Penne Carbonara & My Last Will and Testament

Lauren can have my cat because Lauren’s a dog person and Lolita (who she lived with for two years) will remind her that cats are people too. Lisa can have my “Freaks & Geeks” DVD set because she hasn’t seen the end yet; Alex can have my VHS tape of the Martin Short special that aired on NBC in the 90s with Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks which I think is the funniest thing I own because she thinks it’s as funny as I do; Ricky can hang on to my “Pippin” DVD because he has it anyway and everyone else can divide up my remaining book, cookbook, DVD and CD collections.

I am writing my last will and testament because I had this for dinner last night:

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After hamburgers the night before and pizza the night before that, this was the dish that pushed me over the edge to become a true glutton. John Wayne had “True Grit,” but I’m a “True Glutton.” So if heart failure keeps me from waking up tomorrow, we now know how to divide up my possessions. If I live, it’ll be a while before I make this again–not because it wasn’t outrageously delicious, but because it made me feel guiltier than a man who kills nuns with tweezers.

Do you want to feel that guilty? Does that picture above have you salivating? Do you have a death-wish too?

It’s REALLY easy to make. You probably have all the ingredients already, with the exception of slab bacon which I had left over from the Birmingham Beet salad from the other night. I loosely interpreted a recipe for “Spaghetti Carbonara” from Marcella Hazan which I will loosely reinterpret for you in the next paragraph. This dish comes together best when you do it all in a huge rush: the high octane charges the dish with dramatic flair.

You will need: pasta (spaghetti’s the most preferable, but as you can see I used penne) (this recipe is good for half a box); 1 strip of slab bacon (or pancetta or even regular bacon); some wine (I used old old old white wine that’s been in my fridge for months. I know it’s horrible to use wine you wouldn’t actually drink but since I was only using 1/4 a cup, I didn’t care. And it tasted fine.) FRESH Parmesan cheese. 1 garlic clove.

1. Boil your pasta til it’s al dente; [you want the pasta to finish cooking just as everything else is finishing, so the heat from the pasta will cook the egg]

2. In a large bowl, crack an egg and break it up a bit with a fork. Grate about a cup of parmesan in it and then grind some pepper in there too;

3. Cut up the slab bacon into 1/4-inch strips. Take a Tbs or 2 of olive oil and pour into a skillet; heat on medium heat and add the garlic clove. Let it flavor the oil til it’s golden then remove. Add the bacon and cook for a few minutes until crisp on the outside. Move off the heat and add 1/4 cup of wine. It will sizzle.

4. Then it’s pure assembly. Add the drained pasta to the egg in the bowl; stir around and coat. Then add the bacon and the bacon fat (all the liquid from the skillet) and toss around. Taste. It is delicious. Write your last will and testament and bon apetit!

A Eureka Pasta Moment with Butter, Parmesan and Nutmeg

In the course of working on my book proposal, I had the privilege of interviewing a food celebrity who told me to stock my pantry with Parmesan and nutmeg (among other things). Around this time I began cooking a pantry staple: pasta with butter, parmesan and nutmeg. The thing that makes this dish wonderful is that once you buy the basic ingredients—dried pasta, butter, a big block of Parmesan (my favorite comes from Citarella) and whole nutmeg—you can make it over and over again, any night of the week. And this I have done since I spoke to the food celebrity. In fact, I’d say I’ve made this at least once a week every week since October. It’s like a mature version of macaroni and cheese and it’s really comforting as the months get colder and colder.

My process has always been very basic. I bring a large pot of water to boil and then add a bunch of kosher salt. I put in half a box of pasta and let it cook for the appropriate time, making sure the pasta’s just cooked through so it’s still al dente. I drain it in the sink and then melt 3 or 4 Tbs of unsalted butter in the pot. Here’s where things get interesting…

Up until this point, I’ve always done it the same way. I add the pasta back to the butter, grate nutmeg on top and grate Parmesan on top and then stir it all through. All this happens over heat and when it comes off it’s a buttery, gloppy, flavorful sinful mess.

Then Lidia Bastianich entered the picture. Watching her show, I noticed that she uses pasta water to make sauces stick. Then I read her book and she has a recipe for pasta with parmesan and butter where after you melt the butter you add pasta water and let it reduce. Which leads directly to our eureka moment.

Last night, upon my return from Florida, I made the best bowl of pasta with butter, parmesan and nutmeg I’ve ever had. Keep in mind I’ve probably made 50 bowls of this. But this was the best. Here’s what you do:

– You’ve boiled your pasta as suggested above.

– While the pasta’s cooking, grate 1 cup of parmesan into a bowl. The reason you do this is because if you do it right over the pasta like I’d been doing, you’ll never add enough Parmesan. Because the energy it takes to grate 1 cup on a microplane grater is more than you’re willing to do when you’re eyeballing it, it’s worth to do in a separate process.

– Now this is key. Take out a mug or a small glass. When draining the pasta, fill the mug or small glass with some of the pasta water and then drain the rest.

