Spaghetti alla Carbonara

In matters of pasta, I will usually defer to Marcella Hazan; she is as close to a food god as I know. But for this dish, I must disagree with her. She doesn’t like using bacon, because the smoky flavor “adds a sharpness that wearies the palate after the first bitefuls.” She’s wrong about the bacon, but I wish I could write like that! Hazan says that pancetta is the only way to go. While pancetta makes a good carbonara, try both and you will see that the smokiness of good bacon adds a wonderful component to the egg and cheese flavors.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 pound dry spaghetti or linguine.
8- to 12-ounces bacon, cubed or sliced into small strips
2 ounces extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 extra-large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Black pepper (Fresh!)
½ cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped

Cook the pasta in a large quantity of salted water until it is al dente, or firm to the bite. Drain it, reserving a cup or so of the pasta water.

While the water for the pasta is heating, put the bacon into a large sauté pan, along with an ounce or two of good olive oil. Cook the bacon on medium heat until it just begins to crisp, then add the chopped garlic. Turn the heat down a bit and continue cooking until the bacon is crispy and thegarlic is soft. Be careful — if the garlic browns too much or burns, it will add a bitterness to the dish that can only be masked by several large glasses of a good Chianti. Try to time it so that the pasta is finished cooking at the same time as the bacon and garlic.

Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk them until they start to become frothy. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and whisk until the cheese is completely absorbed by the eggs.

Add the pasta to the bacon and toss until the spaghetti is completely coated with the bacon fat and olive oil. Add the egg and cheese mixture (do this off of the heat), spreading it over the pasta as you pour, and toss again, coating the pasta and lightly cooking the eggs. This is the tough part. The pasta has to be hot enough to barely cook the eggs as they coat the pasta, but not too hot; otherwise, you will have scrambled eggs. That’s not a bad combination, but it isn’t Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

Crack some black pepper into the pasta and toss again. I like tossing the parsley in with the pepper, but you can also use it as garnish after you serve it. If the sauce seems to be too thick, add a bit of the reserved pasta water.

As for serving? I use a pair of tongs and try to get a bit of everything into the serving. It looks great if you twist the tongs as you lower them into the plate. It mounds the pasta and makes you look like a professional.

Fried Shoes Are Probably Good To Eat

I have never encountered a food that doesn’t benefit from a quick dunk in hot oil. The usual suspects are fantastic. Potatoes, clams, every vegetable (onions are tough to do well) I can think of, even Snickers are great. I have been told that fried Twinkies are a culinary joy. What about fried fish? One of my favorite foods. And if you haven’t had a deep-fried hot dog, you have not lived life to the fullest (try Hiram’s in Fort Lee, New Jersey). The list goes on. Beef is fantastic on the grill, but Fondue Bourguignonne, which is really just fried beef  with a nice dipping sauce, is pretty spectacular. I remember reading an article about a famous restaurant in France — I think it was Lesperance — whose signature dish was fried fois gras. In the article, the author quoted a woman diner who giggled to the chef that the little morsels of fois gras reminded her of an orgasm, at which point, the chef said, “Madame, where do you think I got the idea?”

Making simple fried foods, like french-fried potatoes, or potato chips, or deep-fried chicken, is easy. For that matter, most fried foods require very simple technique. I can think of a few that are tough, like the potato puffs into which you stuff caviar. They are fried twice, and the slices of potato have to be the perfect thickness to puff up. I have made them, but only by mistake. Most are straightforward and require only the correct oil, a big enough pot and a thermometer.

So what’s the problem? There are two, actually. Frying has the potential to make a huge mess. Ignoring the small possibility of a fire that will quickly race out of control and burn your house down . . . your stove, anything on your stove and the floor around the stove will become liberally coated in a layer of frying oil. The other problem? That fun and exciting aroma of crisp french fries just out of the oil will become extremely overpowering and unpleasant after several minutes of standing over a hot pot of oil. And walking away (don’t slip!) won’t do much. Unless you have a restaurant quality vent hood, your whole house will smell of frying.

