Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Risotto Carbonara

Many years ago I saved up my Lire for my first trip to Italy. I had no particular agenda but I was determined to see Venice. I landed in Rome and spent a few days wandering the streets and tasting some of the most wonderful food I had ever had in my life. I was on a serious budget so breakfast and lunch were at a bakery of coffee bar, but what bakeries and coffee bars they were. The pleasure of a bit of bread with fresh tomato, salt and olive oil cannot be underestimated. The Italians know and love food.

In Venice the prices rose and my first day all of my meals were from the same bakery, that along with fruit from a street vendor made me very happy and gave me the fuel to explore this incredible city. The next day I decided to throw lire to the wind and eat at a serious Venetian eatery. I had my first risotto, the creaminess, the bit, the mushrooms, and peas and bit of truffle were beyond my culinary comprehension. Back in Minneapolis, even with Julia Child and Betty Crocker as my teachers I had imagined nothing this exquisite.

Young and bold I went into the kitchen, found the Chef and asked if he would show me how to make Risotto like that. Fortunately he spoke some English and told me to be in his kitchen the next day at 7 a.m.

My first day I was handed a knife, I diced the shallots, sliced mushrooms and took a break with the crew for some coffee and toast at 9. Because I was American they gave me an egg as well. I chopped, diced, stirred and stayed until 10 that night. On my third day they gave me the stock, the rice, the spoon and a place in the line. I was to make Risotto. That night it was to be with mushrooms and peas. I had a series of spoons to taste with along the stages because I had to learn when it was perfect. Risotto is an art, not a science and each order was done individually.

In the middle of a very busy night a waiter came into the kitchen and told the chef that an American had ordered his Risotto Carbonara, it was said with derision. They guys in the kitchen scoffed and I am sure cursed the customers in Italian. This was NOT a Venetian dish. While I am sure it has been tried somewhere they had never heard of such heathen.

"Ci." The chef came over to me and handed me some chopped pancetta to crisp and an egg yolk with cream beaten into it and guided me to make sure I did not serve scrambled eggs. We both tasted and I think he was surprised at the creamy goodness of it. As the restaurant closed he asked me to make a large batch for the staff meal. It was a hit, who knew an awful American customer could ask for the wrong thing and still get a good meal.

I spent 5 days watching and absorbing and being well fed in that kitchen and was shocked beyond all measure when they handed me an envelope with cash in it on my last day. They paid me to learn, I was in shock and thrilled beyond measure.

I took not only money but a wealth of information about what makes the Venetian food so exquisite and the ingredients for a bastard dish that is delicious, Risotto Carbonara.

1 cup Abborio Rice
1/2 cup finely diced pancetta
A Good splash of olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup finely diced shallots
3 cups stock (chicken works best, but any stock can work)
1/2 cup cream
1 egg yolk
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
A good dash Romano cheese grated
A few dashes of salt

Saute the pancetta until crisp, remove with slotted spoon leaving behind any fat it renders. Add a splash of olive oil and saute the shallots until soft. Add the rice stirring for about two minutes until you begin to smell the toasty rice, then stir in about 1/3 of the broth. Continue cooking ans stirring until the liquid is absorbed. Bit by bit stir in the remaining rice and cook until liquid is absorbed. When the rice reaches that creamy stage with a bit of bite stir in the peas and pancetta and cheese, beat your egg and cream and turn the heat to LOW. Gently stir in the butter til melted and the yolk and cream mixture, it will gradually thicken, beware of high heat or the mix will scramble. Plate and garnish with a bit more grated cheese.

The origins of Carbonara are muddy, but we know it came from the hill cities outside of Rome, but in the hands of a Venetian...Make it and taste for yourself.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

No garlic, no onions, no pork and a Puttanesca 2009

I had a week of challenges. I subbed at a restaurant with a large catering division and put out food for 160 people in 3 hours. After completing the prep for the next day I learned that I would have to tone down the onions, garlic and portion sizes. So we adapt. If I go back I have a better sense of what they need and we got the food out in time 2 days in a row, a very good thing.

It led me to begin thinking along the lines of Italian food that naturally contains no onions or garlic and I was very fortunate that I was thinking along those lines.

I arrived at the house where I was to cook for a large group of guests for the weekend and after prepping for the first meal the hostess came to the kitchen and told me she had just found out one of her guests could not tolerate garlic or onions and not to serve pork. Of course both her Italian menu for Friday and her Spanish for Saturday featured not only the intolerable ingredients but a suckling pig. Her staff ate very well and I scrambled to redo the menu.

The antipasto was no problem, Orange and fennel, roast asparagus, etc. Not a problem there but she had asked for a Puttanesca sauce for the pasta course. What could I do, I roasted the cherry tomatoes, melted some anchovies in white wine, chopped the olives and threw it all together with some capers and a splash of some good olive oil. I grabbed a taste, acceptable and we served. The remainder of the pasta sat in the pan while the Pollock was served and after they had their sorbet I, starving at this point grabbed the now cold pasta and a fork.

Wow...what a difference time had made. The olive had permeated the pasta and the juice of the tomato released with that faint salty anchovy taste, this was really good.

Don't rush to serve this hot, let it rest and have with a glass of Rose on a warm spring night.

1 lb pasta
1 cup white wine
8 anchovies chopped
2 cups of green olives, pitted and divided
1/2 cup capers
2 cups cherry tomatoes roasted til the skins burst with a touch of salt and oil.
Your best olive oil
2 cups chopped fresh basil

Warm the anchovies in the wine, they will naturally dissolve. Cook the pasta and toss all the ingredients together with a good dose of your best olive oil until combined. Go have some vegetables and come back in an hour. Eat like you have all the time in the world and savor every flavor.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A few of my favorite things

The process of making fish past is a bit like the old fashioned way of pressing grapes. (pictured.)

Everyone who cooks has some tips and tricks that wake up the flavor of food. Sometimes it takes only a little bit of something to balance the flavor and tittilate the taste buds. For a job I was doing for the short term (we'll see) I was told to cut back on the onions and garlic, I do admit I rely on the heavily but there are many other ways to get a taste kick.

Hot Peppers: All kinds from the jalapeno the the habanero taste terrific to me. I love the heat. For most however it just takes a few shakes or grinds to bring up the flavor of a dish. If you have a soup that's a little bland, just a touch of hot pepper can help wake up the other flavors.

Fermented Fish Paste/Shrimp paste: No kidding, if you have never tried this give it a shot. It adds umami that newly discovered taste sensation without MSG or any nasty ingredients (read the labels of course). I've snuck a bit into pasta dishes that were otherwise traditional, and fish paste rocks. Anchovies can do much of the same thing, but the fermentation ads it's own dimension.

Salt: Often when friends ask me to taste something they ask what it needs and the answer is often salt. Get a nice sea salt and don't be afraid of it. Mashed potatoes, gravies, rice....multitudes of dishes can be improved with just a little salt.

Butter: If a sauce does not quite have that rich mouth feel or the fish is a little dry, use some butter. Never margarine, any anyone with taste buds who has tried 'I can't believe it's not butter' knows that the name is a lie. Your first bite and you know it is a science project, not food. Believe me, don't use it, even in baked goods.

Olives are another umami sensation, if you are doing a simple vegetable toss with a few olives and olive oil and it becomes worthy of a trattoria. Play with your food and try an unconventional ingredient in a traditional dish and wake up your palate.