Shriek – does he know what he’s doing? No.

CarbonaraMany months ago, when I came home from UNC Hospital’s rehab, each evening I was treated to an amazing banquet of meals from family and friends. One of the meals I remember most, and there were two of my friends that would come and cook this for me, was Pasta Carbonara. Farnum Brown would always come with some beautiful guanciale, which he procured at Reliable Cheese and sadly is no longer open. It seemed like Farnum came once a week to make this pasta dish for me … sometimes he made Pasta all’Amatriciana, which also calls for guanciale … and he would usually call and ask what I wanted for dinner – without fail I would always say “Carbonara”.

Chris Hitt, who lived in Italy for a year and is a good friend that I worked with at WFM, would also come and make Pasta Carbonara. He used a special jowl bacon, which is smoked, that he would mail-order for his recipe.

Guanciale and jowl bacon is meat from the same part of the pig but the Italian’s cure bacon, but its not smoked. At some point after both of my friends had cooked Pasta Carbonara for me three or four times I realized they made it very differently, but I loved both of the dishes equally. I decided it would be fun to invite each of them on the night when the other one was cooking so they could see the differences in how each of them approached the dish. I thought they’d be curious and interested, but in fact they were competitive arguing about how to make the dish.

Neither has been to my house to make this dish for months, and the other night I was overwhelmed with a hankerin’ for some and even though I did not have the right pasta shape and I didn’t have guanciale or jowl bacon, I pressed ahead and made something that didn’t approximate either one of their recipes, but at the end of the night I had satisfied my itch for Pasta Carbonara. This post is just to encourage folks that they don’t always have to have exactly what is on the ingredient list or follow some precise procedure. Here’s a kitchen conversation on how I made the dish …

I had a couple of slices of applewood smoked bacon and I cut these up with a chef’s knife, added a tablespoon of olive oil to a cast iron skillet and slowly cooked the bacon. A minute or two into the slow cooking of the bacon I added a couple of cloves of smashed garlic and let them soften in the same pan.

When the bacon had rendered most of its fat I took the bacon out onto a paper towel, discarded the garlic and added a tablespoon of cultured butter to the bacon fat for later use. I find good olive oil, bacon fat, and cultured butter to be a winning trio.

I also added a pinch of crushed red chili – also not called for in Marcella Hazan’s recipe.

Leona diced a quarter cup of flat-leaf parsley and I grated a half cup of parmigiano-reggiano and set it aside. Chris Hitt’s recipe calls for equal parts Romano and parmigiano, which adds an interesting flavor to the dish. I also beat a beautiful farmers market duck egg so it would be ready to pour onto the hot pasta when the time came.

I cooked 300g of Farfalle, a pasta shape that is not the traditional one which is a long cut, either Spaghetti or Bucatini.

While the pasta was cooking I combined the bacon, parmiggiano, parsley and bacon fat from the cast iron skillet, along with a generous amount of fresh cracked black pepper in a large pasta-bowl.

When pasta was done (I used my teeth to test the pasta to see when it is just right … I certainly don’t throw it against the refrigerator), I quickly strained and added the pasta to the bowl and immediately poured the duck egg over it and began to stir. I can hear shrieks coming from all corners … serious chefs, people scared of raw egg, and traditionalists … but this what I did and I was happy with my dish.

For those of you who want to follow an authentic recipe I would highly recommend the following one by the Queen of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Essentials of Italian Cooking 
by Marcella Hazan, 1993, Alfred Knopf 

For 6 servings

  • 1/2 pound pancetta, cut as a single1/2-inch-thick slice, OR its equivalent in good slab bacon
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1 1/4 pounds pasta
  1. Cut the pancetta or slab bacon into strips not quite 1/4 inch wide.
  2. Lightly mash the garlic with a knife handle, enough to split it and loosen the skin, which you will discard. Put the garlic and olive oil into a small sauté pan and turn on the heat to medium high. Sauté until the garlic becomes colored a deep gold, and remove and discard it.
  3. Put the strips of pancetta or bacon into the pan, and cook until they just begin to crisp at the edges. Add the wine, let it bubble away for 1 to 2 minutes, then turn off the heat.
  4. Break the 2 eggs into the serving bowl in which you’ll be subsequently tossing the pasta. Beat them lightly with a fork, then add the two grated cheeses, a liberal grinding of pepper, and the chopped parsley. Mix thoroughly.
  5. Add cooked drained spaghetti to the bowl, and toss rapidly, coating the strands well.
  6. Briefly reheat the pancetta or bacon over high heat, turn out the entire contents of the pan into the bowl, toss thoroughly again, and serve at once.