And yet I keep doing it. Because a perfectly fried potato, or a crunchy-on-the-outside but tender-and-flaky-on-the-inside piece of cod, or a crispy, juicy chicken leg is great food. Plus, for all of its mess and smell, it is easy cooking that is tremendously rewarding. If you want to impress your kids, make them french fries and cheeseburgers. Or if you want them to move back in after college, make chicken nuggets, but with real chicken.

Frying technique really is easy, and if you want to minimize the mess, you could spring for one of the covered rotating fryers that Delonghi makes. The only trick is finding good recipes for batter. Most of them require some ingredient that adds volume to the batter so it is light and fluffy and crunchy. I have used beer, baking powder, yeast, and seltzer, and I am sure that there are a few others. Another trick for potatoes and other starchy foods is to fry them twice. The first time at low temperature (250°F), and then, after the food has drained and cooled, fried again, but this time at a high temperature (360°F). I also soak the freshly cut potatoes in cold water, changing the water a few times to get rid of some of the starch. It seems to make them crispier. If you try this, don’t forget to dry them carefully before you plunge them into the oil.

The Joy of Cooking is a good source for basic frying recipes and technique. And, once you become confident that you aren’t going to torch the house, try something that hasn’t been done before . . . but I am kidding about the shoes.

Who Doesn’t Like Guacamole? (But get good chips)

I make guacamole whenever I find nice, big, fat, ripe avocados. And that is the problem. Most of the time the avocados can be stand-ins for baseballs at the Little League game down the street. And most of the ripe ones are bruised because idiots (like me) are constantly squeezing them to check their ripeness. That last avocado you bought with the huge brown spot inside? That’s my thumb print. But if you find a great looking avocado, grab it. By the way, I don’t need the lecture about how avocados ripen off of the vine, and if I were only patient I could have as much ripe avocado as I want. Not true! The unripe avocados can still bruise, and when they ripen they also turn completely brown. No thanks.

1 Large, ripe avocado
1 small ripe tomato, seeded
and chopped (optional)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 shallot, minced fine
½ garlic clove, crushed or
minced fine
pinch of cayenne
pinch of salt
a few grinds of fresh black
pepper
A sprinkle of cumin

Dump everything except the avocado and tomato into a small bowl, whisk a bit just to make sure that everything is dissolved, then add the tomato and set aside until you have attacked the avocado.

Avocados are easy to prepare for guacamole since it doesn’t matter if they get a bit mashed. Slicing them into pretty discs for garnish is a different, and messier matter. Besides, anything that tastes good with a slice of avocado will probably taste better with a spoonful of this guacamole.

Cut the avocado lengthwise, just missing the stem and rotating around the fruit so the end of the cut meets the beginning on the other side. Cut through to the pit and then just rotate around the avocado. Twist gently apart and set the pitless side down. Using the middle of your knife tap the blade firmly into the middle of the pit, and then twist a few degrees to loosen it from the flesh. It should pull away easily. Then whack the handle of the knife onto the edge of the sink and watch the slippery pit pop off the blade and careen around the bottom of the sink, hopefully not smashing your expensive wine glasses.

Holding the now pitless avocado in one hand, carefully cut a grid pattern through the flesh, but not through the skin. I use a bread knife with a slightly rounded tip so I don’t gouge my hand. But you can do it with a sharp tipped knife, just be very careful. Repeat on the other half. Just pop the chunks out of the skin by turning it inside out. Sometimes some flesh will be left in the skin, but that can be dealt with quickly with a spoon. Spending a bit of time cutting the fruit this way instead of just scooping it out makes it easier to mix with the rest of the ingredients. And I feel like I am more of a professional sous chef.

Now comes the hard part: mixing everything up in a bowl. Use a fork to break up the big chunks, and mix until you reach your desired consistency (remember, you’re the one who will be eating it). Try to avoid tasting, especially if you have some really good chips. The guacamole doesn’t need any resting time or to be chilled, but one avocado does not make that much guacamole, and I can polish of an entire bowl without too much trouble. The real issue is the chips. It is imperative that you find a source for good quality tortilla chips. The mass produced ones just don’t make the grade. It is also possible, and not too difficult, to make your own tortilla chips, but that is a bit obsessive/compulsive, although hot chips fresh from the oil are hard to beat.

