I adore Molly O’Neill. You too, right? She’s a former restaurant critic (current columnist) for the New York Times; a food writer who’s the envy of every aspiring blogger. She’s written for a slew of food magazines, and won awards for her New York Cookbook. She’s kind of a big deal.
Her latest cookbook, One Big Table, is also wildly popular — and for good reason. It was researched over many, many years; Molly visited different regions of the country, spending weeks or months at a time, before retuning home to process, write, and cook. Then she spent years in the kitchens of Americans who’d recently immigrated into the United States, learning how they tweaked their homeland’s recipes to accommodate for the ingredients unknown here, or to allow for the inclusion of New World ones. Finally, she spent a year holding potluck dinners across America, where all sorts of people came to compete in recipe competitions and share their favorite dishes.
Instead of following the memoir-cookbook trend, writing a travel journal of her time on the road, Molly chose to stick to the recipes she found, creating a tome of American cookery. The recipes are unadulterated, not tweaked to suite Molly’s own tastes, or changed to make things easy, more accessible. They are the real deal — 100% Americana.
A quote by Clementine Paddleford in 1960 is included in One Big Table’s introduction:
We all have hometown appetites, every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or in the hometown left behind.
It’s a quote that sums up the intention of One Big Table – Molly sought out these hometown appetites, expelling the notion that ‘Americans don’t cook’ with the many varied regional recipes, lovingly prepared by second, third, sixth generation cooks everyday. But it’s also a quote that stopped me short.
I’m not sure I have a hometown appetite. I can’t say I’m a bundle of longing for the cuisine of my youth. Save for a few family recipes (tulta and piange, two recipes made with spinach with names made up by our family — “tulta,” derives from “torta,” which means “cake,” since it is a spinach and rice cake, and “piange” in Italian means “cry,” which I cannot explain save for the spinach stuffing being so good you might cry.)
Molly writes that she has “never known a food-obsessed person who did not have someone in a cotton apron… standing behind them;” but she’s never met me. When I picture the people who guided me toward my obsession with food, it’s the faces on covers of cookbooks, the celebrity chefs on cooking shows, and the men and women in the kitchens at my favorite restaurants.
It perturbed me, reading the introduction to One Big Table. If I have no hometown appetite, will my food be remembered? Will my children, and their children, have a sense of belonging? Will they not have the comforting, cozy feel of history that comes through family recipes? Or, does that not matter so much, when their mother (or grandmother) cooks well, feeds them varied recipes, from all over the world, not just their hometown?
There’s an itchy little part of me that fears something will be missing, if there is no story or sense of place in the food my family will eat.
So I better get started now. I’ve bought a new recipe box, and I’m going to write down our very best, most comforting, tradition-making recipes, to hand down to future generations once I’m too old to cook them. I might not have a “hometown appetite” ingrained in me, but I know I can make one up.
Carbonara, that inimitable pasta covered in a silky egg sauce and garnished with sweet peas, salty pork jowl, and lots of black pepper, is the first recipe to enter the box, for a few reasons: First, I am (in good part) Italian. Or, Italian-American. I have family in Italy, and our few family recipes are Italian. And although I come from Dutch, German, and Irish lines as well, we’ve identified, mostly, with being Italian. (I grew up in North Jersey, after all.)
Carbonara, also, is already a tradition in my immediate family of two. Jim and I make carbonara whenever we return home after a long trip on the road, or when our spirits are down. We make carbonara in the middle of winter, when we need the comfortable feeling that comes with a blanket of creamy egg sauce. And we make it in summer, adding fresh vegetables and loads of herbs, because the comforts of carbonara are useful anytime of the year. It’s become a testament to our cozy, loving home. We will be making carbonara for many years into the future.
And, most importantly, carbonara is just dang delicious.
I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll go over the rules of carbonara again for you here, in case you’d like to enter it into your own recipe box. For a great carbonara, you need to pace yourself. Don’t rush things. First, get your hands on some real guanciale (pork jowl) because bacon is too smoky and usually cut too thin, and pancetta is too salty. Guanciale is cured with salt and black pepper, adding a particular flavor not found in bacon or pancetta and, if cooked slowly over a medium-low heat, it’s high proportion of fat will become golden and crunchy on the outside, with pork-belly-like meltyness on the inside. If you can’t find guanciale, I’d leave out the pork altogether, and try to find some pork lard to cook the peas in.
Once the guanciale is completely cooked, remember to take it out of the pan and let it rest on paper towels before adding it to the pasta. You need this resting time for the crunchy parts to set a little, so they won’t turn to mush in the bowl later.
