Archive for the ‘Skinny Guinea’ Category

Recipe: Sformata with Parsnips and Fontina

Sformata, hard to pronounce, even for a guinea girl like me. SSSSSSFFFFOOOOORRRR. Think of the makeup shop Sephora and you’ll get the idea, except you’ll want to elide the sound, not break it into two syllables. All it really means, in Italian culinary parlance, is something that’s molded, like a flan or a gratin type dish. But the primary issue here, I think, is the parsnip. Not many people eat them. Most people I know, even good cooks, aren’t sure what to do with them.

Parsnips are such a unique tasting vegetable. They look like pale carrots but have a starchier texture and an absolutely mesmerizing floral fragrance and taste. Don’t leave them out of your life. Unlike carrots, they tend to break up a bit if you just try to slice and sauté them.  They are good roasted, but if you want to try this, use smaller ones, as the big ones can get tough. To my taste, I think it’s better to mash them and then work them into something like a soufflé or a flan—a sformata, in fact.

Here I’ve added a little potato to give the dish body, but just a little. I didn’t want to dilute any of the beautiful parsnip flavor. Possibly this isn’t a true sformata, which really is more like a flan. Since I do add whipped egg whites, I suppose this is a morph between a flan and a soufflé, but it is molded, so I believe it qualifies as a sformata. I served it on New Year’s Day, along with a nice tender lump of roast beef.

And just in case you were curious, here is what Winter looks like in Sicily:

Sformata with Parsnips and Fontina

(Serves 5 as a side dish)

½ cup grated Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese (use the good stuff)
½ cup grated  grana Padano chese
¾ cup homemade dry breadcrumbs, not too finely ground and seasoned with a pinch of salt
3 tablespoons soft butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
About 8 medium parsnips (the really large ones can be tough), peeled and thickly sliced
2 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cut into medium dice
1 shallot, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
About 10 big scrapings of nutmeg
6 fresh thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
3 egg yolks
6 egg whites

You’ll want an approximately 8-by-12-inch gratin dish (this is not a soufflé; it’s firmer; it will rise a bit while cooking but will fall just as quickly, which is what you want). Coat the inside of the dish with about half of the softened butter.

Mix the Fontina and the grana Padano together in a bowl. Sprinkle the dish with a handful of the cheese mixture and some of the breadcrumbs, and tap it around until the dish is lightly coated.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large pot, heat the remaining butter with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the parsnips, potato, and shallot. Season with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg, and sauté for about 2 or 3 minutes, just to coat the vegetables with flavor. Add about ½ cup of warm water to the pot, turn the heat down a touch, and cover it. Simmer, stirring everything around a few times, until the vegetables are tender when poked with a knife. If at any time it seems they might start to stick, add a little more warm water. Add the thyme. Now mash everything (I used a whisk) until you have a fairly smooth mush. Avoid the temptation to use a food processor; that might make it gluey. Let the mix cool for a few minutes, and then add the egg yolks, stirring them in well. Add the cheese, leaving about ¼ cup out to sprinkle on the top, and mix it in.

Whisk the egg whites, and gently fold them into the parsnip mixture. Pour everything into the baking dish. Scatter the remaining cheese and enough of the breadcrumbs to lightly cover the top. Drizzle with olive oil and bake, uncovered, until golden and puffy, about 30 minutes. You can serve this right away or let it fall a bit and serve it warm.

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Tangerine Sorbetto

Recipe: Tangerine Sorbetto

Every year on Christmas Eve I serve some type of light citrus dessert. I can’t help it. It just seems the only way to go after a big fish dinner. Sometimes I’ll make a sweet blood orange salad with sugar and a touch of cinnamon, or one of those wobbly Sicilian gelatina molds (always a little tricky to turn out, unfortunately). This year I got out the ice cream maker, juiced up a bunch of tangerines, added vanilla, zest, and my most favorite Arab-Siculi flavor—orange flower water—and came up with something really nice, a keeper. The cream doesn’t really belong in a sorbetto, so it is optional, but it does add an alluring creamsicle taste.

I hope everyone had a great Christmas. Tell me what you cooked.

