Pasta Carbonara (A Midwestern Hybrid)

I melt for this pasta.  I always have.

As a kid I grew up on heavy, roux laden Fettuccini Alfredo.  It was the rigor of the day and it was served everywhere and with everything mixed into the noodles, from shrimp to broccoli.  Unfortunately, and even though it was a childhood favorite, cream based pastas in the Midwest were bad, no, they were awful.

Fettucini Alfredo in the Midwest became a Parmesan cream with noodles.  Sometimes more soup then pasta.  The Italian heritage of the dish suddenly was nowhere to be found.  Alfredo in Italy is simply a pasta of butter and Parmesan cheese much like carbonara but without using egg yolks as an emulsifier.  When the noodles are hot out of the cooking water butter and parmesan are tossed with the pasta and melt into a beautiful, silky coat for each noodle.  Fettuccini Alfredo in its Italian form has nothing to do with buckets of cream reduced or thickened with a flour and butter roux.

In the same breath, Carbonara had its day too but it also comes with its own set of problems.  Eggs used to enrich the bacon lardon and Parmesan base often become gloppy and sometimes make the pasta more dry then wet while at other times, because to much egg is used,  the dish ends up with the noodles stuck together in a pasta pancake better cut with a knife then twirled onto a fork.   When made right carbonara can be sublime but when done wrong it can be one of the worst pastas in the world.   Making carbonara involves proper technique and quality ingredients if the finished pasta is to be anywhere close to extraordinary.

This pasta is not a carbonara but neither is it an Alfredo.  It is what I like to think of as a Midwestern hybrid.  Something we do really well here in the middle states, for better or worse, we make dishes to our liking.  For me,  I like several things about this pasta.  To begin, I like the use of ham instead of bacon.  There is no rendering of any fat and yet the typical Midwestern farm ham, piquant with its rosy cure, matches perfectly with the peas, garlic, and pasta.  While the recipe calls for cream it uses far less then one might imagine and the use of starch heavy pasta water to thicken the sauce is a perfect alternative to a classic roux or eggs.  While they might look like an unnecessary garnish,  the parsley and chives are important in flavoring the final dish and should be added in the last minutes of cooking.

©Tom Hirschfeld 2016 all rights reseerved
©Tom Hirschfeld 2016 all rights reseerved

Midwest Carbonara (Serves 4)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter (55g)
1 tablespoon garlic
8 oz. ham, small dice (225g)
1/2 cup heavy cream (110g)
1/2 cup pasta water (110g)
3/4 cup frozen peas (170g)
1/2 cup sugar snap peas (110g)
1 tablespoon parsley, minced
1 tablespoon chive, minced
kosher salt
fresh ground white pepper
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated (110g)
1 pound vermicelli pasta (450g)

  1. Place a 6 quart (5.51l) pot, filled with 4 quarts (4l) of water, onto the stove. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt and bring the water to a boil.
  2. While you are waiting for the water to boil heat a 14” inch (35.5cm) over medium heat. Add unsalted butter and let it melt. Add ham, stir then add garlic.
  3. When the garlic becomes fragrant but not brown add cream. Bring the cream to a boil and turn off the heat.
  4. This is about timing. The vermicelli only takes minutes to cook but if you are using a different noodle that takes longer adjust you timing.
  5. Add the vermicelli to the boiling water and cook according to the package instructions.
  6. Place the cream back onto the stove top and turn the heat to medium high. Bring the cream to a boil, add peas, season with white pepper.
  7. If the cream reduces to fast add pasta water by the 1/4 cup. Use pasta water because the starch will thicken the sauce.
  8. Drain the noodles when the finish cooking. Add noodles to sauté pan, carefully toss them with the cream. Add half the cheese and carefully toss the noodles with the cream. Taste, add salt if necessary, and a few grinds of fresh ground white pepper, half the chives and parsley. Carefully toss again taking note that it will be hard to get the peas and ham to mix into the pasta. This is okay.
  9. Pay attention in order to keep the pasta from scorching on the bottom of the pan.
  10. When everything is hot, use you tongs to place the pasta onto a large platter. Top the pasta with remaining peas and ham. Sprinkle on the remaining cheese, and top with remaining chives and parsley. Serve.

 

Farmhouse Chops in Wing Sauce

 

We love our wings in the Midwest but until I made wing sauce, equal parts real butter to hot sauce, I hadn’t had wing sauce. Sadly, and I know it is about cost, I doubt a single wing shop uses real butter in their sauce anymore. The good thing is you can have the real deal, easily, and without having to buy a pre-made version that is less then stellar. Continue reading “Farmhouse Chops in Wing Sauce”

Memphis Style Barbecue Nachos

Memphis style pulled pork nachos

Great barbecue is about the cut of meat, the smoke, the rub, and the sauce. But just because sauce is only one part of the equation, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be excellent. In fact, barbecue sauce should be so delicious that you can use it for much more than simply dipping or brushing. Continue reading “Memphis Style Barbecue Nachos”

All About Smoking + A Pulled Pork Sandwich

Pulled Pork with Stubbs Sauce

Barbecue is a far cry from the days past when you were simply handed a platter of meat and sent outside to a grill. I mean, you don’t see leg of lamb braising contests at every turn, or weekend-long fish sautéing competitions — at least not yet — and while you won’t see men look longingly at a stock pot, they will ogle a smoker or a grill like it’s the centerfold of a men’s magazine. Continue reading “All About Smoking + A Pulled Pork Sandwich”

Tips for Reading Recipes (& Chinese Style Honey Hoisin Sticky Ribs)

