Month: April 2015

Pasta alla Carbonara

Although this dish is not characterized as strictly seasonal spring, it is a good one to know because it is light, can be assembled quickly, and requires only a few ingredients found in most pantries.

What piqued my interest to revisit the dish was feedback I received from my good friend Jean who wrote me after reading my post about Pasta Primavera. She shared that she had just prepared a meal of Pasta Carbonara.

Nice! I always enjoy it, have not prepared it in a long time, and never need an excuse to make another pasta dish, so why not explore Carbonara?

Although once I began to research the dish, I discovered several approaches and an interesting history where strong opinions exist between the purists and those who have embellished the base recipe. Realizing this, it seems that I reside somewhere in between the two camps!

The foundation of the recipe, no matter what the season and tradition not withstanding, is based on ingredients you can generally find in your pantry: olive oil, eggs, bacon, dried pasta, onions, garlic, and cheese. If tradition matters little, an acceptable Carbonara can be assembled with those ingredients. Heavy cream, butter, and English peas, sometimes found in versions of the dish, are not a consideration here.

When in Rome, the purists use only fresh pasta, guanciale, egg yolks, Pecorino Romano, and black pepper. My approach would be to use pasta (dried or fresh), olive oil, garlic, onion, guanciale or pancetta, egg yolks, Pecorino Romano (and/or other), black pepper, and finely minced parsley.

The story behind the dish dates back to well before the end of World War II. The dish became popular in Rome where the locals adapted “bacon and eggs” with pasta for the GIs who liberated Italy.

One story is that Carbonara is the result of an old shepherd’s recipe based upon eggs and cheese prepared with pasta and eaten cold while attending their herds. Another version is that Carbonara evolved from a recipe prepared by woodcutters who made charcoal (carbone) used for fuel in Abruzzo, Lazio, and Umbria. Still another tale points out that Pasta alla Carbonara (coal-miners’ style) was a dish popular with coal workers—the Carbonari (charcoal men), reputed to be a secret society that contributed to the liberation of Italy. The abundant use of black pepper in the contemporary Carbonara is said to have evolved from the flecks of black coal dust accidentally finding its way onto the dish as eaten by the coal men.

Suffice it to say, the legends of Carbonara are many, with the popular use of the name itself dating back only 60 to 70 years. The exact origins are unknown, leaving openings for many versions from the traditional Roman style to other less traditional preparations.

A few quick perspectives and cooking points:

  • It seems those culinary aficionados and experts knowledgable about all things Carbonara agree that the meat of choice is guanciale (nonsmoked, salt-cured pork jowl), with pancetta as a second option (nonsmoked, air-dried, salt-cured pork belly). Bacon, an American introduction, which is smoked, imparts a completely different nontraditional taste.
  • The goal in the final dish is creaminess. As such, I use only egg yolks as the whites have a tendency to scramble when introduced to the heat of the pasta and the pan no matter how quickly you mix it all together before serving. This scramble results in a more granular finish to the dish.
  • Spaghetti is the traditional pasta shape, but most any pasta works fine with this preparation.
  • Olive oil, garlic, onion, all nonpurist ingredients, are ones that I believe add additional depth of flavor to the finished dish. The olive oil enhances the sauté. The garlic infuses flavor into the oil and is then removed prior to adding the other ingredients to the sauté. The onion adds a toasty component to the overall flavor of the finished dish.
  • Pecorino Roman is the traditional cheese choice, which I find too salty. Combined with the salt from the rendered guanciale or pancetta, the final dish can be aggressively salty for some. Cutting the Pecorino Romano with Parmigiano-Reggiano (2/3 : 1/3), or simply substituting a longer-aged, drier Pecorino (Pecorino Sardo, for example) from the many imported options available, can reduce the overall salt level of the finished dish.

 

Pasta alla Carbonara (My Way)

Ingredients
1/4 pound of pasta per person (dried or fresh)
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, lightly crushed
1 medium onion, small dice
4 ounces guanciale or pancetta, small dice
4 large egg yolks, room temperature (per 1/2 pound of pasta)
2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano plus 1/3 cup Pecorino Romano
Black pepper
2 tablespoons minced parsley plus more grated cheese for garnish

Method
Set a large pot of water over medium heat and slowly bring to a boil.

Add the olive oil to a large sauté pan wide enough to assemble the finished dish, and sauté the garlic over medium heat to lightly brown and infuse the oil.

Remove the garlic and add the onion. Sauté the onion until it begins to soften and lightly color. Add the guanciale or pancetta, mixing to combine with the onion and allow the fat to render and lightly crisp but not harden. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

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Add the pasta to the heated water and cook al dente but not soft, perhaps a minute less than the package instructions. Set aside a cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta.

Place the sauté pan back on moderate heat, add the cooked pasta and mix to thoroughly combine with the onion and pork sauté. Immediately add the egg yolks, the cheese, and some black pepper and vigorously mix again to thoroughly combine, coating the pasta with a smooth emulsion. If the mix seems too dry, add several tablespoons of the pasta water in an effort to create a smooth, creamy sauce without any residual liquid remaining in the sauté pan.

