Almost Spring Fusilli

creamy fusilli with bacon, peas and lemon   

I'm on vacation!

Some people call two days off a weekend, but in this business two days is damn near a sabbatical. When I'm on vacation, I like to cook and eat. So my wife Rachel and I invited my sister-in-law Jenny over for dinner and we cooked up some smoky, "almost spring" pasta. Dinner with Rachel and Jenny usually involves dancing, squealing, wine, and cursing - it's pretty much my favorite thing to do. 

Like all great pastas, buy the best ingredients and don't add too much. At it's core, this dish is bacon, bacon  fat, cream, peas, and pasta. You can veer a bit from there if you wish. In this case, I wanted bright and hopeful and for me, that's lemon and tons of black pepper. Tip for Chicago life: when in need of spring eat lemon and black pepper. 

Creamy Fusilli with Bacon, Peas and Lemon

Serves 4-6

  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 pound thick cut bacon, diced
  • 1/3 cup shallots, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • 1 pound fusilli pasta
  • 10 ounces frozen peas
  • 1 lemon, juice and zest
  • 1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
  • salt and fresh cracked black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. While the pasta water is heating up, preheat a large sauce pan over medium heat. When hot, add the olive oil and the diced bacon. Render the bacon until crisp and remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and let drain on paper towel. Pour off all of the remaining fat from the pan except for about 2 tablespoons (reserve the extra bacon fat for your eggs tomorrow). 

Return the sauce pan to medium heat and add the shallots and sweat for about 2 minutes, until just softened. Then add the garlic and stir until you can really smell the garlicky aroma, about 1 minute. Carefully add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to incorporate the bacon fond (caramelized bacon bits stuck to the pan) into the sauce. Simmer the wine for about 1 minute. Then add the cream and bring the whole mixture to a gentle simmer. 

Your pasta water should be boiling. Add salt to the water (it should taste almost like the sea). Add the fusilli to the boiling, salted water and stir. While the pasta is cooking, add the frozen peas to a fine mesh strainer and dip into the boiling pasta water to defrost. This should take about 1 minute.

Lift the strainer from the pasta water and drain well. Then add the peas to the simmering cream sauce and stir in.

Cook the pasta until al dente, about 10 minutes. Reserve a cup or so of the pasta cooking water and then drain the pasta, pouring off all the water. Return the empty pasta cooking pot to the stove over medium heat and add the drained hot pasta to the pot. Then pour the cream sauce mixture over the pasta. If necessary, add some of the reserved pasta cooking liquid to thin the sauce. Stir the pasta over medium heat for a minute or two to combine.

Reduce the heat to low and add the cheese and mix well. Then add the zest and juice of one lemon to the pasta and stir in. Then add half the rendered bacon and plenty of fresh cracked black pepper. Taste the pasta for seasoning and if necessary add a little salt. Again, adjust the sauce with some pasta cooking liquid if the sauce has become too thick. the sauce should coat the pasta but it should not be stiff.

Plate the pasta in bowls and top with the remains crispy bacon and drink with wine and the Brown sisters. 


Poor Man's Dinner, Chef Style: Curly Endive and Tuna Fusilli

tuna, curly endive, fusilli
tuna, curly endive, fusilli

Tuna, Curly Endive, Fusilli (photos by Rachel Brown)

So I had curly endive in the fridge.  But you could use kale here, escarole, dandelion greens, whatever.  And I needed some protein - for that my wife and I always keep some wild caught tuna cans around.  I highly recommend doing that -

but buy wild albacore that is responsibly caught

- it's a buck or two more and if that's too much, eat something else you bastard.

Tuna Can
Tuna Can

This pasta is super easy and only takes about 1/2 hour from start to finish - a few more when you and your wife are trying to photograph the process. The most essential part of the dish comes right at the beginning.  Sweat and then slightly caramelize your aromatics. In other words - cook some onions, a little garlic and red chile if you like, really slowly in a decent amount of grapeseed or olive oil. Start low and slow, letting the onions get a bit soft - then up the heat and let them get a touch golden. Don't go too far, nothing bad will happen, but I like to still let my veggies have some integrity on their own to give another texture to dish. Mushy onions don't have much texture. 

