Pasta, Noodles, and Dumplings The Book

102. Spaghetti with Handfuls of Herbs p.204

I couldn’t find a recipe for this online, but this is more a concept than a specific set of instructions anyway. The idea is to toss spaghetti with extra virgin olive oil, butter, minced shallots, and any and all herbs growing in the garden. The pasta is then sprinkled with bread crumbs which you’ve toasted in olive oil. The heat of the pasta releases the flavours of the herbs, without wilting them too much, and the uncooked shallots are warmed but retain their sharpness.

There are no specific instructions for which herbs to use, or in what proportions. It’s totally dependent on what you have on hand. I had a grand old time out on the balcony with a pair of scissors. I ended up with basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, chives, sage, lavender, and lemon balm. Those last two were unexpected flavours, but they absolutely made the dish for me. I got really lucky and randomly combined my herbs into a near perfect flavour medley. I couldn’t repeat the process, I just snipped a bit of this and a bit of that, and I ended up with a completely delicious and intensely fragrant plate of pasta. My dining companion thought it was good, but not transcendent, but for me it was exactly the right dish at exactly the right time. It was perfectly suited to a warm night out on the balcony.

The bread crumb topping adds a textural counterpoint to the pasta, but not one I thought was really necessary. The Book says that the bread crumbs don’t weigh the dish down the way cheese would, but I just found them oily. Admittedly my bread crumbs weren’t coarse, and they might have worked better if they’d been more like tiny croûtons. Mine were more of a sandy coating on my pasta. It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the dish, but I think they ruined it for my dining companion.

You may also notice that I didn’t use spaghetti in this spaghetti dish. I can’t bring myself to care about the different shapes of pasta, and I resent having to remember all of their names. They’re all exactly the same, shells, spirals, round strands, flat strands, big tubes, and small tubes all interchangeable in my mind. Sure, some shapes hold on to some sauces better, and finding things hidden in little shells can be cute. But, the idea that we all need to keep fifteen different shapes of pasta on hand to do justice to the traditions of some particular Italian hamlet is just annoying. They all taste exactly the same, and I’m going to use them as such. The only downside is that the different shapes really do differ in surface area. The amount of sauce needed to coat is proportional to area, which has little to do with mass or volume, so it does take some guesswork to avoid over or under saucing.

The concept of this dish is great, it’s simple and summery. It uses herbs at their peak, and allows for creativity around a central theme. It also has the advantage of not heating the kitchen up too too much. I was thrilled with the flavours at work in my version, and I can only hope you get as lucky as I did if you try this for yourself.

Pasta, Noodles, and Dumplings The Book

51. Spaghetti Alla Carbonara p.221

The recipe

This was delicious, but then anything with this much cheese and pancetta had better be. I didn’t have the heart to go out and find guaniciale (unsmoked cured hog jowl), maybe that makes me less hard core that I should be, but the pancetta worked wonderfully. This was very easy to prepare. The fat from the pancetta is rendered, and used to brown the onions. The white wine is then added and reduced to make a sauce, the cooked spaghetti is tossed in, and a mixture of eggs, parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino romano, salt, and pepper is stirred in after the pasta is off the heat. The spaghetti partially cooks the eggs, which gives the sauce the half-thickened super smooth texture that makes Carbonara what it is.

There were two main problems with the recipe as written: water, and salt. The only liquid in here is a 1/8 cup white wine (after reducing) and the eggs. The pasta was wonderfully saucy for the first minute after it was tossed, then it got thirsty and all my sauce was gone. Adding some of the pasta water would have solved this problem, and tossing my plate with a bit of it rescued my dinner. The other issue is salt. The dish has got 5 Oz pancetta, and more than a cup of parmagiano and pecorino. The pasta is cooked in salted water, and a bit of salt is thrown in at the end for good measure. The saltiness of the meat and cheeses can vary wildly, and top producers seem to have less salt than the cheaper brands. Either the folks at Gourmet keep salt licks in their desks, or they had access to less salty ingredients than I did. It wasn’t inedible, but I woke up parched in the middle of the night.

There’s a little note at the bottom of the recipe about eating eggs that aren’t fully cooked. I suppose there is a real risk of contamination, and I’m certain that the people at The Book have lawyers to make sure notes like that get in there, but where’s the joy? As a young healthy person I get to feel invulnerable and poo poo warnings like that. I’m certainly willing to take the one in several thousand odds of food poisoning to eat less than fully cooked eggs, meats, and fish. It’s a risk I understand and am willing to take. Unfortunately it’s not a risk I’m allowed to take in a restaurant anymore. No more medium rare burgers, and maybe I’ll never get to try sous-vide. How long before hollandaise is gone (not that I’d mourn it’s passing actually)? What about a runny yolk for my toast? I worry that these things I love will just become unavailable, or I’ll have to sign a waiver to order off the “irresponsible” section of the menu. What is the world coming to? Why in my day…. grumble, grumble… snore.

Other than those little complaints, it really was a delicious dish. Despite all the cheese and pancetta, it wasn’t nearly as heavy as the Carbonara you’d get from the local Italian joint. In fact there’s no cream in here at all. The texture was also much lighter. Once I’d added a bit of water the strands of pasta were flavorful, and well coated enough not to stick, but not swaddled in the overwhelming amounts of sauce you sometimes find. With the salt and water caveats in mind this can be a great dish, the recipe as written gets slightly lower marks than what it can easily be changed to become.