Thursday, May 22, 2008
What's the Coal-Miner Got To Do With It?
There are some iconic dishes that, when prepared incorrectly, are just plain infuriating. The most maddening part is not only that mistakes have been made, but that they eventually become so pervasive that we begin to accept them as permissible. I'm a firm believer that shortcuts are all well and good at home, but when one is paying for food, shortcuts in the kitchen are inexcusable. After all, if I'm paying for a dish (for more than it would cost me to make it at home), I expect for it to be done properly. I've ranted on many a previous post about restaurants that--in the interest of time and cost--add certain "cheat" ingredients to their dishes. One of the worst offenders (as I've mentioned before) are establishments that cheat dishes like risotto by adding cream. Even if we can agree that a risotto dish is decent with added cream, it gives diners the perception that a risotto should be a milky, white, cream filled health hazard. The real star of the dish (super starchy arborio rice) does not shine, and no one appreciates the dishes true wonder.
These thoughts all came flooding angrily into my mind as I began researching classic spaghetti carbonara. I had a simple base recipe that I've made for years, but thought that in the interest of making the best carbonara possible, I'd look into what tips and tricks other cooks had for this fabled dish. Much to my dismay, nearly every recipe I encountered, from very reputable sources, I might add, included a substantial amount of cream. Pasta carbonara is not a cream based dish, it isn't even a cream based sauce. In fact, it only uses 5 main ingredients, none of which is cream. This dish is thought to be named for Italian immigrants who made little money working in the coal mines. The name (carbonara) is a testament to a hearty, affordable dish that coal miner's wives could make with just pasta, eggs and cheap cuts of fatty pork (anyone with extra pocket change had the luxury of adding cheese). The coalminers are reflected symbolically in the heavy use of black pepper in the dish.
Needless to say, I find the addition of cream a bit offensive to the people the dish is meant to honor. But more importantly, it gives diners the impression that this is a rich and creamy sauce like any other, when in fact it is thickened with just the use of eggs. I know that it has recently become en vogue to add heaps of cream and butter to everything and claim that it's okay, but I happen to think that some things, like the flavor of a classic dish, should be held sacred. And frankly, I think most chefs should try executing dishes perfectly the proper way before they try taking shortcuts and messing with classics. Okay, I'll step off my soapbox now. But I'd just like to encourage everyone to make this dish the right way, because it has a distinctive flavor like no other that is only clouded with the addition of fillers like cream. Here's my recipe, where I went with spinach tagliatelle instead of the classic spaghetti:
Spinach Tagliatelle alla Carbonara
1/2 lb dry spinach tagliatelle
5 strips fatty bacon, guanciale, or prosciutto, sliced
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
1 tsp cracked black pepper
(1 tsp parsley garnish optional)
1. Cook pasta according to package directions in a large pot of salted boiling water. Combine eggs, pepper and cheese in a bowl and set aside.
2. Cook bacon (or guanciale or prosciutto) in a large skillet until crispy. Remove bacon to a paper towel lined plate to drain, leaving rendered fat in the skillet.
3. Remove skillet from heat and add pasta (preferably with tongs and not drained through a colander). Add egg/cheese mixture while pasta is still steaming hot and toss pasta until a sauce is formed by the eggs mixture. Add bacon, toss to combine and serve immediately. Garnish with grated cheese and parsley if desired. Enjoy!