Cavatelli with Bacon, Corn, Mushrooms, and Parmesan, a la the Red Hen

By • March 31, 2016 0 Comments

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Author Notes: After a particularly good (i.e. busy/lucrative) weekend behind the bar, often I like to treat myself to a Sunday-evening dinner at the Red Hen, a low-key, Italian-influenced contemporary American restaurant in Washington, D.C.'s Bloomingdale neighborhood. With its excellent cocktails and well-curated wine list, super-knowledgeable bartenders, and--oh, yeah--the FOOD (Charred Beef Tongue with Root Vegetable Slaw, Mint & Tonnato Sauce WHAT), I've never had a bad meal there, ever. If I can, I like to snag the corner seat at the bar, nearest the open kitchen, adjacent to the pass. My face is familiar enough now that the chef de cuisine will occasionally send over a bonus dish or stop to chat in one of the exceedingly rare moments in which the kitchen isn't cranking.

Although the restaurant is justly renowned in the area for its signature Mezze Rigatoni with Fennel Sausage Ragu, but it's the summertime variation on the seasonally-rotating cavatelli dish that is the perennial object of my obsession, when corn comes in season. Last summer, I sat in my favorite seat and paid close attention as the line cook assembled the dish. I could identify every component except one, which was graciously clarified for me: corn brodo. The secret ingredient? A parmesan stock as its base. Blanks roughly filled in, I set out to recreate the dish at home.

While I was working on this, I was reminded a lot of the part in Bill Buford's "Heat" where he talks about the differences between restaurant and home cooking, and how the recipes in the Babbo cookbook don't necessarily accurately represent the way in which a dish is actually cooked in the restaurant. When the line cook was preparing my cavatelli as I sat watching from the bar, he wasn't measuring out ingredients by the teaspoon or tablespoonful, but in pinches, handfuls, and ladlefuls. It's a template--a plate for one, not many. The challenge in recreating the dish at home comes from trying to scale up and approximate the quantities of ingredients necessary to feed more than just oneself. This represents my attempt to do that.

I amalgamated the parmesan broth from several source recipes, including the Cowgirl Creamery one posted here at Food52, which I love for the addition of dried mushrooms, which works particularly well here given the finished dish's mushroom component.


Serves 4-6

For the roasted mushrooms, the parmesan broth, and the corn brodo:

  • 1 pound shiitake mushrooms
  • olive oil, for roasting
  • salt, pepper, and chopped fresh thyme to taste
  • 6 ears sweet corn, husked and de-silked (or 4 cups frozen sweet corn kernels, defrosted)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 head garlic, halved, plus 1 garlic clove, halved
  • 1 medium-large onion, chopped
  • 2 or 3 carrots and celery stalks (each), chopped (combined, they should roughly equal the quantity of onion)
  • 1/4 ounce dried mushrooms (porcini, shiitake, mixed wild...go nuts)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 pinch black peppercorns
  • a few (each) parsley and thyme sprigs
  • 1 pound parmesan cheese rinds
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 quarts water, brought to a simmer
  • 1/2 cup yellow onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • creme fraiche, to taste
  1. Heat oven to 500F. Stem the shiitakes, reserving the stems. Slice the caps 1/8" thick. Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste, and roast 5-7 mins. Remove to a bowl. Using a microplane, grate 1/2 a clove of garlic (or more/less to taste) over, and season with fresh thyme and more salt and pepper if necessary. Toss and set aside until ready to use.
  2. Cut the kernels from the 6 ears of corn. (You should get ~4 1/2 - 5 cups.) Set two cups kernels aside for the brodo, and the rest for the pasta. Scrape the cobs over the reserved brodo kernels with the back of your knife to extract the sweet corn "milk." Reserve the cobs. (NOTE: If fresh corn is out of season, skip this step and use defrosted frozen kernels--2 cups for the brodo and 2 for the pasta--instead.)
  3. Heat a little olive oil and 1 tbsp butter in a large pot over medium heat. When the butter melts, add the scraped corn cobs and reserved shiitake stems, along with the halved garlic head, onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, herbs, and spices. Let the aromatics soften, 8-10 mins, stirring occasionally. (Look for browning of the garlic and translucence of the onions.) As in the Cowgirl recipe, add the cheese rinds next, allowing them to sit at the bottom of the pot for short periods of time (10 seconds between scrapes) to get some nice browning going. Deglaze with white wine, stirring to scrape up all the good stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan, and reduce by half, then add the 2 quarts of simmering water. How long you let it go on the stove depends how robust a flavor you want--about two hours at a gentle simmer will reduce the broth by half, yielding a quart. A shorter simmer (say an hour), will yield a less-concentrated quart and a half. In either case, be sure to stir often (every five minutes, give or take), as the rinds will stick to the bottom and scorch otherwise. When reduced to the desired amount, strain and cool. Season to taste with salt. If making far enough in advance, refrigerate overnight so a fat cap forms and is easily removable. Otherwise, do your best to skim fat from the surface once the broth has cooled. You will only need 2 cups broth for the corn brodo; reserve the rest for another use.
  4. Next, make the corn brodo. Melt the remaining 2 tbsp butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, and saute the 2 cups reserved corn kernels with 1/2 cup chopped onion and 2 chopped garlic cloves until corn is tender. Remove from heat and let cool, then puree with 2 cups of the parmesan broth until smooth. Put through a fine-mesh sieve, then whisk in a few tbsps of creme fraiche and season with salt to taste. Set aside til ready to use.

For the finished pasta:

  • 1/2-1 pounds cavatelli (the Red Hen uses housemade whole wheat cavatelli, but regular pasta is fine, too; use the lesser amount of pasta if you want a more equitable ratio of pasta to the rest of the components, otherwise use the whole box)
  • olive oil, for sauteing
  • 4 ounces bacon, preferably double-smoked, diced
  • 8 green onions, thinly sliced
  • roasted shiitakes, reserved corn kernels, and corn brodo (see above)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, for finishing
  • 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • chopped fresh parsley and thyme, for garnish
  1. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil, and cook the cavatelli according to package directions, draining it just shy of the recommended cook time, as it will finish cooking in the sauce. (Reserve some of the cooking water--a cup should do.)
  2. While the pasta is cooking, film a large skillet with olive oil and saute the bacon and green onions over medium heat, until bacon starts to brown and crisp at the edges. Add the remaining reserved corn kernels and roasted shiitakes--about a 1/2 cup of each per person. (You may have some leftover mushrooms.) Toss. Add corn brodo and lower to a simmer.
  3. When pasta is ready, toss it in the sauce with a little of the pasta water and allow it to finish cooking. Add more water if too dry. Remove from heat and stir in butter and parmesan. Garnish with parsley, thyme, and a little extra parmesan, and serve.

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