Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pasta alla Carbonara

When Judy Rodgers, the chef at Zuni, was a 16-year-old high school student in St. Louis, she went to France to study abroad for a year with friends of her neighbors. But these weren't any old friends. They were the Troisgros brothers, who had a famous restaurant in Roanne, Les Frères Troisgros, and it was in their kitchen that the Midwestern teenager absorbed the pleasures of cooking and eating in a way that would direct the course of her life. She spent that year with the Troisgros family, including the Troisgros sœur, Madeleine Troisgros Serraille, who at least twice a week fed Judy Rodgers wonderful, homey meals cooked in her own kitchen. Judy Rodgers inhabited the Troisgros kitchens, where, at the encouragement of her St. Louis neighbor and a nod of assent from the family Troisgros, she became a scribe, keeping notebooks so meticulous that one day they would become her passport into the world of fine American food when Alice Waters hired her to cook at Chez Panisse.

After cooking in America and France, Judy Rodgers went to Italy, where she was bewitched again - this time by Italian food.
Stopping in Roanne on the way home, sharing travel stories with the Troisgros, I could not help but focus on how delicious the food was in Italy. I should not have been surprised that they also shared that view. So much for Gallic chauvinism. No one seemed the least bit bothered by this apparent "defection" - if anything, it was evidence I had inherited their affection for authentic, generous food to celebrate every day.

I had found a culinary home in the Tuscan idiom, and on subsequent trips, fell for the charms of Umbria, Sicily, the Abruzzo, Campania, and so on. By the time I headed back to California that first year I had a goal. I would look for that restaurant where I could settle down to cook both French and Italian traditional food and evoke the spirit of dinner at Madeleine's.

Judy Rodgers, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Pages 23 and 24.
My friend Walter likes pasta, but he doesn't LOVE pasta. He doesn't like pasta in the same way that those of us who adore carbs and who might actually consider eating a potato chip sandwich do. Every now and then he has a little hankering for it, but most of the time, he'll pass. So when I set out to make the Zuni version of Pasta alla Carbonara, I assumed I would like it. However, I wasn't prepared for its being so delicious that Walter would eat every morsel on his plate within what seemed like seconds of my placing it before him and, for the first time, before I finished mine.

Seriously. It's that good. And it's easy. If you have the book - and you know that I hope you do - I recommend that you try this as soon as you can get your hands on some beautiful, fresh ricotta, which is as much of a revelation as just-whisked mayonnaise and as different from what you get in a carton in the dairy case as Hellman's is from your own mayo.

Pasta alla Carbonara
Page 210, Starchy Dishes

My favorite ricotta in the whole world is from DiPalo Fine Foods, which is a wonderful place for all things Italian. DiPalo's, a family-owned business, is run by brothers Salvatore and Louis DiPalo and their sister Marie. The store is located at 200 Grand Street in New York City's Little Italy, across the street from its original location, which was opened in 1910 by the trio's great grandfather, an Italian immigrant. I've been going there since I was a little girl; my grandmother was born in an apartment two blocks from where the store now stands. The ricotta and mozzarella are homemade, and both are absolutely delicious. If you live in NYC, it's always worth a special trip there. (If you don't, very soon DiPalo Selects will come to you.)

At DiPalo's you will find pastas cut on bronze dies - and you might even run into the man from Italy who produces them. You can taste Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from a wheel personally selected in Italy by Lou DiPalo. Some of what else you will find is the newest harvest olive oil; artisanal Balsamic vinegar; whole grain farro; the three kinds of rice for risotto - Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nana; dried sausages; fresh sausages; cured meats imported from Italy; all kinds of cheeses; and, as I said, the best - THE BEST - handmade mozzarella and ricotta (which means amazing ravioli made from that ricotta) you will find in any of the five Boroughs.

It's no surprise that when it was time to make my first Italian-inspired dish from Zuni, I headed straight for DiPalo's.

Marie holding pecorino romano cheese and beautiful handmade ricotta

Judy Rodgers suggests using a "chewy, dried semolina pasta shape that does not grab too much sauce: spaghetti, spaghettini, penne, or bucatini." I find it really does make a difference to use artisanal pasta from Italy, which has been made using bronze cutting die, and usually use Pasta Setaro or Rustichella D'Abruzzo pasta.

This time I tried Cav. Guiseppe Cocco penne rigate, and it was delicious.

I always weigh pasta before I cook it, planning on 4 ounces a person for a main course and 2 ounces for a starter.

I grated the romano cheese with my Microplane grater.

Be sure to use the aged pecorino romano specified in the recipe; do not substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano. The bite of romano works well in this dish. What I used was Pecorino Romano Fulvi.

Marie with wheel of Fulvi Pecorino Romano

After I left DiPalo's, I jumped off the train at Union Square and headed to the Greenmarket, where I got beautiful blue eggs laid by Araucana chickens from Windfall Farms. Araucana chickens are a breed that originated in Chile. The natural color of the shells of Martha Stewart's Araucana hens inspired a collection of paints by Fine Paints of Europe. (I can personally attest to the radiance and quality of these paints, which are fully pigmented and produce a light-reflective finish that has to be seen to be appreciated. If you are interested in this fantastic paint and want some color guidance, give Emmett Fiore a call. He is friendly - and brilliant - and will work with you tirelessly to achieve the result you are looking for. Trust me on this one.)

I often make a special trip here to get these eggs, which have the most wonderful flavor and are so fresh when they are fried that the yolks stand up round and proud the way I picture the breasts of a 16th century Italian courtesan. The picture does not do justice to how blue the eggs are.

I beat the beautiful eggs with the lovely ricotta.

I used bacon (which is what this recipe calls for rather than pancetta) from Niman Ranch.