Let’s have a conversation …

LS2502-2959_full… about Braised Chicken Thighs!

This is an experiment (and I like experiments) … here’s what we’re going to try: I’m going to tell Leona how to make braised chicken thighs and because she knows how to cook if I leave something out she’ll know to ask. You should be able to easily make this dish from this text, and remember – one reason that I like this style of cooking is because it does not have to be exact.

So this should make enough for about 2 people for dinner with some left over for one person for lunch, or you can serve three people a slightly smaller serving for dinner.

(♥ Lex’s notes)

What you’ll need:

  • Four bone-in chicken thighs (♥ if you prefer you can use boneless and/or skinless chicken thighs, which will produce a leaner broth)
  • 1-2 slices flavorful bacon (♥ if you don’t eat bacon you can use 1-2 Tbsp of olive oil)
  • One medium onion
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic
  • One fat carrot
  • 1-2 leeks
  • A few ribs of celery
  • A medium turnip
  • A small rutabaga
  • 1-2 cups sliced mushrooms
  • 1 ½ cups baby spinach
  • approx. 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2-2/3 of a bottle of wine (♥ most would use red for this dish but either will work)

One of the most important things for this dish is a pot that can go straight from the stovetop to the oven. (♥ A 5-quart Le Creuset is ideal, a budget-friendly alternative is a cast-iron dutch oven.)

♥ If you’re organized and plan your meals ahead, season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper up to two days before.

Preheat your oven to 225F.

Cut the bacon into 1” pieces (or whatever size you prefer) and render it off in the pot until the bacon has released its fat and is “kinda” cooked. Remove the bacon and use the rendered fat to brown the chicken thighs on all sides. Approx 2-3 minutes should suffice – just long enough to get some nice color.

After browning your chicken set it aside and sauté your diced onion. Add the garlic (crushed or minced), carrot, celery and leeks (ä be careful not to let the garlic get too dark). Add your aromatics of choice (♥ Lex suggests a pinch of red pepper flakes, star anis and a bay leaf; Rick Robinson swears by one clove, and Leona would add a cardamom pod or two) and deglaze with a splash of chicken stock or wine before adding the cubed root vegetables and “kinda” cooked bacon.

♥ You can improvise here on your vegetables … for example in one of my chicken thigh braises I made this winter I used fennel instead of celery. You could also use potato instead of root vegetables, cabbage of your liking – though I’d use Savoy – or alter your proportions. I’d estimate you want about 2-3 cups of vegetables.

Once the veggies have started softening a bit add enough chicken stock to barely cover and bring to a boil. Rest your chicken thighs on the vegetables and put the pot in the pre-heated oven for 3-4 hours. ♥ Chicken thighs are very forgiving and can be slow-cooked for a long while so don’t worry about over cooking them, especially if your oven is at 225.

There are a number of ways to deal with the spinach and the sliced mushrooms, the easiest being to stir them in with the root vegetables, but if you do this they will be cooked within an inch of their life. Being from the south I am used to that with vegetables so it doesn’t harsh my mellow, as Farnum Brown would say.

My friend Peter Roy prefers his spinach and mushrooms with a little more life left in them so here are three alternative ways to not cook them so much:

  1. Approx. 30 minutes before removing the chicken just add the spinach and mushrooms on top and recover for the remaining braise time;
  2. Approx. 30 minutes before the chicken is done take it out of the pot, stir the spinach and mushrooms in with the vegetables and add the chicken back to the mix;
  3. Right before serving, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil, add a little liquid and the spinach and wilt the greens over the mushrooms. Use the spinach and mushrooms as a base to serve your chicken and vegetables on top.

♥ For a base you can also make rice, grits, mashed potatoes, Israeli couscous, or quinoa – whatever suits your fancy!

Cheers!

Cocktails

I’m not a big cocktail guy. With the small capacity I have for alcohol these days I like to save my allotment for wine, but every once in a while I like to go to the Crunkleton in Chapel Hill or make a drink at home – my choice at either venue is a Manhattan. This weekend we had two couples visit from Boston and I made cocktails for our guests.