And here’s a Sicilian Christmas song to go with this Sicilian inspired dessert:

Tangerine Sorbetto

(Makes about 1½ pints)

¾ cup sugar
½ cup water
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon orange flower water
2 dozen or so tangerines
½ lemon
1 egg white
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Place the sugar in a saucepan. Add the water, vanilla, and orange flower water, and bring to a boil. Boil until the sugar has dissolved, about 4 minutes or so. Chill.

Zest two of the tangerines, and set the zest aside. Juice all of them and the lemon, making sure to remove all the pits. Let the juice chill for a few hours.

Place the tangerine and lemon juice and about ¾ of the sugar syrup in a food processor. Add the tangerine zest, egg white, and cream, and pulse a few times, just until well blended. Taste for sweetness, adding the rest of the sugar syrup if you need to (you can instead just mix everything in a big bowl, using a whisk).

Pour the mix into an ice cream maker, and churn until frozen and creamy.

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Salt cod at the Boqueria market in Barcelona. Wow, pretty expensive this year.

Recipe: Baccalà Mantecato

In the last week or so several people have asked me about this salt cod dish, knowing I always make it for Christmas Eve. Baccalà mantecato (mantecare means to whip) is a Venetian dish, but it’s essentially the same as Provençale brandade. I’ve had versions of it in Naples too, but whipped-up, creamy salt cod is not as popular there as dishes where the salt cod is left in chunks and simply simmered with potatoes, tons of onion, white wine, and possibly tomatoes. It can include raisins, pine nuts, or capers, too, or all three.

I’ve always loved this creamy preparation, which by the way is made without cream; it gets its lovely texture from whipping poached salt cod with olive oil and sometimes a little cooked potato. You can do this with a whisk, a potato masher, your fist, or in a food processor, if you pulse quickly and gently (too much processing will make it overly smooth and possibly gummy, especially if you add a lot of potato). I’ve got the food processor thing down.

Salt cod is a unique taste, one that I crave, but to keep it special I save it for Christmas Eve, plus I don’t love soaking salt cod all that much, since it stinks up the kitchen. The cats do however love clawing and chewing at it while it soaks (I once found a huge piece pulled from the pot and dragged under the bathroom rug). They also like the finished dish. A beautiful white dish for two beautiful white cats. If you’ve got any old people or cats with no teeth to feed on Christmas Eve, this is the perfect thing.

And for your listening pleasure, here’s Louis Prima, doing what he did best, singing about baccalà:

Baccalà Mantecato

(Serves 5 or 6 as an antipasto)

1½ pounds salt cod (try to get the thicker middle section, which has fewer bones to deal with)
1 fresh bay leaf
½ cup dry white wine
1 baking potato, cooked soft, peeled, and roughly mashed
1 large garlic clove, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A few big gratings of nutmeg
5 or 6 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
A few tablespoons of milk
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
A handful of black olives
Toasted crostini made from slices of baguette, brushed with a little olive oil

You’ll need to soak the salt cod in a big pot of cold water for about a day and a half, changing the water a bunch of times and putting the pot in the refrigerator overnight. Toward the end, taste a bit to see if a sufficient amount of salt has leeched out of it. If not, soak it a little longer. Then drain it.

Place the salt cod, cut into pieces if necessary, in a large skillet. Add the bay leaf, and pour on the white wine. Add enough cool water to just cover the cod. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to very low. Cover the skillet, and gently simmer the cod until it just begins to flake. This should take only about 15 minutes, maybe even less, if you’ve got thin cuts. If it cooks any longer, it might become dry. Take the cod from the skillet, and when it’s cool enough to handle, pull off the bones and the skin.

Put the cod in a food processor, and give it a couple of pulses. Add the potato, the garlic, about ¼ cup of your best olive oil, and the lemon zest, thyme, nutmeg, and some black pepper. Give it a few more pulses. You want a texture that’s creamy but not completely smooth. Add about 2 tablespoons of milk, and pulse again. You shouldn’t need any salt.

Scrape the baccalà from the food processor, and spoon it into a shallow baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs, and drizzle the top with olive oil.

When you’re ready to serve it, heat the oven to 425 degrees, and heat the baccalà through, about 10 minutes. If the breadcrumbs don’t turn golden, run the thing under a broiler for a minute. Scatter on the olives, and serve with the crostini.

