Spaghetti Carbonara For Beginners

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I frequently have to remind myself that there was a time when any exotic-sounding, technique-heavy recipe would fill me with terror. Cook the pasta until al dente? How will I know when it’s al dente? Toast the garlic until golden brown? What’s golden brown? How’s that different from brown brown?

And by facing my fears head on, tackling recipe after recipe, the fear is gone and now I love to cook. But I remind myself of my old fears because I imagine there are many among you who experience similar fears: “Me? Make spaghetti carbonara? Oh no, I couldn’t. Me? Little old me?”

But spaghetti carbonara is a good recipe for beginners because the payoff is huge and the techniques required are basic and quickly learnable. Here, let me prove it.

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Tuesday Techniques: How To Make Jam

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Craig’s cousin Matt came to stay with us this past week and he and his friend (who also stayed with us) had a wild time. Out every night, hitting up the town, they’d wake up bleary-eyed every morning and ask me what Craig and I did the night before. “We, ummm, bought a keg and threw a block party,” I’d lie, ashamed of the truth: that I’d made dinner, we’d watched “The Wire” on DVD, and went to bed early.

And then any credibility I had as a vibrant young person went out the window when they came home one day to find me at the stove next to a pile of cherry pits.

‘What are you doing?” they asked, watching me sweat and stir.

“I’m making sour cherry jam,” I said.

They looked at one another and then back at me. “You’re making your own jam?” they asked, incredulously.

“Yes,” I said and suddenly felt my hair turn gray, my glasses slide down my nose, and my back hunch over. “Oh no!” I gasped. “Can it be? Do I have I.G.S.?”

I checked my symptoms online, consulted a web doctor, and my worst fears were confirmed: I’d caught the bug, and I wasn’t going to get better. Instant Grandma Syndrome. I was a hunched-over jam-maker, and “Golden Girls” reruns and early bird specials were to become my new way of life.

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Tuesday Techniques: Cheese Soufflé

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We all remember those episodes of bad sitcoms where a character would be making a soufflé and insist that everyone stay quiet in the kitchen lest their precious prize collapse. Then, of course, an Urkel or a Punky would knock over a tray of pots and pans, the soufflé-maker would cry out and hilarity would ensue. This is how most Americans perceived soufflé, as a disaster waiting to happen. And most people, I’d wager, still think of it that way–which is why, perhaps, so many of you requested soufflé as the next technique I tackle in my Tuesday Techniques.

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Tuesday Techniques: French Apple Tart

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I would like to begin this week’s “Tuesday Techniques” column–a column which appears regularly on Wednesdays–with a discussion of the word “technique.” I think people are intimidated by the word. It implies a “right-wrong” dynamic, something hammered home by Tom Colicchio on “Top Chef” when he criticizes improper technique. “You don’t know how to cut an onion?” “You don’t know that proper paella has a crust?” “You kissed Padma on the left cheek and not the right?”

This bullying has its merits. In a cooking school environment, in a restaurant kitchen, forceful drilling of proper technique produces top-quality chefs. At home, however, does it matter if you have a perfectly clear consomme? Not unless a perfectly clear consomme is something to which you aspire.

Most people, I’d conjecture, just want to make dinner. And that’s why TV hosts like Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentis are so popular. They make cooking look easy and fun. In fact, those words “easy” and “fun” are often in their show titles.

But why can’t using proper technique, cooking on the level of a Tom Colicchio, be easy and fun? Why does Jacques Pepin’s “Technique” book feel so much like a text book? Why does writing this column sometimes feel like homework? Why does this paragraph have so many questions?

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Tuesday Techniques: Home Fries

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Last week I started a series called Tuesday Techniques, a series where I cook my way through Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques the same way that Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio did at the start of his career. Already, I’m on shaky ground: (1) my Tuesday techniques posts always show up on Wednesday, but Wednesday Techniques doesn’t have quite the same ring to it; (2) this week I didn’t really use the Pepin book to work my chosen technique, I chose the technique first and picked up the book later.

The technique I chose was “home fries.” I chose home fries because it was Sunday morning and I was going to make scrambled eggs and there were Yukon gold potatoes sitting on the counter. Now my normal Sunday breakfast fare is scrambled eggs with homemade biscuits or buttermilk pancakes. I don’t make home fries, normally, because the truth is I don’t know how to make home fries. They’re a staple on your plate at a brunch restaurant, but I always take them for granted. Often they’re disappointing: limp, greasy, under-seasoned.

So this Sunday I began my research. I did lots of Googling, I did open the Pepin book but his recipes for fried potato balls and soap-shaped potatoes didn’t really fit the bill. He did speak eloquently about my chosen ingredient, though: “The potato is probably the greatest food contribution that the New World made to the Old….The potato is a versatile vegetable; it can be boiled, sauteed, baked, fried, steamed, broiled, stewed and so on.”

The secret to making home fries, I soon discovered (after all my research) is a combination of two of those techniques: boiling and frying. First you boil, then you fry. It’s that easy.

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Tuesday Techniques: Cooking with Demi-Glace (Hunter Chicken)

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Tom Colicchio, that most formidable of judges on “Top Chef,” shocked me the other night when, during an interview on PBS’s series Chef’s Story (with Dorothy Hamilton) he revealed that he hadn’t gone to cooking school, he taught himself everything he knows using Jacques Pepin’s “La Technique” and “La Méthode.” (This is corroborated on his Top Chef bio page.) “Let me get this straight,” I said to myself. “To cook on the level of Tom Colicchio, to be that formidable, all I have to do is buy two books by Jacques Pepin?”

The answer was a resounding “no.” No, I wouldn’t have to buy two books; I’d only have to buy one–those two books have been consolidated!

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Yes, this is THE book that Tom Colicchio worked his way through to become the toppiest of Top Chefs. When you open it, you feel like you’re looking at a physical fitness textbook from 1965. Every technique is broken down photographically the same way that an old P.E. book would break down a jumping jack: Stand legs apart (photo), lift hands over head (photo), leap in the air (photo), spread arms and legs (photo), land (photo) and repeat.

There’s something musty about this book, something incredibly dated (there are chapters on making orange baskets and apple swans). And yet, that’s all on the surface. Underneath that surface are the core fundamentals of French cooking, fundamentals that have launched thousands of careers, that are responsible for some of the finest food being prepared in this country and around the world. For example, just opening the book randomly, I find Technique 158: “Cleaning Squab and Other Poultry.” Most of us don’t find ourselves with a dead squab on our kitchen counter on a regular basis but many of us have dined in restaurants that serve squab. When that squab shows up at the kitchen door, does the chef shriek and moan: “How in the world will I clean this domesticated pigeon?” No: he knows his technique. That’s why fundamentals are so, well, fundamental. They’re at the core of all great cooking; they are the wings that allow the greatest dishes to soar.

I want my dishes to soar. I get asked all the time: “Are you always going to be an amateur? Are you ever going to go to cooking school? Who’s your favorite Golden Girl?”

The answers–maybe, no and Dorothy–suggest that I embrace my lack of experience while showing an absolute willingness to advance. My Colicchio revelation–that you can teach yourself French techniques by practicing from this book at home (“I used to cut up stalks and stalks of celery practicing my knife skills,” he said on the show) leads me to declare Tuesdays to be Technique Tuesdays. Each Tuesday we will attempt a new technique from this book and hopefully, through my own experimentation, you will be inspired to try them too. Maybe, after a few months, we’ll be master chefs and we’ll open a restaurant. Or maybe we’ll realize we have no natural talent and quit cooking and become accordion players. Only way to find out is to begin…

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