This recipe can be doubled or tripled or quadrupled. Whatever you want. And I like my guacamole on the lemony side, so if it’s a bit tart for your taste then cut the lemon a bit, or add some more cayenne. Whatever floats your boat.

Forget Oysters; Who First Ate A Steamer?

Everyone jokes about who ate the first oyster; and that is a good question. Oysters are a bit…odd looking, certainly compared with a piece of steak or a carrot. But steamers are even stranger looking. At least an oyster looks like a plain old rock until you open it. Steamers look like aliens in their natural state! But whoever that brave soul was: thank you, thank you, thank you. A clean, perfectly cooked bowl of steamers, or long-neck clams, or piss-clams, or Ipswich-clams, or whatever they are called in your neighborhood, is easily the top of the clam pecking order. Yes, I know, clams don’t have beaks, but steamers have that nose (snout?), so it isn’t a completely tortured metaphor.

I cooked a dozen or so steamers a few nights ago and they were glorious. I don’t know if it is because they were particularly fresh, or I purged them in salt water (this has my vote) for a few hours before cooking, or I cooked them perfectly. What I do know is that they were wonderfully sweet, with just a bit of saltiness. They were firm but tender, certainly not mushy or chewy. They were simply great. And preparing them couldn’t be easier.

I started with a big bowl of salted water. I tried to replicate the salinity of the ocean, so I made it with 10 cups of fresh, cold water and 3 ounces of salt (that makes a 3.5% solution). I dumped the clams into the water and stuck the bowl in the refrigerator for a few hours. The clams purged themselves of most of the mud and sand, so when I cooked them, they were wonderfully clean. And cooking them is simply steaming them in a pot with about a cup of fresh water. I let them steam for a few minutes after the water began to boil. Then, I took the clams out of the pot, poured the liquid into two cups, added a bit of butter in each, cut up a baguette, and feasted. Dipping the bread into the broth is about as decadent as eating can be. This was the first time that I bothered to purge the clams, and I think that it made a big difference. Some recipes call for corn meal, as well as salt water for purging, but I am not sure that would add anything other than a mess.

This is an American dish, specifically from New England, although they are popular as far south as Maryland. Supposedly, the British eat steamers, but I have never seen them there, or for that matter, anywhere in the world but here in America. So, my many international readers, you are out of luck. But the exchange rate is great for you, so zip over here for a bowl of some fantastic American steamers — you won’t be sorry.

Where Oh Where Did The Great Tomatoes Go?

Everyone waxes poetic about the glories of family farms, sustainable agriculture, locally grown produce, blah, blah blah. While I am happy for the residents of Manhattan who can afford the $5 peaches at the Union Square Market, I am curious how the less well off among them will be able to eat a healthy diet purchased from hip farm stands and organic pig growers.  The fact is that most people can’t afford to eat the kind of stuff that Alice Waters pontificates about at every opportunity. Luckily, capitalism has created an incredibly efficient food distribution system that gets us our food very quickly and cheaply. Some of it is very good, and some of it? Not so good. Like tomatoes.

When I was working in Northern California I had a colleague who had just been moved to the Bay Area from Bakersfield, in the heart of the Central Valley of California. He and his dad grew tomatoes in the hot, dry weather that they have for oh, 360 days each year. One weekend he went back home and on Monday presented me with about 2 pounds of home grown grape tomatoes and a few beefsteak* tomatoes. I remember thinking that it was a very nice gesture and stuck the bag in my desk, thinking no more about them. When I got home  I fired up the grill and made a vinaigrette for the tomatoes. I thought I would nibble on a few tomatoes until the coals were ready for the real event of the evening; a big steak. I never got to the steak. I never even cooked the steak. I ate an entire bag of grape tomatoes, certainly the best tomatoes I had ever eaten, and maybe one of the best foods! I used the vinaigrette for the first couple but didn’t bother after I had tasted these incredibly sweet, flavorful little bursts of delight. The beefsteaks were just as good for lunch the next day. I picked up a fresh baguette in the morning and sliced the tomatoes onto the bread for amazing sandwiches.