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Recipe: Polpettone with Ricotta, Pistachios, and Prosciutto

A friend recently told me that he had just made a meatloaf, an American-style one, and it had come out very well. I like a good American meatloaf, but I also love polpettone, Italy’s version of  a big old load of baked chopped meat. The one I came up with here contains no bread. Instead I’ve held it together with a few eggs and a good amount of ricotta, making it very moist, maybe a little harder to pat into shape, since the mixture is soft, but that’s not a terribly big deal. I wrap the entire thing in prosciutto, which not only holds it together but imparts a lovely flavor, making it taste something like a country pâté.

You can have fun playing around with my seasoning choices, replacing the pistachios with pine nuts, using a Parmigiano instead of a mild pecorino, incorporating a different herb. I chose marjoram, but I’ve also made versions of this using fresh sage (not too much) or thyme. Oh, also, in my opinion, the best polpettone are made from a mix of ground pork and beef chuck, since that gives you enough fat to keep it juicy.

And for all my friends of Puglian decent, here’s a little tune for you.

Polpettone with Ricotta, Pistachios and Prosciutto

(Serves 5)

1 pound ground pork
½ pound ground beef chuck
1 cup whole milk ricotta, drained if watery
2 large eggs, plus 1 egg white, lightly beaten
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup grated young pecorino cheese (a pecorino Toscana is a good choice, or a young Manchego)
1 garlic clove, minced
A large handful of unsalted pistachios
A generous handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
3 or 4 large sprigs marjoram, the leaves chopped
5 or 6 scrapings of fresh nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
About 6 very thin slices prosciutto di Parma
1 wine glass dry white wine

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Put all the ingredients for the polpettone, except for the prosciutto and the white wine, into a large bowl, and season with black pepper and salt (you will want to use a touch less salt than usual, since much of the salt from the prosciutto gets baked into the thing as it cooks). Mix everything around quickly with your fingers, trying not to pack it down too much. The mixture will be loose.

Choose a baking dish that will fit the polpettone fairly snugly with a little room to breath. Coat the bottom of the dish with olive oil. Shape the meat into a log, and set it in the dish. Drape the top with the prosciutto slices, tucking the ends underneath. The prosciutto should pretty much cover the entire meatloaf.

Pour the wine over the meatloaf, and drizzle it with olive oil. Bake, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. I like my polpettone with the slightest touch of pink at the center. That ensures that it will be nice and moist. Let the polpettone rest for about 10 minutes before slicing. You can serve it warm or at room temperature. I like mine served over a chicory salad, but you can, if you wish, make a simple tomato sauce and serve it with that and a vegetable (broccoli rabe?) and a starch (mashed potatoes, or polenta?), in a more Italian-American fashion.

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Very fresh tuna at the Trapani fish market. Dig the sword spire.

Recipe: Cavatelli with Fresh Tuna, Marsala, and Rosemary

I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely hard to keep up with the lists of endangered, semi-endangered, or just plain bad-for-your-health fish. I do consult the seafood selector set up by the Environmental Defense Fund, which tells you to stay away from bluefin tuna and imported shrimp. I find yellowfin tuna at my Greenmarket and grab it, but I also break down and buy small chunks of bluefin now and then. The best way to make a little go a long way is by including it in a pasta sauce.

I made this tuna pasta twice. The first go-round I quick-seared the tuna chunks, trying to keep them very pink in the middle, and added them to the sauce at the last minute. I liked the way it cooked up, but by the time I brought the dish to the table, the tuna had cooked through and was not as tender as I would have wanted, thanks to its initial high-heat treatment. Next time, I just dropped the tuna pieces into a very low-simmering sauce and let them gently cook through. That produced a more tender tuna and a nicer result, more like a fish ragu. I kind of missed the seared taste from the first try, but I concluded that all in all the gentle simmer is the way to go.

And for your listening pleasure:

Cavatelli with Fresh Tuna, Marsala, and Rosemary

(Serves 2)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 small jalapeño pepper, minced, with the seeds
2 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
1 shotglass dry Marsala
½ pound cavatelli
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped, with the juice
½ pound, or a little less, yellowfin or bluefin tuna steak, cut into approximately ½-inch cubes
A handful of toasted pine nuts
A smaller handful of Sicilian capers
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, very lightly chopped

Put up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and the jalapeño, and sauté for a minute to release their flavors. Add the rosemary, and sauté for a few seconds to allow some of its oil to escape. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble until almost dry.

Drop the cavatelli into the water.

