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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Valentine's Dinner for a Queen

Tuesday evening, Valentine's Day, my favorite sous chef and I sat out to make a special dinner for the true love in our lives. I had tossed around some fancier dinner menus, but settled for what she suggested sounded great to her. She said a really yummy macaroni and cheese, Brussels sprouts, and some kind of smoked sausage sounded really yummy. So, we sat out to create a meal for our Queen!

I searched online to find a good mac'n'cheese that had some really rich flavors. I found one that was a winner of the 2008 Best Mac 'n' Cheese Ever contest on Good Morning America. It used Gruyere and extra sharp cheddar cheeses, roasted garlic, and bacon to create the wonderful depth of flavor.

As far as the Brussels sprouts, we turned to an old standby: a Giada de Laurentiis recipe that is a basic combination of Brussels sprouts and pancetta. I've made this recipe dozens of times. I have used this preparation to lure in Sprout Haters!

We found a yummy cheddar smoke sausage in the store, and did a simple pan simmer on it, and of course, my sous chef got to dip some strawberries in melted, velvety chocolate for his mommy.

Everything was going to be done as she walked through the door after a long day at work. My sous chef did a fantastic job of setting the table, complete with flute glasses for sparkling grape juice. It turned out perfect, and our Queen was properly impressed!

the sommelier at Le Bistro Daniel

Here are the recipes I used...

A Frank word on recipes…  Recipes are guidelines. They are not concrete instructions. I will always tweak recipes to my own purpose. Often, I won’t make the same dish the same way, twice. Don’t be afraid to experiment in the kitchen. Try your own twist! With that being said, the only recipes I don’t take too much liberty with are baking recipes. Baking recipes often use ratios and particular temperatures and times for the reactions to take place. I will post more about ratios, and science in cooking, at a later time. I just don’t want you to be afraid to try new things with recipes you come across.

Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta
1 lb fresh Brussels sprout trimmed
2 T. olive oil
3 oz. paper thin slices of pancetta, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt & freshly ground black pepper
¾ C. low-sodium chicken broth
  1. Partially cook the Brussels sprouts in a large pot of boiling salted water, about 4 minutes. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add the pancetta and sauté until beginning to crisp, about 3 minutes.
  4. Add the garlic and sauté until pale golden, about 2 minutes. Do not overcook, as garlic will turn very bitter.
  5. Add the Brussels sprouts to the same skillet and sauté until heated through and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
  6. Add the broth and simmer until the broth reduces just enough to coat the Brussels sprouts, about 3 minutes. Serve.
Frank Notes:
  1. Trimming the Brussels sprouts basically means cutting back the stem a little, and peeling the outermost couple of leaves of the sprouts head. I prefer to steam the sprouts, rather than boil them, until just getting tender. You can also cook the Brussels sprouts ahead of time. Be sure to rinse them in cold water to halt the cooking process, to prevent them from becoming mushy.
  2. Pancetta is a type of bacon, sometimes called Italian-style bacon. It’s the same cut of pork used in bacon, pork belly, but has been rolled and cured. Pancetta can be a pricey ingredient, and not necessarily available in your local store. Bacon can easily, and satisfactorily, be substituted.
  3. Homemade chicken stock would be best, but we all know this isn’t an ideal world. You will want to make sure your broth is, in fact, low sodium. The pancetta, or bacon, will add a degree of saltiness to you dish. If you think it needs more salt, you can make that addition

1 head of garlic, roasted
1 t. olive oil
1 lb. Cavatappi pasta
½ lb. sliced Applewood smoked bacon
1 ½ C. fresh white bread crumbs (w/o crusts)
½ C. grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
8 T. butter
¼ C. minced shallots
½ C. flour
1 qt. whole milk
6 oz. Gruyere cheese, grated
8 oz. extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
½ t. pepper
1 t. salt
¼ t. freshly grated nutmeg

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  2. Slice ½ inch off top of entire head of garlic
  3. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Wrap garlic head tightly in aluminum foil and roast until tender – about 45 minutes.
  5. Remove garlic pulp but squeezing garlic head, and smash cloves with a fork to make a paste.
  6. Cook pasta according to package directions.
  7. Cook bacon completely. Drain on paper towels. Reserve 1 tablespoon of bacon fat. Crumble bacon when cool.
  8. Combine breadcrumbs, crumbled bacon, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside.
  9. Raise oven temperature to 375°.
  10. Sauté shallots over low heat in reserved bacon fat for one minute.
  11. Add remaining butter and continue to sauté in butter and bacon fat until translucent.
  12. Add flour and continue to cook for 1-2 minutes.
  13. Increase heat to medium. Stirring constantly with a whisk, add milk and roasted garlic paste.
  14. Cook until sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and add salt, pepper, nutmeg, Gruyere and Cheddar cheeses. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.
  15. Stir in the cooked pasta. Pour into baking dish.
  16. Sprinkle with topping. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 15 minutes.
  17. Remove foil and continue baking until sauce is bubbly and topping is browned.
Frank Notes:
1.  If you can’t find the Cavatappi pasta, you can use any type of pasta you desire, such as a basic
     elbow macaroni.
2.  You can use any bacon you like; it does not need to be Applewood smoked!
            3.  If you can’t find shallots, just use a finely minced white onion.


  1. I was looking for an idea for dinner. This mac n cheese sounds wonderful! I may give it a try! Yum!!! Did you make the brussels sprouts for Oktoberfest?

    1. The thing I loved about the mac 'n' cheese is how creamy it stayed in the oven. Often homemade dishes like this one comes out sort of gloopy, or grainy, but this recipe came out nice and creamy!

      Yes! Those are the same Brussels sprouts I had at Oktoberfest! Then, I used bacon, as I normally do. This time, I decided to make it a bit more special for Carey!

  2. I just LOVE your souz chef!! He is one of my favorites!! Also, this dinner sounded wonderful! I just love those brussel sprouts!! Thanks, Frank, as usual, for sharing your recipes.

    1. Not only is my sous chef cute, intelligent, and charming, he's quite proficient in the kitchen! Those Brussels sprouts can NOT be beat! I've had quite a few people who didn't like them, actually like these! Thanks!