There are many ways to prepare a Manhattan, the original being a mix of American Whiskey, Italian Vermouth and Angostura bitters.

Other references to a “Manhattan” have it being served in the city by the same name as early as the mid-1800s, where it has been described as a drink made with two dashes of gum (gomme syrup), 2 dashes of bitters, 1 dash of absinthe, 2/3 whiskey and 1/3 vermouth. (William Schmidt’s “The Flowing Bowl”, 1891)

Here’s how I do it:

2oz Rye Whiskey

1oz Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth

a dash of bitters (I like orange bitters)

1-2 real Maraschino cherries from Luxardo

The key to a good Manhattan is using good ingredients. My ratio of 2:1 is influenced by really good Vermouth from Northern Italy.

The Manhattan has been damaged in the same way the true martini has – in the case of the martini I blame James Bond. If a minuscule amount of Vermouth was James’ recommendation then the macho American male decided no Vermouth at all was even better. But straight gin does not make a good drink, and banishing the Vermouth from the martini led people to abandon the gin martini and switch to a vodka “martini” altogether. In my opinion a “martini” without gin and vermouth isn’t a martini at all.

The best martini I ever experienced was at the Drake hotel in Chicago, which was served in an ingenious two-piece beaker, which allowed you to pour what you wanted into your martini glass while also keeping the whole thing cold. If you’re ever in Chicago I recommend you try a martini at the Drake.

In the case of the Manhattan, bartenders have been making it too with less and less Vermouth. If you use good Vermouth – and I do – I think the right ratio is two parts Whiskey to one part Vermouth, you can even go as light as one part whiskey and one part vermouth.

Now for the real Maraschino cherry – not the abomination given to kids in Shirley Temple’s all over America.

A while ago I read this article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/nyregion/30bigcity.html?_r=0) about a strange mystery indeed. An amateur beekeeper in Brooklyn, New York went up to the roof of her building to check out the results of one of her honeybee hives, expecting to find the golden reward of her bees’ labors. Instead she found that her bees were producing a sickly red, cough syrup sort of substance, something that was not only frightening, but also downright mysterious. It turns out, while foraging, the honeybees had discovered a Maraschino cherry factory, and were sneaking in through a window to dine on sugar water and Red Dye Number 40.

I bring up this story, because it points to the appalling result of a counterfeit industry. These days most people’s conception of the Maraschino cherry is the same as the experience of those Brooklyn honeybees, sugar water and Red Dye Number 40. But, contrary to general supposition, the Maraschino cherry has a royal history and the genuine article still exists.

It may be hard to believe, but a true Maraschino cherry starts out sour and bitter. Marasca cherry trees grow wild along the Croatian coast (former Dalmatia), and in the late 18th century, a Venetian merchant by the name of Drioli refined a distillation process of the cherries, gaining renown for his Maraschino liqueur. The cherries and the liqueur became so wildly acclaimed that courts and rulers all over Europe sought after it, with royal households of Austria, Great Britain and Italy even giving the Drioli factory legal rights to the use of their coats of arms. From the beginning of Drioli Maraschino’s success, however, there were counterfeiting operations all over Europe, a legacy that, as alluded to earlier, still exists in abundance today.

Luxardo

That’s how good these cherries can be. They’re worth counterfeiting, after all. While the Drioli factory no longer exists, there are a couple of serious producers still making quality Maraschinos. Luxardo is one of them. In the 1820s Girolamo Luxardo and his wife began distilling cherries in the same town as Drioli. Today Luxardo grows 22,000 marasca cherry trees in the hilly region of northeastern Italy between Padua and Venice. The company harvests their fruit by hand with all the care of a great wine or olive oil producer and then distills it for two years in pot stills. The maraschino liquor is aged for two years before bottling. The fresh cherries are macerated in the aged liquor and packaged in glass jars.

You can’t buy a jar for $1.98. It’ll cost you almost $25. But they’re worth it. And it only takes one or two of these cherries to make an ordinary Manhattan into one you’ll dream about.

You can go on Amazon to buy these cherries, or even better go to my friend Ari Weinzweig’s mail order at Zingermans.com.