Add the tomatoes, seasoning with a little salt, and simmer at a lively boil for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to very low, and add the tuna, stirring the pieces around in the sauce for a few seconds. Turn off the heat, and take the skillet off the stove. The heat from the sauce will finish cooking the tuna. Add the pine nuts and capers. Taste for seasoning.

When the cavatelli is al dente, pour it into a warmed serving bowl. Drizzle it with fresh olive oil, and add the parsley. Give it a toss. Add the tuna sauce, and toss again. Serve right away.

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Picasso drawing a fish.

Recipe: Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Rosemary Oil

The approach of Thanksgiving always gets me thinking about food that has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. It’s not my favorite food holiday. In fact, I’d have to say it’s my least favorite food holiday, except possibly for Halloween. I like the wines that go with turkey, but I don’t really love the turkey. I like the turkey skin. I’d honestly be happy with a few glasses of Nero d’Avola, crisp turkey skin on a salad, and then a big piece of pecan pie.

Since we’re just a few days from Thanksgiving and you’ve likely already got your menu down, I thought I’d give you a favorite Christmas Eve dish of mine, one for La Vigilia, the big Italian Christmas Eve dinner. I love rosemary with fish, and this dish is fragrant with it. I warm whole sprigs in olive oil, letting their essence release with the gentle heat, and I throw in a few more ingredients, such as garlic and orange zest, just to round out the flavor. Then I use this as a condimento for the fish.

Roasting is an easy way to cook a whole fish. I always use high heat, about 425 degrees, since it crisps up the skin, holding the juices in, and cooks the fish quickly, so it doesn’t dry out.

Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Rosemary Oil

(Serves 2)

1 approximately 2½ pound sea bass, gutted and scaled but with the head left on
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, sliced into rounds
A big branch of rosemary
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
½ cup dry white wine

For the rosemary oil:

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
A large sprig of rosemary, the leaves finely chopped
1 garlic clove, very thinly sliced
1 fresh red medium hot peperoncino pepper, seeded and minced
The grated zest from 1 large orange
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Cut three shallow diagonal slashes into each side of the fish. Rub it all over with olive oil, and then season it inside and out with sea salt and black pepper.

Lay the fish in a baking dish big enough to hold it with a little room all around. Stuff the inside of the fish with the lemon slices, rosemary, and garlic. Pour the white wine into the dish, and then give everything an extra drizzle of olive oil.

Bake until the fish is just tender, about 25 minutes. You can check by sticking a small sharp knife into it under the skin along the backbone. The flesh should release from the bone but still offer a little resistance, and it should be white and not gelatinous. What you don’t want is dry and very flaky, so check maybe once after about 20 minutes to see where it’s at.

While the fish is cooking, make the rosemary oil: Pour the olive oil into a small saucepan. Add all the other ingredients, and heat over a medium flame until the oil is quite warm to the touch but not boiling. Now turn off the flame, and let the mix sit there so it can continue to release its flavors.

When the fish is ready, scrape back its skin and fillet the top portion. I find this easiest to do using a chef’s knife and a spatula. Pull out the skeleton, and fillet the bottom half by lifting it out with a spatula. The skin will probably just stick to the dish. Plate both fillets. Gently reheat the rosemary oil if necessary, and spoon it over the fish. Serve right away.

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Recipe: Tagliolini with Oyster Mushrooms, Prosciutto Cotto, and Sage

I recently went hunting for oyster mushrooms in Dutchess County, New York, with my friend Toby. He finds them almost every year, growing shelf-like from half dead trees in the woods around his house. This year he had so many that after trying to peddle them off to a local restaurant (they were swamped, too), he asked me for a few recipes. I suggested making a simple bruschetta, just sautéing them in a bit of garlic, olive oil, thyme, and brandy, and then putting them on toast, which he did and served at a family dinner. His 93-year-old mother had the violent pukes for three days afterward. She has recovered, but I felt kind of guilty, although I’m sure it was the mushrooms, not my innocuous recipe.

