Pasta “Carbonara” with Blackened Brussels Sprouts

CarbonaraBrussels6For some reason, bacon is all the rage these days. It’s always been popular but lately we’ve been seeing bacon cupcakes, bacon-infused beer, chocolate bars with bacon bits, and even bacon-flavored lip balm. I used to be a huge fan of the stuff and perhaps the application of bacon I’ve missed most of all is Pasta Carbonara. If you crave a rich, creamy, hearty pasta dish with that touch of sweet smokiness, here’s a heart-healthy, plant-based version that’s pig-friendly too!

My cream sauce is made with non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast which gives it a cheesy flavor with the added nutrient boost of B-vitamins, fiber and protein. My “bacon” is made from slices of firm tofu marinated in vegan barbecue sauce and pure maple syrup. And I’ve added a sprinkling of blackened brussels sprout leaves, shallots, leeks and garlic to round out the dish in texture and color. A dusting of organic panko crumbs adds crunch and a visual likening to the parmesan found in the traditional version of this dish.

This was a huge hit around our dinner table. My kids almost always enjoy my cooking but every now and then I really strike gold and my girls flatter with compliments to the chef. This time my 7-year-old daughter said, “Mom, when I come home from college, will you make this?” Planning for the future, that one.

Here’s what you’ll need to recreate this crowd-pleaser in your own home (makes about 6 hearty servings):

For the tofu “bacon”

  • 1 package firm tofu, well-drained and sliced into small strips
  • olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup barbecue sauce
  • 2 tsp rib or other meat seasoning (I use Whole Spice Napa Valley’s Rib Rub that contains sugar, sea salt, black pepper, garlic, onion, cumin, and chili)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the brussels mixture

  • about 2 cups brussels sprout leaves (rinse, slice off ends of sprouts, discard any yellowish or damaged outer leaves, then peel and keep the underlying leaves. Save the centers–what you can’t peel–to cook another time)
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 1 leek, sliced lengthwise then crosswise
  • olive oil

For the pasta (for a gluten-free version of this dish, use g-f pasta and g-f flour)

  • 16-oz package of vegan pasta (fettuccine, linguine or spaghetti)
  • 3 tbsp Earth Balance vegan buttery stick
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 2 cups soy milk
  • 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste

Set your oven to broil on its highest setting and set your water to boil for your pasta.

Start by making your tofu “bacon.” Heat your olive oil on a skillet and place the tofu strips in a single layer over medium-high heat, turning them over until both sides are browned and crispy. This can take awhile as any excess water needs to be cooked out, but be patient. Your tofu will be more convincing if you can get it crispy. Lower the heat to medium and toss the tofu with the rib rub/meat seasoning. Add the maple syrup, allowing it to caramelize onto the tofu. Finally, add the barbecue sauce and cook until well-coated and sizzling. Remove from heat and set aside. As you work on preparing the other elements of this dish, your tofu will take on a meatier, thicker texture.

CarbonaraBrussels4Next up is the brussels sprout mixture. Place your cast iron skillet into the oven to preheat.  If you don’t have a cast iron, use a deep roasting pan but no need to preheat it. Toss all the ingredients into a mixing bowl with olive oil to coat.

Tossing the greens with olive oil

Tossing the greens with olive oil

Place into your preheated skillet and broil, turning occasionally, until the vegetables are blackened and crispy on the edges.

Blackened to perfection

Blackened to perfection

CarbonaraBrussels2Turn your oven off but keep the brussels mixture in the pan to retain its heat.

Boil your pasta to al dente.

To make your cream sauce, heat the vegan butter and flour in a medium saucepan, whisking it together to make a paste. Add in the salt and soy milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. It will have taken on a thick consistency. Lower the heat and whisk in the nutritional yeast, garlic powder and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Toss your cooked pasta with the cream sauce, then gently fold in the tofu. Serve into pasta bowls with a heaping spoonful of the brussels sprout mixture on top. Finally, sprinkle with panko crumbs and serve!

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Happy eating!

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