Why can’t I get tomatoes of similar quality at my local supermarket?  Lots of reasons, but mostly the vagaries of modern transportation and farming practices, and the fact that tomatoes are fragile, and the good ones don’t lend themselves to bouncing around in a refrigerated trailer for 60 hours. I am lucky because I have access to farm stands and locally grown stuff during the summer, but I still can’t get anything like what my friend Jim gave me.

Whatever your feelings about corporate farming and, for that matter, capitalism; some fresh fruits and vegetables just can’t be produced for mass consumption without a huge drop-off in quality. And, unfortunately, tomatoes seem to be to best example of this flaw.

*Jim just e-mailed me to tell me that they were not beefsteak (he says they suck!), but Better Boy. According to him they are the best there is! And a short growing season to boot.

Eating At The Bar; Why Is It So Much Fun?

My wife and I love to eat at the bar…any bar. Some of our most interesting meals have been at restaurants that have excellent bars, where the bartenders are more than happy to serve a meal, as well as a drink. And from a service perspective? I’ll take a good bartender as my waiter any day. I have received enough indifferent table service at supposedly good restaurants to realize that good service is a rare thing indeed. And most bartenders like to talk to people; why else would they be bartenders? Service is mostly about talking to your customers to find out what they want anyway. And the food will be the same as at a table in the restaurant, unless they have a special bar menu, which, in and of itself, is a good thing.

There is a certain intimacy when sitting side by side that lends itself to bar dining. Oh, if the bar is packed and you have to fight for elbow room, it isn’t as much fun, and definitely not as intimate, but the people-watching in a crowded bar is certainly great. And sitting side by side, sharing some interesting dish while drinking ice-cold martinis and watching (and listening to) the guy next to you try to pick up the bartender is always amusing. Knowing in advance that his chances are about as good as winning the lottery adds a certain sangue-froid to one’s appreciation of the carnage. But the food-sharing may be the best part of the experience. I love perusing the menu with my wife, discussing the interesting appetizers and negotiating which main course we will split. And speaking of the bartenders; my guess is that since food adds to the total bill, they are going to be interested in making the typical bar-diner happy. We’ve gotten interesting drink recommendations and countless tastes of wines when we weren’t sure what to order.

We have had great times at the bar at upscale restaurants such as Bar Americain (order the fries and the onion soup) and Otto in Manhattan and Aqua (the salmon steak is incredible) in San Francisco. But we also have enjoyed ourselves at neighborhood places such as Porter House (get the burger) in Montvale and Sabor (avocado mash and a mojito–perfect!) in Hawthorne, both in New Jersey!

So what’s the downside? Well, if you are part of a party of more than 2 or 3 people, it is impossible to have a pleasant communal conversation, so limit your party to 3, or ideally 2, and you will be very happy.

Grilled Swordfish with Mustard

I love grilled swordfish, but I have limited my consumption because of the popular, and as I have discovered, probably incorrect assumption that it is endangered. Also, swordfish tend to concentrate methylmercury, and I like my mercury in thermometers, not in my food, so that was certainly a concern. But, damn, swordfish is really, really good!

Well, I am weak, so you know where this is going. Whole Foods had some really nice-looking swordfish steaks on sale for less than our mortgage payment, so I took the chance of dying a horrible death and picked up a 1-inch thick steak. One of the things that I noticed about these steaks is that they didn’t have very much of the dark red meat from near the spine (I think) that tastes rather strong and, quite frankly, unpleasant.

One of the problems with swordfish is that it isn’t particularly fatty, so it is easy to dry it out on the grill. I decided to marinate it for a bit in mustard and garlic, but I was also inspired to ask for help. Mom said to add a bit of mayonnaise to the mustard and garlic. Huh? That sounded faintly disgusting, but she is a far, far better cook than I, so I wasn’t going to argue until it turned out to be, in fact, disgusting. Needless to say, it was great. Why? I have no idea, but it worked perfectly. The mustard and garlic added a bit of tang, and the mayonnaise added a smooth, subtly creamy texture. Give it a try, and if you don’t like it, you can blame my mother.