The things do look a bit iffy. Sometimes they’re white or cream-colored, which seems pretty tame, but more often they’re a very light peach, which is what we found this year. Occasionally Toby has found bright butter yellow ones, looking like butterflies that have mated with a dreadful fungus. They look the most menacing, but they are delicious and quite harmless, I guess, unless you’re really old. You can get wild ones from mushroom sellers at farmers’ markets now, or buy cultivated oysters in supermarkets. Just make sure any you wind up with aren’t waterlogged. Those don’t sauté up well and can have a lightly mildewy odor. For that reason I try to avoid supermarket oysters that are packaged in plastic. I always buy loose ones.

As nice and sickening as that bruschetta was, here’s a recipe for something more involved, although by no means complicated. For this pasta you’ll want to purchase good prosciutto cotto di Parma , the cooked form of air-cured prosciutto, something I wouldn’t use in a cooked pasta sauce, since it’s delicate and when heated loses most of its charms, both in taste and in texture.

Oyster mushrooms in Toby’s woods.

Tagliolini with Oyster Mushrooms, Prosciutto Cotto, and Sage

(Serves 2 as a main course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, cut into small dice
½ pound tagliolini or spaghetti
¼ pound oyster mushrooms, roughly sliced, the thick stems cut away
A few big scrapings of fresh nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
A splash of dry vermouth
¼ cup homemade chicken broth
4 or 5 slices proscuitto cotto, cut into thin strips
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraiche
About 6 sage leaves, cut into thin strips
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of grana Padano cheese

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil.

Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil with the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots, and let them soften, about 2 minutes.

Add a generous amount of salt to the pasta water, and when it comes back to a boil drop in the tagliolini or spaghetti.

Add the oyster mushrooms to the skillet, and sauté until they’ve softened, about 3 minutes or so. Season with the nutmeg, a bit of salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth and the prosciutto cotto, and warm through. Turn off the heat.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it and pour it into a warmed serving bowl.

Add the crème fraiche to the mushroom sauce, and stir it in. Pour the sauce over the pasta. Add the sage and parsley, and grate in about a tablespoon of grana Padano. Toss gently, adding a bit more salt or black pepper if needed. Serve right away, with extra grana Padano if you like.

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Still life with leeks, Chaim Soutine, 1893-1943.

Recipe: Pappardelle with Cockles, Leeks, and Saffron

It’s time to take the tomatoes out of your pasta. Don’t you think?  Although I haven’t resigned myself to cranking open the canned stuff quite yet. There’s always this in-between period for me, after a summer of fresh tomatoes (especially this summer, when their flavor was so deepened by the strong sun). Before I head straight for the can opener, I like a no-tomato pasta sauce, with its flavor anchored by a substantial soffrito of aromatics; here I chose leeks, celery, garlic, and thyme. And then, with that flavoring in place, you can go ahead and add vino, maybe a splash of broth, and in this case, all the juices the cockles give off once they open. This is a gentle, elegant, and herby version of spaghetti with clam sauce. Nice for a change.

Pappardelle with Cockles, Leeks, and Saffron

(Serves 2)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, well cleaned and cut into medium dice, using the white and only the tenderest green parts
1 celery stalk, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
About 8 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
2 tablespoons  unsalted butter
½ cup dry white wine
1 pound New Zealand cockles, well scrubbed
About 12 saffron threads, dried and ground
½ cup warm chicken broth
Black pepper
A generous pinch of Piment d’Espelette pepper
½ pound fresh pappardelle
A small handful of tarragon leaves, lightly chopped
A slightly larger handful of flat leaf parsley, lightly chopped

Set up a pasta cooking pot filled with water, and bring it to a boil.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the leeks and the celery, and sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and the thyme, and let them sauté for about a minute. Add the butter, and let it melt. Add the white wine, and allow it to bubble for about a minute, to throw off its alcohol. Add the cockles, and give them a stir. Dissolve the saffron in the chicken broth, and add it to the skillet. Add the black pepper and the Piment.

Add a generous amount of salt to the pasta water, and drop in the pappardelle, giving them a little stir to prevent sticking.

Cook the cockles, uncovered, until they open, about 4 minutes or so. Taste for salt, adding a little if needed (often cockles are salty enough, but they vary).

When the pappardelle is tender, drain it well, and place it in a serving bowl. Pour on the clam sauce. Add the tarragon, parsley, and a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil, and give everything a gentle toss. Serve right away.

