Monday, August 27, 2007

The beauty of cannellini beans

My home town's known for large consumption of two vegetables ... artichokes and beans. Well, when I started this and posted a couple of things we'd done for 4th of July, my wife berated me (rightly so) for not adding her own creation for that day. It's basically a bruschetta topping, if you like, made with beans, tuna and cherry tomatoes. It is, simply, delicious. So today I'm going to write up how to make that, and also how to use beans in a similar way as a side dish.

Take a skillet, well heated, pour olive oil to taste, and a bunch of cherry tomatoes, halved. Cook the cherry tomatoes for a short while, until they begin to wilt. At that point, add a can of tuna, packed in olive oil if possible. Salt, and heat the tuna through. I'd go until it starts to almost stick to the skillet. At this point, add 12/14oz or a jar of cooked cannellini beans, as small a variety as you can find - the Annalisa brand has a kind called Tondini, which are perfect, if you cook them yourself ask your purveyor for a small bean. Make sure they are pretty well drained, though a bit of the bean liquid won't go amiss. Cook until the beans are softened and heated through. Place in a serving dish, and provide abundant crusty bread, either toasted or fresh.

Beans are great poured in a dish where stuff is sticking, they deglaze the dish, pick up all sorts of goodness, and either blend with the content of the dish, or if you've removed the original content, serve as a great side dish. It is one way you can make salsiccie e fagioli; more on an original approach to this in a later post, but we also made a simpler version a couple of weeks ago, basically had some chicken sausage pan fried with a bit of oil, some herbs (thyme, rosemary or sage would all work here), removed the meat, added the beans, with liquid and some salt/pepper to taste, deglazed the pan and heated the beans fully, then threw the sausage back in for a couple of minutes. The whole thing takes no more than 15/20 minutes to make, and is just great if you like beans. I could see it work with any meat you would normally saute, easily. With sausages it was especially good as they are usually well seasoned, in any variety, which really will add to the flavor of the finished good.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Treatise on Carbonara

Been a while now since I posted ... well, I've been out of the country for some time, mostly working, but also getting some eats. I managed to make it to St John in London again, which I love a lot more every time I go back. This time it was Eaton Mess. Dear, oh dear.

Anyway, working in Prague, where it must be said the quality of beer far outstrips that of any food you might happen to eat, I found myself once again debating the merits of various carbonara recipes with a couple of my local friends. It is remarkable how this happens. Every time. It's like a favorite sport in italian cooking, how to make carbonara.

I did manage to record my version down once, so I'm going to post it, and sort of try to figure out where the most common changes happen to be. First, my approximate recipe.

One onion (if making for more than 6 people, might want to consider a very big one, or one and a half, if for two, only half an onion)
One slice of your favorite bacon-type meat (I've used pepper-cured bacon, smoked bacon, rolled italian pancetta, straight cut italian pancetta, or Rigatino as it is known in Tuscany, all work well) per person, medium thickness if possible. Needs to be almost a cube. If you get pancetta, you can ask them to slice it as you like, with bacon it's normally pre-sliced even in the nicer shops, so you'll have to do with what you get. Fatted Calf in the Bay Area is now selling a straight cut pancetta that will make the best meat for it, if you can get it in a thick slice ...
Olive oil
Half-to-one egg per person. , I sometimes use all the egg, plus maybe one egg yolk, in which case count one egg for two people. More typical is to use the egg yolk only, in which case you are looking at one yolk per person. I like both, myself.
Your favorite italian grated cheese, either hard pecorino (the original cheese, usually romano here), or any parmesan/grana cheese.
Since this is a maremma recipe, the original cheese is pecorino, but you would normally have looked for tuscan hard pecorino, which is less salty than romano. Romano is sometimes overwhelming, and my wife definitely prefers Parmesan/Grana to it. I am less rigid about it, but probably would use a Grana Padano for this.

Now ....
You cube the pancetta, and start frying it slowly; when the fat starts to become transparent, add the chopped onion, with some olive oil if you like, and fry more or less forever, at low heat. The onion should be brown, almost burned. The fat should be crispy. How much oil you add really
depends on how fatty the meat is. If you get bacon or pancetta that has little pepper, you may depending on your tastes want to add some black grated pepper. Salt is delicate: if you use pancetta, it tends to be salty enough, if you use bacon, add to taste.

Place the eggs in a bowl, with a good deal of grated cheese, enough to mix together to form a "cream", not too liquid, not too solid.
Cook your favorite pasta (usually spaghetti, normally best not to use penne as the sauce won't get inside, but you could use fusilli or farfalle). Drain, adding a little bit of the water to the egg/cheese mix to temper the egg. Place the pasta in the bowl, add the onion/meat mix and toss until the pasta is well coated.
If some folks are averse to eating eggs that are not fully cooked, you can prepare the onion/meat mix in a big saute pan, mix the egg & cheese in a small bowl, then throw pasta and egg mixture into the pan with the meat, and mix in there, perhaps over very low heat.
If you do it this way, the texture of the egg will resemble scrambled eggs, as opposed to a creamier consistency.

Unless you mix in some cream, which I am guessing is why lots of people add cream. This is one of the big debates with Carbonara - to add cream or not. Growing up, carbonara was always a very spicy dish. Not hot, but spicy. Rigatino in Tuscany is buried in salt and pepper; lots of it sticks to the meat, and is not shaken off when you cube it and throw it in the pan. So, its standard taste is not for the faint of heart. If you use bacon or even rolled pancetta, there will be little pepper on it, and the taste of the dish will be more delicate. For my money, adding cream to this dish when full of pepper doesn't work too well. But if you're using bacon, you can get away with it. I am also certain that few restaurants would want to serve uncooked eggs to their customers, and then you just can't get anything like the right texture for the dish if you don't add some cream.

Yet, the cream debate is through by now ... cream in carbonara is not the done thing. The real tweaks are around the other stuff. Much discussion over whether to add the whole egg or the yolks alone. Yolks will give you an impressively yellow color. And a stronger taste - which if you did happen to use real rigatino, would probably be required. Do try the different cheeses, you will be surprised at the variation. I'd love to try making this with some good pastrami, too, though I'd saute the onion and add the pastrami at the end, since it is nowhere near as fatty as pancetta.

The dish encourages variation, no question about it. It and Tiramisu, and that's going to be subject for another post.