– Melt 3 Tbs of butter in the pasta pot. (This works with half a box of pasta.) Once melted, add about 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup (depending on how you feel) of the pasta water. It will sizzle. Let reduce for a few seconds and grate fresh nutmeg over it. Now add the pasta, toss around, and add the cup of Parmesan. Stir and serve.

This will yield the happiest bowl of pasta you’ve had in a long while. It’s the perfect thing to make for yourself on a cold winter’s night. And as you continue to make it, you’ll adjust it to your preferences. I like a lot of nutmeg, maybe you won’t. But one thing’s for sure. If we keep eating this at least once a week, we’ll all be dead by the time we’re 60. See you in the after world!

Pasta Is A Dish Best Served Cold. And with Sun-Dried Tomatoes.

Food pictures can be erotic, can’t they? See if this picture makes your mouth horny:

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Is that the first time I used the word “horny” in a post? I apologize. Did you know my 5th Grade teacher Mrs. White was fired mid-year because she let one of my classmates play that rap song that goes “Me So Horny” during an after class party and one of the mothers was offended. The Monday after that party we came to class and instead of Mrs. White, there was our principal sitting there telling us we’d have a new teacher. We were heartbroken. Ok, not really. We liked our new teacher better. But I wonder where Mrs. White is today. Is she dead? Does her tombstone say: “Me So Horny.” Ok, that was horrible. But maybe a teensy bit funny?

Let’s talk about pasta salad. Pasta salad is incredibly easy to make and incredibly rewarding. All you need is pasta, stuff for dressing, and other stuff to throw in. It’s all very casual. Very cazh. Wear your sandals.

We get this recipe from—come on now, say it collectively: THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA! But it’s from a book one of my readers’ bought me: Barefoot Contessa Family Style which completes my collection. All I need now is Ina’s BMW and her Hamptons home and I’m set.

Here’s what you need:

1/2 pound fusilli (spirals) pasta

OH NO! I thought it said a pound and I used the whole box! That’s why my pasta’s not terribly coated with dressing. But ya know what? It still tasted great. How come it’s not until I type out these recipes that I realize I made mistakes? That tells you something about recipes. Or maybe it tells you something about me.

Anyway:

Kosher salt

Olive oil

1 pound ripe tomatoes, medium diced

1/4 cup good black olives, such as kalamata, pitted and diced

1 pound fresh mozzarella, medium diced

6 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and chopped

For the dressing:

5 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained

2 Tbs red wine vinegar

6 Tbs good olive oil

1 garlic clove, diced

1 tsp capers, drained

2 tsps kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup packed basil leaves, julienned (Or Julianned, if Julianne Moore is present)

Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water with a splash of oil to keep it from sticking. Boil 12 minutes or according to directions on package. Drain well and allow to cool. Place the pasta in a bowl and add the tomatoes, olives, mozzarella and chopped sun-dried tomatoes.

For the dressing, combine the sun-dried tomatoes, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, capers, salt, and pepper in a food processor until almost smooth.

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Pour the dressing over the pasta, sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and basil and toss well.

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So just imagine: I made this wrong and I loved it, how great will this taste when you make it right? And then you can take dirty pictures of it like I did and put it in your wallet. Just don’t let it get you fired like Mrs. White got fired. You need your job to pay for the olives. Unless you don’t like olives. In which case, take all the pictures you like.

Cooking, Art and Magic: Summer Squash and Corn Pasta

There is a link, methinks, between cooking, art and magic. The best evidence I can give to support this theory is from Act 4.1 of Macbeth. Enter the witches.

First Witch: Round about the cauldron go,

In the poisoned entrails throw

Toad that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

sweltered venom sleeping got

boil thou first i’th’ charmed pot.

A “charmed pot.” That’s what cooking’s all about, is it not? Transformation. A mish-mosh of random ingredients and bang wham pow something new. Which is what I experienced tonight with Alice Waters. I did her recipe for “Summer Squash and Corn Pasta” from her Vegetables book, which a reader so kindly bought me. You need summer squash and corn, to start:

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You cut the squash into tiny pieces (“small dice,” says Alice) and you saute it in 1.5 Tbs of olive oil until tender and a bit brown.

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Season with salt and pepper. Then you add corn from 3 ears (I halved the recipe, by the way), 2 cloves of garlic cut up and 1/2 a jalapeno cut up too.

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You cook that for a bit. It’s all very casual here in Alice-land.

Then add 2 Tbs of butter, a handful of chopped cilantro and 3 or 4 Tbs of water. That’s it! Your sauce! Taste and season accordingly. (Alice says to add lemon juice if the corn is too sweet. I wonder if lime would be good too?)

In the meantime, you’ve prepared some fettucine. Half a pound. Add to the corn and squash mixture, toss about with tongs, and there’s your dinner: [add more cilantro to garnish]

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Those noodles all get coated with the browned, sweetened squash; the corn adds texture and more sweetness and then there’s the heat of the jalapeno, the old Jewish grandma-ness of the garlic, and the brightness of the cilantro. It’s the sort of thing that you read and say: “Hmm, but I really wonder what that tastes like?”