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Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara My Way

It’s the mid-1970s, and I’m out to dinner in “the city” with my sister Liti, my good friend Barbara, and a few gay boyfriends, driving the 30 minutes or so, depending on traffic, from our Nassau Country ranch house to a place called the Grotta Azurra, in Little Italy, a Neapolitan restaurant bathed in a shade of turquoise that can make even a 19-year-old’s complexion look haggard. Kind of a cozy place, though, since it’s down below street level and actually feels a bit like a grotto. I’ve been there a few times with my parents. The food was never great at the Grotta, but the Naples-inspired décor was all-enveloping, and just being in Little Italy appealed to me (of course, now the real neighborhood is gone and replaced by a Disneyfied stand-in).

I order spaghetti carbonara, something my mother never makes at home. She probably thinks it’s fattening. I order it because it’s famous, and supposedly a dish has to be famous for a good reason. I’ve had pasta carbonara before, though, usually when out to dinner with my parents, and it has never seemed to me to merit any excitement. Thought I’d give it another shot.

Tonight my spaghetti carbonara is extremely smoky, emitting almost a Liquid Smoke aroma as it comes to the table, and it’s very thick with cream. On top of that it’s lumpy. Not only is the sauce clotted, but the spaghetti is fused together in places, and I can tell from having eaten pasta at home that it’s tragically overcooked. Worst of all, it just doesn’t taste good. It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t understand all the rubbery pieces of bacon coated with clotted cream. A mood is creeping up, a withdrawal. It can’t be this stupid pasta dish. I must have brought the mood with me. But occasionally when I’m in a mood, bad food can push me to feeling out of control.

I’m having a glass of nameless white wine that’s pretty good. I’m with my friends. Life is beautiful. But I’m overcome by deep disappointment. My eyes fill with tears. I’m not sure anyone notices. Everything is disappointing. I feel extremely bony, my speaking voice too low-pitched. I don’t understand how those waiters carry all those plates at the same time without letting them crash to the floor. I could never ever do that job.

Then I make a big discovery: I don’t like cream in pasta. Period. “I never like cream in pasta.” I announce.

“Why did you order it?”

“Because I don’t understand what carbonara is supposed to be.”

That evening I drink white wine, red wine, and Sambuca, all to try to work the cream through my body. Everyone carries on, having a good time, not seeing what I’m feeling, most likely because I’m not showing what I’m feeling. Finally I’m feeling only one thing, and that’s drunk. Liti, I notice, orders a cannoli. I order one too, and another Sambuca.

I interpret that drunken evening as a call to figure out the right way to make pasta carbonara. Having tasted it only in New York restaurants, I’ve assumed it was a Neapolitan dish. Wrong. I grabbed the only Italian cookbook we had in our Long Island house, The Talisman Cookbook, by Ada Boni, which was a great book, the first real Italian cookbook available to Americans. I looked all through it but couldn’t find spaghetti carbonara—until I realized she had listed it in the index as “Spaghetti with Bacon.” I turned to the recipe and it was titled “Spaghetti Carbonara (with bacon).”

Ada Boni explained that this was a Roman pasta. How about that? With very few ingredients and, sure enough, no cream. Not a drop. I felt vindicated. Eggs! The creaminess came from eggs. A revelation. There had been definitely no eggs in the Grotto Azzura reproduction.

How could I get eggs to become creamy without ending up with scrambled eggs? Well, I learned from Miss Boni that if you work with care, the heat from the spaghetti can gently cook the eggs without curdling them, producing a soft sauce. Now, I’m sure Miss Boni knew that smoked bacon wasn’t the correct meat to use for carbonara. I had heard rumors of something called pancetta from a neighbor whose family came from the Abbruzzi mountains of central Italy, but that woman couldn’t find pancetta in 1970s Long Island, so Miss Boni surely had no choice when translating the dish for American readers in a cookbook first published in 1950.

Here’s how Ada Boni instructed me to put together my first spaghetti carbonara in, I’d say, 1974: First you start boiling your spaghetti (Ronzoni, she suggests). While it’s cooking, you sauté chopped-up bacon until crisp. In a bowl, add pecorino Romano or Parmesan (spelled just like that) cheese to a few beaten eggs (you can, she says, if you like, add a little white wine to the mix as well, which I did, because it sounded fancy). Drain the spaghetti, and then return it to the pot it was cooked in. Pour the egg mixture over the top. Add black pepper and some of the hot grease from cooking the bacon, and toss. That grease, plus I assume the heat from the pasta pot, she says will provide sufficient heat to cook the eggs. Now pour everything into a serving bowl, and scatter the crisp bacon on top.

