Hooked on Classics

By Bill Turner

There are literally millions of recipes available — online and in magazines, newspapers and nouveau cookbooks. But why wander through that haphazard maze in hopes of finding a gem? Instead, start your culinary forays with the classics. These are the breathtaking dishes that have been tested and refined for years, sometimes centuries. Why would you ever want to consider fiddling around with some contemporary, unknown recipe when you could do a Beef Bourguignon or a true Bolognese sauce?

There is romance in the classics and that is what cooking is all about. If you’re inviting guests to a dinner party, would you prefer to tell them that you are making a “neat” chicken recipe you saw in some magazine, or that you had a sudden urge to make Coq au Vin. The romance begins as you say, “This is truly one of the great French classics; I’m sure you’ve had it before, but I think you’ll like mine.” Or “You know this will take me all day to make so maybe you want to stop by around noon and help.” Or my favorite: “I’m sure you know that this dish is an aphrodisiac.”

There’s another reason to get hooked on the classics. If you can make a low country skillet cornbread, a tarte tatin or pasta e fagioli, all from scratch, people will take notice. They will all assume that these are hard to make and that you are a great chef. People will start to talk about your skills. You will bask in the glow of accolades and see people whispering about you at cocktail parties.

If you have managed to get this far, promise right now that you will prepare the following classic: spaghetti alla carbonara. If you do so, your previous two-dimensional existence, which you mistakenly thought was
OK, will suddenly take on a new three-dimensional fullness, guaranteed.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

This is one of the easiest and quickest classics to make. There are just five ingredients, eggs, bacon, garlic, Parmesan cheese and spaghetti, which you likely have on hand.

This dish can be used on many occasions. For example, you and your loved one have been out all day shopping, visiting friends — whatever — and you both arrive home tired, wondering what is for dinner. Now you spring into action. Tell her to slip into something comfortable, high heels will do, while you open a bottle of wine and prepare a surprise for dinner. And, it will be ready in less than 30 minutes!

If that’s a little racy, try a small dinner party built around this great pasta dish. You can entertain the crowd with the great story about how spaghetti alla carbonara was invented at the end of World War II. It is not a traditional Italian dish, and there is no mention of it anywhere until the late 1940s, but here’s how it came into existence: Meat and dairy products were incredibly scarce at the end of the war. But, the GIs in Italy had access to bacon and eggs, and they asked the locals how to marry these ingredients with pasta. I have visions of a group of young American boys talking to some pretty young Italian girls, saying, “We’ve got some bacon and eggs, but we don’t know how to cook it. Maybe you can show us how.” The happy result, aside from the social interaction, is this wonderful dish.
“Carbonara” literally means “wife of a coal miner,” and is a name usually applied to an older woman, perhaps a grandmother. In my mind’s eye, I see these young girls bringing the GIs home for dinner and showing their grandmother the bacon and eggs. I see a lot of giggling and translating, and I see “La Carbonara” smiling as she prepares this magnificent dish.

In this recipe, you basically make a cheese and egg mixture in the bottom of a serving bowl and toss with hot pasta. This cooks the eggs and melts the cheese; then add the bacon with some of the fat. The result is a delicate and creamy pasta. Try serving with a Caesar salad.

Level of Difficulty: 3.0 out of 10

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Servings: 6 as an entrée, 8 as an appetizer (leftovers are wonderful heated in the microwave)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1 pound bacon
  • 1 cup of grated Parmesano Reggiano (more expensive than domestic, but much better)
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

PROCEDURE

Take the bacon out of the package, but do not separate the slices. Cut crosswise with a sharp knife to make small strips about ¼ inch wide. Set aside.

Put two eggs and the grated cheese in the bottom of a large serving bowl. Whisk lightly.

Start heating about 4 quarts of water in a stockpot, add ½ tablespoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of olive oil and bring to a boil.

Cook bacon in a skillet and add the garlic about halfway through. Continue until the bacon is crispy. Discard about half of the bacon fat, but not all. Set back on the warm stove with no heat.

When the bacon is nearly finished, start cooking the spaghetti until al dente.

Drain the pasta (do not rinse) and immediately put it in the serving bowl with the cheese and egg mixture.

Vigorously toss with two forks. Add the bacon and remaining fat and toss again.

Serve immediately.

After finishing this great dish, you will experience a wonderful warm glow and your mind will wander back to those GIs with the young Italian girls. You will silently thank “La Carbonara.”

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