Dancin’

 
Pic Saint-Loup

 

One of my favorite things to do at the dimming of the day is to go down to my modest wine cellar … I don’t have an extensive wine cellar with a lot of expensive wines, but I do have a place to keep my wine. Yesterday I asked Leona if she would have a glass of wine with me and she said she would. My wine cellar is not impeccably organized, as anyone who knows me would figure. This results in two things: first I often can’t find a wine that I am sure is down there so wine gets lost, and second I sometimes stumble on wine I forgot I had and can’t remember much about – the second was the case yesterday. I found a bottle of Pic Saint-Loup, which is in my opinion an underrated wine-producing sub-region north of Montpellier in the Languedoc. I was first introduced to Pic Saint-Loup by my friend and coffee mentor Kevin Knox in the late 70s. Kevin was on a tight budget but loved wine – particularly wines from the Rhone river valley in the south of France, but he couldn’t afford Chateauneuf-du-Pape. He explained that through careful research he could often find a Pic Saint-Loup that would satisfy him, in his words Chateauneuf-du-Pape on a budget, for a third of the retail price. I can still remember the first Pic Saint-Loup I tried with Kevin, which I remember to be the best Pic Saint-Loup I have ever tried – Domaine de L’Hortus. Amazingly I can still remember the producer!

Back to yesterday, the surprise wine I found was a Mas Bruguiere L’Arbouse 2011 Pic Saint-Loup and I was encouraged by two things, first the composition of the wine 55% Syrah/45% Grenache, and second that the alcohol was less than 14% at 13.5%. The wine is imported by Bruno Arricastres of Wine without Borders, a company based out of Carrboro, NC. The wine was lovely with complex flavors and lightness on the palate. Leona confided that she liked white wine, but on a recent trip to Germany enjoyed the reds there, but often in the States when she orders a glass of red wine it is thick, alcoholic, and a disaster with food. Wine and food together are very much like a dance … a bite of food, a sip of wine … if the wine is fruit-forward and high alcohol it is like dancing with somebody with two left feet that weigh two hundred pounds each. Leona asked me how she would know not to order left-footed monsters in a restaurant – there is not a foolproof way, but there are some hints. Any red wine that has over 14% alcohol (these usually come from new world origins like Australia, Argentina, Chile & California) are pretty much guaranteed to not have much delicacy. Many of these wines have been formatted – a nice word for manufactured or factory-made – to appeal to the American palate, a wine which tastes like a one-dimensional cocktail of black cherry and raspberry juice with lots of alcohol. A couple of glasses of this kind of wine will give you a buzz and a bottle of the stuff will give you a whopping headache in the morning.

Perhaps Bruno will post a comment where you can buy this Pic Saint-Loup locally.

Braised Lamb Stew

I really hate recipes. I hate writing them and I hate cooking from them, but I promised to give people the braised chicken thighs recipe because that is so good. Today was supposed to be the day, but when I went into the fridge to find the chicken thighs I had salt and pepper at Whole Foods when I bought them for the braise they were no where to be found – I must have left them at WFM.

Annie had some lamb shoulder that she wanted to make into a stew and we had marinated it in yogurt with lemon juice, so Leona and I made lamb stew today instead of braised chicken thighs – I am not going to give you a recipe for the lamb stew, but I will say that these slow-cooking braises in the La Creuset pots make the house smell so good, and the anticipation is a great thing on a cold day like today.

Our plan is to try the chicken thigh braise on Monday and hopefully we will have something for you to cook from then. photo

Ari’s New Book

A few days ago I was happy to get a package from my dear friend, Ari Weinzweig. I opened it up and it was an autographed copy of his third business book, entitled, “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to: Managing Ourselves”. This is the third book in his series, (the first was for Building A Great Business, the second was an Approach for Being a Better Leader).

Ari is the most thoughtful and accomplished small business person I know. And I was honored when he called and asked if he could include an essay on anxiety that I’d written, in the new book. He had my section marked, so I could quickly find it, and he had written a nice introduction with the subtitle, “Lex’s Lament”. (Attached is a photocopy of that section.) Made me very proud, a good thing for me to feel these days.

Correction: You can purchase all of Ari’s books at the Zingerman’s website: http://www.zingermans.com/Category.aspx?category=books

Doc - Jan 14, 2014, 11-06 AM - p1 Doc - Jan 14, 2014, 11-06 AM - p2