Exactly! Back to the beginning: cooking, art and magic. The cooking is the manual labor; the art is what gets added (the recipe) and the magic is what it becomes. Transformation: a charmed pot. And I think the child in me who watched witches on TV throw random things into large cauldrons only to have doves or children or Oprah emerge finds himself in love with cooking most when the resulting product is something that could never have existed but for the enchanted spell (ie: the recipe). Try this recipe and experience some late summer magic before it’s too late! Corn and summer squash don’t last forever.

Let It Be Fall: Butternut Squash and Wild Mushroom Risotto

Walking around New York yesterday was a rather surreal experience. There were cops on every single street corner–sometimes in clusters of threes and fours. Near 8th Ave., barricades upon barricades lined the way to Madison Square Garden, between which protesters stood–in the hot sun–holding signs decrying the horrors of George W. Bush. Red “No Smoking” stickers replaced the cigarette with a “W,” and stores appealed to the political climate with cutesy signs that read, for example: “Feeling Bushed? Kerry yourself inside.”

In many ways this is a good and exciting time to be in New York. In most other ways, though, it’s not. I find myself growing more and more weary of the political scene. Also, I’ll confess, it’s a little bit scary: helicopters flying overhead and sirens wailing past every few minutes. I really want this convention to be over.

Therefore, I decided to do the equivalent of a culinary rain dance: I decided to make a dish more appropriate for fall than summer. Call me a rebel, I can take it. I whipped out my newest Strand cookbook purchase—Tom Valenti’s One-Pot Meals.

I like the concept of this book because you basically end up with a big pot of food that will last you through the week. That’s one of my newest goals in this expensive city: to make food that will last a long while.

Risotto is no such food. It turns gloppy and pasty once it sits in the pot after being taken off the heat. Yet it’s in my fridge right now and I plan to eat it anyway. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

To start, you must buy many things to make this risotto. Among those many things is sage:

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Sage is an herb I haven’t worked with much. I am told it complements butternut squash incredibly well. This is appropriate, then, because here’s a butternut squash:

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Ladies and gentlemen, this is my first butternut squash. Scary, no?

Now I watched a Sarah Moulton once where she talked about safely peeling and cutting up a butternut squash. Unfortunately, I forgot everything she taught me. So I began by peeling the squash straight down with a vegetable peeler:

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This worked fairly well, though the outsides were still tough and bricky. I eventually cut off the outsides with a knife. But before that, I cut the squash in half and scooped away the seeds:

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Now Tom has you cut up the squash into half inch squares. This part, I’ll concede, was quite difficult. I almost sliced my thumb off twice. But somehow I made it work:

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Then into a pot with 2 Tbs of butter:

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Season with salt and pepper and cook “until brown and slightly softened but still holding their shape, about 12 minutes.”

Sadly, it began losing its shape 8 minutes in–begining to resemble mashed sweet potatoes, so I took it off the heat.

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Poured it into a bowl with the chopped sage and stirred it around. This won’t get used until later.

Tom has you wipe the pot clean and then put it back on the heat. This leaves glorious brown bits on the bottom that white wine will eventually pick up, giving a huge flavor boost to your risotto:

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But first mushrooms. Now I cheated here and I regret it. Tom wants you to separate all your wild mushrooms and cook them separately with 2 Tbs of butter each. But it was getting late, Lisa was coming over, and I wanted to have dinner ready. So I threw all the mushrooms in: (Also, I’d done all the mushrooms at once before when I made the Chez Panisse Wild Mushroom risotto, so I figured I’d be ok):

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Unfortunately, I only used 2 Tbs of butter to start and then, halfway through, as the mushrooms got dryer and dryer I realized it was 2 Tbs for each type of mushroom so I quickly added 6 more Tbs of butter. This made the mushrooms way too buttery:

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Then I thought about Julia Child and wondered if one could really have too much butter. I yanked a mushroom out and tasted it and it tasted wonderful. Very good, then. I poured the mushrooms into a bowl and tossed with freshly cut thyme. Mushrooms and thyme is a killer combination.

Now, we wipe the pot clean again and add 1 large spanish onion diced. That cooks for four minutes (in olive oil and butter) and then we add 2 cups of Arborio rice:

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This is a ton of rice for risotto. Since it plumps up with the liquid, this is way more than two people can heathily eat. No matter. Remember our goal: to eat through the week. And to skip past the Republican National Convention. I peered out my window: still Republicans.

Lisa arrived just as the vegetable broth on the back of the stove began to simmer. I had added wine to the rice and onions and it was now absorbed. The challenge was now to begin: the 18 minutes of frantic stirring and ladeling simmering broth into the risotto. This was a job for a virile, well-endowed kitchen god. This was a job for Lisa:

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After 18 minutes (the requisite time), there was still broth left but the risotto looked well brothed. I tasted a spoonful and felt the texture was right. The flavor was off, but we hadn’t added the mushrooms or squash yet.

And that, indeed, is the last step. You add 2 more Tbs of butter, the mushrooms and the squash and you end up with this:

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Suddenly, I looked out my window and saw a flurry of white men in suits spinning in a tornadoed mass back to middle America. The helicopters fled the skies, the police left the streets and the only noise was the noise of New York applauding. Lisa and I sat down and ate risotto. And it was good.