Then you throw in some washed greens - in this case the aforementioned curly endive.  Give everything a toss and think: "How pretty."

Sprinkle some Alepo pepper into the dish.  It's awesome - adding both a zing and a bit of bite. Sweet and tangy and only a hair spicy.  From Aleppo in Syria, pray for them - they are having a really shitty time over there. 

Be sure to cook your pasta al dente, toss the whole thing together with the tuna.   Chef trick - always add some butter to finish your pasta.  It does a couple of things: one it adds fat which is a great carrier for flavor - all that time you spent on those onions earlier?  Yeah, add some butter so you can taste that. The butter also starts to melt when it hits the hot pasta and the water that still clings to the pasta, along with the warm oniony, curly endivey juices in the pan emulisfy or come together with the butter to form something like a sauce. 

When you are done, season the dish up, make sure you can really taste it. If not add some more salt. And last but not least, squeeze half a lemon into the dish and toss one last time. It'll brighten the whole thing.

Curly Endive, Tuna and Fusilli

2 tbsp.

grapeseed oil or olive oil

1 large


, peeled, quartered and sliced thin

3 cloves


, peeled and roughly chopped


red jalapeño

, stemmed, seeded and julienned (slice thin)

1 lb. f


(I used some colorful stuff)

1 bunch

curly endive

, washed and roughly chopped

1 tsp.

Aleppo pepper

1 small can

wild caught tuna

, drained (water or oil, both work)

1 or 2 tbsp.


juice of 1/2 l


salt and pepper

to taste

Place a large pot of water on the stove to boil for the pasta.  Set a large saute pan over medium-low heat and add the oil and let it get hot.  Add the onions, garlic, chile and a pinch of salt.  You should hear a little sizzle - not too much.  Sweat the onion mixture slowly, about 8 minutes until softened.  Then increase the heat to medium-high for a minute or two, just until the onion mixture starts to brown a bit.  

Add a handful of salt to the now boiling pot of water and carefully drop the fusilli in and give it a stir.  Cook until just al dente.  

While pasta is cooking, add the curly endive to the onions and stir together over medium-high heat, just until it wilts, about 1 or 2 minutes.  Add the Aleppo pepper and toss.  

Strain the pasta and do not rinse.  In fact, leave a little hot water on the pasta, don't shake it too much when draining.  Return the pasta to its empty but still hot pot and set over medium heat.  Quickly add the onion and curly endive mixture to the pasta and toss together.  Break up the tuna and add to the pasta along with the knob of butter.  Gently stir the butter and tuna into the pasta over medium heat, about 1 minute.  Cut the heat, squeeze in the lemon juice and stir again.  Taste.  Needs more salt right?  Add some, and if you like pepper or a little more Aleppo - go for it.  Serve immediately.

Serves 4 for Dinner 

GRANDMA ALERT: Rigatoni Filo e Fumo

At Sunday Dinner Club we are always asked about our style of cuisine - we are never totally sure what to say, but I like "seasonal grandma food."  Food that stays rooted to tradition but is updated for the seasons.  I'm always on the look out for "grandma food."  Food your grandma (or your fantasy grandma) might have made.

Here's one: rigatoni filo e fumo at

La Bocca della Verita'

in Lincoln Square.  Seems to translate to rigatoni with wire and smoke.  The dish is simple - spicy tomato sauce, smoky guanciale, wiry fresh mozzarella and rigatoni.  It's fucking good.  They often don't have it on the menu, sometimes it's a special.  They might hate that I share this, but if you ask for it when it's not on the menu and it's a slow night - they just might make it for you.  

La Bocca is the quintessential neighborhood Italian restaurant - nothing pretentious, easy decor, and relaxed environment run by a mother and daughter who clearly love what they do and have built a life that revolves around the restaurant.  Food is exactly what you want and always good - tomato sauces are pretty special.  Had my first date with my wife there.  She had Spaghetti and Clams and I had, you guessed it, filo e fume! 

Rigatoni Filo e Fumo at La Bocca de la Verita

Seen here through the GRANDMA ALERT filter!