Well, I tried that a few times, and it wasn’t bad, but I found there was too much residual heat in the pasta cooking pot, and the first few times the eggs did curdle. Even so, it was a much better dish than the cream-laden carbonaras I had choked down before.

I did finally locate pancetta and learned it is the same cut as bacon but unsmoked, just cured with nutmeg, black pepper, salt, and sometimes other spices. I consulted my newly acquired The Classic Italian Cook Book, by Marcella Hazan. She didn’t discuss carbonara, but she did mention other uses for pancetta, such as as a flavoring for sauces, pasta fillings, vegetables, and roasts. I did, however, discuss the subject again with my Abruzzese neighbor, and she insisted that pancetta was a beautiful thing. So I went ahead trying to perfect my carbonara and learning how to cook pancetta so it came out neither burnt nor flabby. A success.

In 1979 I made my first visit to Rome. Spaghetti carbonara was on every trattoria menu, sometimes made with pancetta and sometimes made with a meat called guanciale, a cured pork jowl, as I learned. Wow, wacky. Pork jowl. The thought of that disgusted me at first, but of course like most disgusting things it eventually exerted a fascination. It even eventually grew to be an ingredient that I cherish. It tastes rich and gentle, even suaver than pancetta. I learned that guanciale was a dignified way to go. Pancetta was for lazy people and amateurs, meaning Americans. But I didn’t locate any guanciale for another ten years or so, even in sophisticated Manhattan, where I ended up living.

Guanciale is a must for me now when I cook spaghetti carbonara, and I understand why the dish at its best is so great, so well balanced, with a wonderful texture and gentle blend of flavors. For years I made it totally straight—why mess with perfection? Then I started experimenting, making a few personal adjustments. A Roman might object to my now including parsley, a touch of garlic, a quick grating of nutmeg, and the splash of dry Marsala I use to deglaze the skillet (Ada Boni beats a little white wine into the raw eggs, which is nice but doesn’t pull up all that great skillet flavor).

And since I learned  that returning the spaghetti to the pot it was cooked in can occasionally curdle the eggs. I  now mix the eggs and cheese in a warmed serving bowl, give the drained spaghetti a quick toss in the skillet that I sautéed the guanciale in, and then add that to the egg and cheese mixture. The texture that results is perfect, creamy, custardy. Wow, that took long enough to figure out.

And just for the record, I recently looked up Grotto Azzura’s latest menu. They still serve spaghetti carbonara, and they still describe it as spaghetti with a Parmesan (same spelling) cream sauce, but with pancetta. At least they finally got rid of the bacon.

Spaghetti Carbonara My Way

(Serves 5 as a first course)

3 extra-large organic eggs
¼ cup fresh grated pecorino Romano cheese (try to find one that’s not too sharp)
½ cup fresh grated grana Padano cheese, plus extra for the table
Several large scrapings of nutmeg
A large handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves very lightly chopped
Coarse black pepper, freshly ground
1 pound spaghetti (an artisanal one, cut to catch the sauce, Latini, for instance)
Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound guanciale, cut into medium dice
2 small garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
½ cup dry Marsala

Bring to a boil a large pot of pasta cooking water. Add a generous amount of salt.

Place the eggs, the pecorino, the grana Padano, the nutmeg, a generous amount of black pepper, and the parsley in a large, warmed serving bowl, and mix everything together well.

Drop the spaghetti into the pot, and give it a quick stir to make sure it doesn’t stick.

In a medium skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the guanciale, and cook it slowly until it’s very crisp and has given off much of its fat, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté about a minute, just until it gives off fragrance. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for about 30 seconds; you don’t want to boil it away completely but just enough to loosen all the caramelized skillet bits, so you can incorporate them into your sauce.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water, and add the spaghetti to the bowl with the egg mixture. Toss well. The heat from the pasta will lightly cook the eggs. Add the guanciale and all the skillet juices, and toss again. Add an extra drizzle of fresh olive oil, a few more grindings of coarse black pepper (black pepper is a main player in this dish), and a little of the cooking water to loosen the sauce, if needed. Taste to see if it needs more salt. Serve right away, with extra grana Padano brought to the table if you like.

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