Why This Recipe Works
- Using spring vegetables to turn French soubise into a creamy pasta sauce creates a dish with plenty of richness that still manages not to feel heavy.
- A small amount of baking soda helps weaken the vegetable cell walls, quickly softening them for easy blending while maintaining their bright flavor and color.
- A generous amount of black pepper balances the natural sweetness of fennel and onion.
Supermarket grocery shopping is not my strong suit. I get easily overwhelmed in the packed, sprawling aisles. And unless I'm shopping for work-related recipe development projects, I rarely walk into a supermarket with a fully thought-out plan or written grocery list. This inefficient approach inevitably leads to long, roundabout meandering, as I try to find some ingredients that catch my eye and spark an idea for dinner. Happily, the process becomes a lot more fun when spring vegetables pop up in the produce section; it's always exciting and inspiring to find those first bunches of in-season asparagus, green garlic, and spring onions.
This year, the first of these to appear at my local supermarket were spring onions. Similar in appearance and flavor to scallions, spring onions are very young storage onions that are plucked out of the ground before they fully mature. When eaten raw, they have more allium bite than scallions, but cooking spring onions makes them meltingly tender and sweet.
I picked up a few bunches and, seeing as pasta is always on my mind, came up with the idea of combining spring onions with fennel for a creamy pasta sauce inspired by French soubise. While traditional soubise—a smooth purée made from onions gently cooked with butter and either béchamel or cream—is bone-white, this springtime version uses the tops of spring onions to create a bright green sauce with subtle vegetal sweetness that's balanced with smoky bacon, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and lots of freshly ground pepper. Tossed with a sauce-grabbing pasta shape like orecchiette, it's an easy and delicious alternative to the ubiquitous puréed soups that are in constant rotation this time of year.
I start by prepping the vegetables for the soubise. I trim and thinly slice the spring onions, separating the white and light green parts from the dark green ones.
I also core and slice a fennel bulb, reserving the fronds for garnish.
With the vegetables prepped, I can get to cooking, starting with the bacon. I cook whole strips of bacon until the meaty parts are crisp and the fat is tender. Keeping the slices whole, rather than cutting them into bite-size pieces before cooking, helps keep them from getting too crunchy and also makes for less babysitting while the bacon cooks—it's a lot easier to turn six pieces of bacon than it is to constantly stir a bunch of slivers around in a skillet.
Once the bacon is cooked through, I fish the rashers out of the pan and cut them into bite-size morsels. I set the bacon aside, but leave all the rendered fat right in the skillet.
The light-colored spring onion parts and fennel go straight into that same skillet, along with a splash of water and a sprinkling of salt, which helps draw out moisture and kick-start the softening process. I like to use a straight-sided sauté pan for this dish—it keeps the moisture released by the vegetables contained, and I don't run into the problem of onions riding up on the lip of the pan and browning, as can happen with a traditional skillet.
Once the vegetables have softened slightly, I add a pinch of baking soda. Baking soda weakens vegetable cell walls, which speeds up the softening process during cooking. This is a huge help for recipes that involve puréeing, especially when you want to preserve the green color of a vegetable, which can be dulled with the normal approach to vegetable softening: cooking the hell out of it. Just be aware that a little bit of baking soda goes a long way; adding too much can give food a metallic flavor that is not pleasant. But when used in the proper proportions, baking soda can help turn vegetables to a super-soft texture in just a few minutes, without having a detectable effect on flavor.
Once the onion whites and fennel are soft, I add in the green onion tops and cook them for a couple of minutes, until they're just starting to wilt. At that point, I stir in a cup of heavy cream and bring the whole mixture to a simmer, allowing it to thicken slightly.
Now it's time to buzz it all up into a smooth purée. Because the vegetables are so soft, the blending process is quick, which keeps the mixture from overheating and dulling the color. Because we'll be finishing the pasta in the sauté pan, I pour the purée back into the pan, passing it through a fine-mesh strainer along the way for extra smoothness.
All that's left to do is boil some pasta until it's just shy of al dente, and then finish it in the sauce. The orecchiette get added to the pan, along with the chopped bacon, some of the pasta cooking water, and a good amount of ground pepper.
Don't be shy with the pepper; you need its pungency to balance the natural sweetness of the fennel and spring onion.
Stir in plenty of cheese to finish the pasta off the heat. All that's left to do is some artful fennel frond placement and a final sprinkling of cheese. Spring has sprung. Celebrate in the right way—with a bowl of pasta.
How to Make Creamy Orecchiette With Spring Onions, Fennel, and Bacon
Creamy Orecchiette With Spring Onions, Fennel, and Bacon Recipe
This soubise-inspired creamy pasta sauce uses spring onions and fennel, along with bacon, cream, and cheese for a dish that is somehow both light and decadent.
6 slices (about 6 ounces; 170g) thick-cut bacon
1 pound (450g) spring onions, trimmed, white and green parts divided and thinly sliced (see note)
1 fennel bulb (about 1 pound; 450g), cored and thinly sliced, fronds reserved
1/4 cup (60ml) water
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (235ml) heavy cream
1 pound (450g) dried orecchiette pasta
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (about 3 ounces; 85g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus extra for serving
In a large, straight-sided sauté pan or Dutch oven, cook bacon over medium-low heat, turning occasionally, until meaty parts are crisp and fatty parts are tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Using tongs, transfer bacon to a cutting board and reserve rendered bacon fat in the pan. Cut bacon crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces; set aside.
Return pan to stovetop and increase heat to medium-high. Add white and light green spring onion parts, fennel, and water, season with salt and cook, stirring frequently with a rubber spatula, until vegetables just begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add baking soda, stir to combine, and continue to cook until vegetables are very soft and beginning to break down, about 8 minutes longer.
Add remaining green parts of spring onions. Cook until well-incorporated with vegetable mixture and just beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add cream, bring to a simmer, and cook until mixture is slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.
Transfer mixture to a blender and blend on high speed until smooth and emulsified, about 1 minute. Season lightly with salt. Wipe out sauté pan and transfer blended sauce back to the pan, passing through a fine-mesh strainer if desired. Warm sauce over low heat, occasionally scraping down the sides of the pan to prevent skin from forming.
Meanwhile, in a pot of salted boiling water, cook orecchiette until just shy of al dente (about 1 minute less than the package directs). Reserve pasta cooking water.
Transfer pasta to pan along with 1/2 cup pasta water and bacon, increase heat to high, and cook, stirring rapidly until sauce has thickened slightly and pasta is well-coated, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, season generously with pepper, add Parmigiano, and stir rapidly to combine. Season with salt, if needed. Divide pasta into serving bowls and garnish with reserved fennel fronds. Serve immediately, passing more cheese at the table.
Straight-sided sauté pan or Dutch oven, blender, fine-mesh strainer
Spring onions resemble scallions in appearance and flavor, but they're actually just very young storage onions that are pulled out of the ground at an earlier date, when they're still thin-skinned and mild in flavor. If you can't find spring onions, leeks or scallions can be used as substitutes.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The finished pasta is best enjoyed immediately, but the blended sauce (without cheese) can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat gently before finishing with pasta, pasta water, pepper, and cheese.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 44g||57%|
|Saturated Fat 22g||112%|
|Total Carbohydrate 106g||39%|
|Dietary Fiber 10g||36%|
|Total Sugars 12g|
|Vitamin C 35mg||175%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|