Now, on the matter of pasta. No matter what any fussy Italian says, it really doesn’t matter what type of pasta you use. I’ve made it with linguine, spaghetti, orecchiette and even, in a pinch, bow-tie. This last time around was my first using Bartiliono’s cirioline all’uovo — egg pasta nests — and it was my favorite pasta yet, though it’s somewhat hard to find. Most of the time however, we just use whatever’s in the pantry. Carbonara is best as a spur-of-the-moment meal. One to whip up after a long day, or during a snow-storm, with items grabbed from the pantry. (Just make sure you have a good stock of guanciale in your freezer at all times!) So, use whatever pasta you like, but, if you want to make it a little more special, use a premium, imported brand from Italy.
On to peas: I use frozen petite peas. They’re teeny and sweeter than garden peas, and worth the few extra cents. You don’t need more than a handful (one bag will provide you many carbonara’s worth) since peas are only in the dish to provide little hits of sweetness (some authentic recipes don’t call for peas, but I don’t see why). Also, even in the spring when fresh peas are available, I tend to forgo them for frozen, since sweetness is key, and I find most fresh peas are too starchy by the time they go from the farmer to my kitchen. (But if you have a good supply of fresh peas, by all means…)
Finally, there’s only two more things to say about carbonara: First, use a lot of black pepper. It’s the flavor that you need to cut through the fat of the guanciale and the sauce, and to flavor the pasta, and compliment the peas. Make sure it is freshly ground. And a healthy amount.
Second, toss the sauce with the pasta in a bowl, off the heat. If you try and add the sauce to the pasta while it’s in the pan, you will end up with a less-than-silky sauce. So, transfer the pasta and peas to a big bowl, and immediately add in the eggs and toss like crazy. I whisk the (seasoned) eggs (one egg per serving) in a small bowl before adding it to the pasta. I know some people break the eggs directly over the pasta — the process is prettier that way, but it makes it more difficult to stir the eggs into a sauce before they curdle. Though, again, whatever works.
This last thing is the most important part of carbonara-making. Don’t be afraid of the eggs being left raw — they will cook, partly, into a silky sauce — though they aren’t supposed to cook fully. If you are feeding someone who shouldn’t eat partially cooked eggs, don’t make them carbonara. However, if you are a healthy adult, you shouldn’t fear eggs cooked this way, especially if you are buying your eggs from a good, local source.
They only thing left to do now, is eat. And enjoy the comforts of carbonara.
serves 4-6, depending on whether it is a first-course, or main
6 ounces guanciale, chopped into thumbnail sized lardons
1 pound pasta, preferably a good, imported brand of you favorite type of pasta (I really liked egg pasta in this carbonara)
1 cup grated parmigiano cheese, or more to taste (you can also use pecorino, which is more traditional for carbonara, though I prefer the taste of parmigiano)
a handful (about 2/3 of a cup) petite peas, preferably frozen unless you have very sweet fresh peas
2 whole eggs
2-3 egg yolks (I usually add the extra yolk)
freshly ground black pepper
Heat a pan over low to medium heat (I have an electric range and set it between medium-low and medium). Add guanciale and cook until they are crisp on all sides. If the pieces begin to cook too fast, and you think they will burn before cooking properly, lower the heat. Low and slow is a foolproof way to cook the guanciale right, so they they are crisp on the outside but easy to chew, and meltingly tender inside. Once cooked, remove the guanciale and let rest on paper towel.
Usually, I will now pour some (not all) of the fat in the pan into a bowl, so I can decide whether I want to use it all or not later. (I don’t use olive oil in my carbonara, because I love the taste of pork fat, but you can use it in place of, or in addition to, the drippings, if you are crazy like.)
Put a pot of well-salted water over high heat and bring to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and yolks until well combined. Add half of the cheese and season with a good amount of black pepper and some salt.
Add the peas to the pan you used to cook the guanciale. Cook until they become soft. The pasta should be cooked at this time, so drain and add the pasta to the peas and mix them together with some black pepper and salt.
Get a serving bowl and add in your pasta, peas, the remaining half of the cheese, and crisp guanciale. Drizzle the eggs over the pasta and stir, using a folding, tossing type of motion, to work the eggs into a silky sauce without curdling them. (If the pasta is piping hot, stir in big, quick motions to cool the pasta down as quickly as possible.) Taste and season again with pepper and salt before bringing to the table with some extra cheese for passing around.