eat their greens!
I added a ton of freshly snipped herbs and a generous pour of cream, and to my relief dinner was on the table without taking it’s toll on my mood and energy level. We happily slurped down our dinner and went straight to bed for some much needed sleep.
You will need: 1 lb bacon, cut into 1″ pieces, 1 sweet onion diced, 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped, 2 tbs chopped fresh oregano, 2 tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, 2 tbs chopped fresh apium or celery leaves, 1 tbs tomato paste, 6 cups fresh spinach leaves, 3/4 cup heavy cream, 1 cup pasta water (from linguine water), 1 tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest (if you have it, but not necessary), 1 tsp coarse sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, 1 lb linguine pasta (I use Barilla brand).
1 – Put big saute pan on low/medium heat and immediately add bacon pieces to cold pan. Cook until bacon releases some of it’s fat and the meat starts to cook (about 10 minutes)
2 – Add the onion and garlic and continue to cook for another 10 minutes until onions start to soften and bacon becomes crisper. Add the herbs and cook for another couple of minutes.
* At this point you can put the water on for the pasta. When it boils, cook according to instructions. Before draining water, scoop out 1 cup of pasta water, and save for sauce.
3 – If the bacon has rendered a lot of fat, pour some of it off. Add the tomato paste and stir. Add the cream and let it come to a simmer. Turn heat down and cook very gently for 1 minute. Taste sauce and add salt and pepper according to your taste. Add 4 cups of the spinach and cover with lid. When spinach has cooked down (takes about 3 minutes), remove lid, stir, and turn off heat.
4 – When pasta has cooked, immediately add drained pasta to pan, along with the reserved pasta water and stir everything together. Sprinkle in the lemon zest if using.
5 – Saute the remaining 2 cups of spinach in a little oil until it wilts and turns bright green (2 minutes), and reserve to use as robust garnish.
Serve in warmed shallow bowls topped with sautéed spinach and a little Parmigiano Reggiano if you have it on hand!