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Serve immediately in warm bowls or plates, and dust the top with additional pepper, cheese, and minced parsley. Buon appetito!

This is not a low-calorie dish, but it is a dish that everyone, even the kids and grandkids, will enjoy. So add it to your go-to recipe list.

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Pasta Primavera

It has been said that most recipes today set about inspiring you to put good food on your table. But a great recipe, one that has been passed down and has stood the test of time, is more than just about good food—it should help you understand and appreciate the process as well. In writing about this quintessential spring dish, I hope to share that perspective about process as well as an approach to a good meal that has been a favorite for many years.

With regard to some of the feedback I have received lately, “I enjoy reading what you write about, Dante, but it would take me too much time to prepare so I probably won’t do it,” or something similar to that. Well, I am hopeful that “Pasta Primavera,” or “Spaghetti Primavera,” might change your thinking.

By simply perusing your local market, or even your garden if you are so inclined, to gather the ingredients, this dish can be assembled quickly, using only a large stockpot of water, a sauté pan large enough to hold all the ingredients once prepared, and a pound of your favorite pasta.

First, a little background. The focus of pasta primavera, or springtime pasta, is all about the vegetable mix, the color, the texture, the shape, and the overall flavor when assembled on the plate. There have been many stories and several people who claim credit as to how the dish came to be, but the most consistent one focuses on the famous New York restaurant Le Cirque back in the late 1970s where Sirio Maccioni, the owner and restauranteur, popularized the dish by preparing it tableside. He received a boost from Craig Claiborne, writing for the New York Times where he called it “by far, the most talked-about dish in Manhattan.” The rest is history as the dish flourished and has been served by many restaurants at this time of the year with as many variations.

Dozens of interpretations of this recipe can be found in many cookbooks as well countless variations on the Internet, such as substituting different vegetables, using yogurt instead of cream, and changing some of the cooking process to lighten the dish overall. I don’t prescribe to any of those ingredient changes, and as such, with a few very minor adjustments to add to the overall depth of flavor, my take on this spring classic remains true to what Maccioni first offered.

My minor adjustments are as follows:

Lightly crush two garlic cloves, slice half the tomatoes in half, leaving the remainder whole, toss with the garlic, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and some rough chopped parsley and roast for 15 minutes in a preheated 375-degree oven until the tomatoes char and blister slightly. Set aside.

Toast the pine nuts, careful not to burn. Set aside. Substitute Half & Half for the heavy cream. Cook the pasta in the same pot of water in which you cooked the vegetables.

 

Pasta Primavera

Ingredients
8 medium asparagus spears, trimmed, tips cut off the stalk; then cut 2 to 3 stalks on the bias into 1/2-inch pieces
1 head of broccoli, use florets only, cut small, yielding approximately 1-1/2 cups
1-1/2 cups small white button mushrooms, cut into quarters
1/2 cup fresh or frozen English peas
1 medium zucchini, unpeeled, ends trimmed, quartered lengthwise, then cut on the bias into 1/2-inch pieces
3 cloves of garlic, minced (2 to be roasted with the tomatoes, 1 for the vegetable sauté)
2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes (all red or red and yellow mix)
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup of Half & Half
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 pound of pasta per person (farfalle, fettuccine, penne, spaghetti)
Garnish with grated parmesan or an aged pecorino, shredded basil, minced parsley, and chives

Method
Prep all the vegetables and, if you are so inclined, freeze all the trimmings, which can be used as a base for vegetable stock.

Bring a large stockpot of salted water to a gentle boil. Begin by blanching only the green vegetables for approximately 1 to 2 minutes or until crisp but tender. Blanch each vegetable separately and rinse under cold water, drain, then set aside to dry.

Add the pasta to the same water used for the vegetables and cook to “al dente.”

While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, then the mushrooms and sauté until they begin to soften and take on some color. Next, add the prepared vegetables, gently toss to combine, and sauté for 5 minutes until tender. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over and again toss to combine. Set aside off the heat.

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In a smaller sauté pan add and warm the roasted tomatoes. Sprinkle with some of the shredded basil, salt and pepper, and keep warm.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain, reserve 1/2 cup of the water, and add the pasta to the large sauté pan containing the vegetable mix and return to the stove over medium heat. Add the butter, the Half & Half, the grated cheese, the minced parsley and chives, tossing to combine and coat the pasta. Add a couple of tablespoons of the water if the sauce becomes too thick.

Divide the pasta and vegetable mix between warm individual bowls or plates, spoon the warmed tomato sauté over the top, sprinkle with some additional basil, and serve immediately with additional grated cheese to accompany.

This is a great dish for a gathering, as it is colorful and festive, can be prepped ahead of time except for the final cooking of the pasta and assembly. And, although this is a restaurant recipe with seemingly many steps, it is quite easy to prepare, makes great use of all the spring vegetables, and is quite tasty. Hey, we could have substituted fava beans for the English peas, but that seemed like too much work, right? Now there are no excuses, so treat yourself to a great pasta dish to celebrate spring.

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