I put the pasta in rapidly boiling salted water, stirred it once with a wooden spoon, and let the water come back to the boil.

I didn't see any fresh peas at the Greenmarket, so I went ahead and used frozen peas, (arrest me) and it was still good. Actually, I use frozen peas often because if I waited for fresh peas - really fresh peas, not peas that have never been frozen but have gotten mealy and starchy, rather than staying sweet and crisp - to be available every time I wanted to eat them, I would be waiting more than I would be eating. It's not that I don't get the glory of the fresh pea - I actually have peas growing in my garden upstate - but unless you can walk out back and pick your own, good ones are hard to come by. I find that fresh peas in the supermarket are always past their prime. If you can get them from the farmer who picked them only hours before (or, of course, pick your own), you're in luck.

Peas from my garden
I added the frozen peas to the boiling water about 30 seconds before the pasta was done to the perfect al dente stage. To get this right, you have to keep tasting the pasta. When you use a shape like penne, which has a hole in the middle, it can go from being perfect to overcooked in a flash, so you need to be on your toes.

I followed the directions in Zuni, cooking the bacon just before I was going to use it so it wouldn't get stiff. You saw that the bacon was not very lean, so I took it out of the pan for a second while I removed some of the fat.

I added a little bit more olive oil to the pan to replace what I might have removed and heated it slightly, then turned the heat off, and returned the bacon to the still-warm pan. I did this while the pasta was cooking.

I drained the pasta, and shook off the excess water (but not enough to make it dry) and put the pasta and peas in the pan. This needs to be timed correctly because the pan should be warm enough that you hear a "discreet sizzle" when you add the pasta and peas.

I immediately added the eggs beaten with the ricotta and the pecorino cheese to the pan and quickly folded it all together. The heat of the ingredients in the pan "cooked" the eggs to the perfect, creamy, curdy stage. The recipe calls for lots of (do I have to tell you freshly ground?) black pepper, which I passed at the table.

If you use very fresh eggs, lovely cheeses, and excellent bacon, you will produce a highly pleasing dish.

I was going to say that this is a recipe where excellent ingredients shine, but that's really the point, isn't it? If Zuni has a philosophy, this would be it.
And so, the Zuni repertory is an evolving hybrid of the cuisines that I love, made possible by the generosity of many teachers and colleagues. I hope I can in this volume honor and convey some of their collective wisdom and passion. If our food is delicious, it is due to that passion, and to the extraordinary quality of the products we obtain, and to the talent and devotion of every cook who has embraced it with heart.

Judy Rodgers
, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Page 28.
I served this dish with salad made from arugula grown at S & S.O. Farm and sold at Union Square.

S. and S.O. Farm Stand at Union Square Greenmarket

Dessert was a bowl of cold cherries.

As usual, Sylvano was on hand to help out.

A Home Cook's Notes

I like most fruit at room temperature (the exception being citrus), which I think enhances its flavor. Think about a peach warm enough to have been just picked in the sun, so full of juice, it will run down your chin after you take the first luscious bite. Think about a warm, ripe tomato. Putting it in the refrigerator would destroy it. (Never put tomatoes in the refrigerator.) But for some reason I recently put a mesh container of sweet cherries in the refrigerator, and when I took the container out and popped a cherry in my mouth, I couldn't stop eating them. I had never eaten a cold cherry before. They were crisp and just sweet enough with a little bit of a tart edge and better than anything else I could think of at that moment. I polished off half of them on the spot.


Molly said...

This looks unfathomably good - and what lovely, lovely writing, too! Must. Have. Pasta. Alla. Carbonara.

P.S. I hear you on the cold cherries. I always keep mine in the fridge.

BrassMan said...

This carbonara sounds delicious and you're writing has a personal exuberance and elan that is contagious, it makes one want to make and eat this stuff right now.
And that's the idea. Super job.

EB said...

I've tried Pasta alla Carbonara a few times to no avail. It just never comes out right. I'll definitely give Zuni's a whirl since it's got your (and Walter's) stamps of approval. I love that you're including pics of your purveyors! It makes everything so personal.

Corbin said...

I want that right now, even though it is 12:10pm. You're a natural with the camera - I think you're ready for that Canon now...

Mandi said...

Fabulously written. Your passion for cooking is very evident. AND this recipe seems easy (no recipes within recipes!)

No, you do not have to mention the pepper must be cracked and fresh. I think all us amateurs can at least figure this much out!!

Ai Lu said...

I am so glad to see that you are making more recipes from Zuni. This is not too different from the food that we are eating in Italy right now, so I am glad that you are explaining exactly how I'll be able to get the right ingredients when I return to New York later this summer! Especially the fresh ricotta...

lina said...

wow, this dish looks amazing. Carbonara is one of my husbands all time favorites!
Thank you for sharing your Schnitzel recipe with me! I will def. try your recipe out sometime soon. It sounds wonderful!

White On Rice Couple said...

Seeing how you cook only 4 oz per person is much more realistic than my 10 oz per person. Back in the day of my biological research, eating 10 oz was standard to keep me warm and refueled for the long days hike. Unfortunately, I still haven't gotten out of that backpacking habit yet. I should because I would be much healthier!

When we make our fresh ricotta again, we'll certainly make this dish. Your pictures of all your vendors are lovely and I especially love seeing your garden peas. I really enjoy seeing your whole process, it really shows your passion for your dish.

J said...

the cold cherry is one of the great gifts of summer. i'd step over my own mother to get at a bowl of them (not really, but you get the point). glad to hear i'm not the only one enamored with them this way. and i'm looking forward to hearing how the roasted cherries from zuni turn out for you.

Anonymous said...

the name of the french city she came to is Roanne not Rouane just to correct!

Victoria said...


Thank you for letting me know. I have made the correction.

Anonymous said...

you're welcome!