1-inch swordfish steak (enough for two people)
3 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. mayonnaise

½
garlic clove, minced fine

Whisk everything together and smear the mixture all over the swordfish. Cover and refrigerate until 15 minutes before you cook it.

Preheat the grill on surface-of-the-sun setting, making sure that the grill is immaculately clean. If necessary, after it is hot, wipe it with a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil. Use tongs!

When the grill is very hot and very clean, slide the swordfish off the plate directly onto the grill surface. Do not move it! Do not prod it! Do not touch it! Close the cover and cook for 3 1/2 minutes. Using the biggest spatula you have, flip the steak carefully. Try to slide the spatula under the fish in one motion. Cover and grill for another 3 1/2 minutes. Remove from the grill and let it rest for a few minutes before you serve it. This cooking time is for a rare steak, which is the only way to eat swordfish. But if you insist, add 1 minute on each side for medium (or well done — it cooks quickly).

P.S. I liked this dish so much that I made it again last night. I added
½ tsp. of pesto sauce to the mustard mixture. Not enough to flavor it much, but it added an interesting taste. Next time, I will add more.

The Child Who Ate Cauliflower (And Other Fairytales)

I found some great looking swordfish last week and decided to grill it in a mustard marinade, and I sneakily decided to introduce cauliflower, hidden by the great grilled fish, to my wife. Oh, she makes all the appropriate noises about loving vegetables, and her desire to eat a healthy diet, but her most fervent food desire is a big steak with crispy fried potatoes.

But I like cauliflower; I don’t have any experience with fooling myself into eating it. Many people are put off by the faint sulfur odor of some cauliflower dishes, so I had to minimize the rotten egg stench (as she describes it) while still making it palatable. I also didn’t want to spend hours in the kitchen. After all, grilling a piece of fish takes about 5 minutes, and I wanted the cauliflower to be as easy. I decided to roast it in the oven, with a bit of garlic and wine. Easy, easy, easy! I cut the cauliflower into large florets, put them in a baking dish, sprinkled some minced garlic over them, and added a cup or so of white wine to the bottom of the dish. I then covered it in aluminum foil and roasted it for about 30 minutes at 400°F. Then I removed the foil (hoping that would allow some of the sulfur odor to dissipate), drizzled some olive oil and tossed a tablespoon of grated parmesan cheese over the florets and cooked it for another 15 minutes to brown the cauliflower.

The cauliflower went very nicely with the swordfish, and you can’t beat the meal for simplicity. But the stunning part of this overlong story is that our 13 year old saw me making the cauliflower and asked to help. Then, when we sat down to eat, she decided that cauliflower was the best food in the universe and insisted that she have it for a snack when she came home from school the next day.

A Different (But Still Great) Margarita

During my exhaustive research into the perfect margarita, I found a recipe that called for no Triple Sec or Cointreau, but used agave nectar for the sweet component. Intrigued, I gave it a try. I also wanted to know something about margaritas that  Tommy:eats didn’t know.

Agave nectar can be found in many specialty food stores and places such as Whole Foods. It looks a bit like maple syrup, and it is just as sweet, but it has a fruitiness that makes it less cloying. It is made from the juice of the agave plant, although my guess is that the blue agave is reserved for tequila and they use the other varieties for agave nectar.

The margarita recipe that I found called for a tequila:fresh lime juice:agave nectar ratio of 6:4:1. That worked pretty well; the drinks were a hit with everyone who tried them, even my sister’s yappy little dog. He calmed down nicely after a few laps of my sister’s drink (she didn’t know).  I found that the agave nectar became very thick and didn’t mix well with the other ingredients if I tossed everything into the shaker with ice. So, I mixed the nectar with the lime juice first, and then shook everything with ice.

I liked this variation; the lime flavor really comes out, probably because there is no orange from the Cointreau to mask it. However, the Cointreau version is a more complex, interesting drink. I would use agave nectar to correct the sweetness of the classic margarita. That may be the best of both worlds — and will be an experiment for another time. Given the choice, I would have to go with the classic. But on a balmy summer night, with no Cointreau in the house? You can’t go wrong with this drink.