Chinese Style Sticky Ribs

Chef Leichte spun on the balls of his feet. A millisecond ago he was heading forward, and I was following him. Now we are face to face, and he pokes my chest with his finger. “Commit!” he says in a raised voice, his chef’s toque rising from his head and towering above me like the leaning Tower of Pisa. “Quit asking all these questions and cook! Commit to the recipe; if it fails, we will fix it, but realize you will probably learn more from your mistakes than if I coddle you through the process.” Continue reading “Tips for Reading Recipes (& Chinese Style Honey Hoisin Sticky Ribs)”

Pork Confit Parmentier (or “Sorta” Shepard’s Pie)

 

It is not generally in my nature to go out of my way to make a shepherd’s pie from scratch. Instead of cooking all the individual components — breaking them down only to put them back together — it always seems like a job best done by leftovers. I don’t mean to pick on shepherd’s pie alone — this goes for most meat and potato casseroles. And while not meat and potatoes, it reminds me of the time I looked at a recipe for turkey tetrazzini and the first step in the instructions was: Roast a turkey. Continue reading “Pork Confit Parmentier (or “Sorta” Shepard’s Pie)”

Seasoning with Pork: Polenta with Peas and Pork Sausage

Polenta with Peas and Pork Sausage

If my extended family’s eating habits are an indication as to what the preferred meat was on my grandparents and great grandparents farm then it is obvious to me I come from a long line of pork eaters. It’s not as if this matters or that I need some sort of familial approval for my love of the beast because I don’t.  I claim it as my heritage after all but I’ll just say it anyway for clarity, I…love…pork.

I love pork for its possibilities, its versatility, and most importantly, it’s flavor. From snout to hocks or bacon to ham there are more uses for the pig then any other animal I know and one of my favorite uses is as a seasoning.  My definition and what I mean by seasoning is not simply tossing a couple of strips of bacon in with the green beans and  calling it a day.  No, the pork isn’t there for a cameo but instead has an important supporting role, one in which it could be nominated for an award.

Don’t get me wrong I enjoy a good pork dinner, something like Edna Lewis’s Boiled Pork (think Pot eu Feu) really floats my boat but as I try to reduce the amount of animal protein I consume I often look to the example of Italian ragus or Asian dishes where animal protein, quite literally, plays second fiddle to the grains or noodles on the platter. The pork is there to enhance and flavor the dish. Sure this is done for economy, just like adding bread or oats to meatloaf, and who doesn’t like save a few bucks or at the very least feed more mouths for the same price. Not only that but if you buy less quantity then you can afford better quality, at least this has always been my way of thinking.

When it comes to pork quality matters. If you buy pork that is enhanced with sodium triphosphate, a common practice at big box stores, it won’t caramelize very well and honestly the pork tastes bland. It is done to help the meat retain moisture but they add it because the producers have made pork to lean. If you buy pork with a little higher fat content you don’t need the moisture retainer. Not only that but when pork is raised in a more sustainable fashion it just taste better. It taste better because of what the animals eat.  It is about the animals diet after all. I am all about how my food taste and if sustainability happens to be a byproduct then, wonderful. I mean when I bite into good pork it immediately transports me to my grandparents farm, sitting outside under a shade tree eating a farm dinner on a beautiful summer’s eve and it reminds me exactly how pork is supposed to taste.

Over the years I have had different fascinations with different types of cured pork. I mean the list of possibilities is big, you have bacon, ham, Tasso, Serrano, prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale all on top of any number of sausages. All used as seasonings and all just a few of the options that can confront you. The wonderful thing is there are many books that will teach you how to cure many of these products at home (Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie comes to mind) and many of the processes are surprisingly simple. In fact no special equipment is required other then a good sharp knife(which I don’t consider special equipment).

Polenta with Peas and Sausage (serves 6)

one recipe of Carlo Middione’s Polenta Facile

10 ounces pork tenderloin, sirloin or loin

4 to 5 ounces pancetta

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

a scrape or two of whole nutmeg

a handful of  parsley leaves

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 bay leaf

kosher salt

fresh ground pepper

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup carrots, small dice

1/2 cup onion, small dice

1/2 cup white wine

2 cups pork stock or chicken stock

1 1/2 cups fresh peas or frozen

chopped chives and parsley

1. Lay your pork out onto a large cutting board. Cut the pork and pancetta into thin strips then into cubes. Spread the pork out so it is flat instead of in one big pile. It’s ok if it isn’t in one single layer you just don’t want a big pile. Place the palm of you hand, as shown in the picture, across the blade of the knife making sure to keep your fingers up and you hand flat. This will keep you from cutting your hand if the knife slips. So fingers up! What you are doing is creating a hinge of sorts because you want to keep the tip of the knife on the board and in doing so it lets you apply more cutting force. Run the knife through the pork several times and until you have minced it to a coarse mince.

2. Add the garlic cloves, parsley, a teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper and the nutmeg. Mince the seasonings into the pork until you have a fine mince. Add the red wine vinegar and knead it into the sausage. Ball up the sausage, put it in a bowl and let it get funky in the fridge for an hour or two.

3. Start the polenta. I let my polenta cook for almost three hours. I was using an heirloom corn I grew last year called Henry Moore. It took a long time to cook but it was creamy beyond my wildest expectations. So take your time with the polenta, cook any bitterness out of it and let it do its thing.

4. When the polenta is close to being finished start the sauce by placing a large 12 inch saute pan over medium high heat. When it is hot add a glug or two of oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Brown the sausage. Once the sausage is brown remove it to a plate. Be careful not to burn the fond on the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and carrots and cook them gently until they just begin to wilt.

5. Add the tomato paste, dried thyme, rosemary, garlic and bay leaf. Stir until fragrant then add the white wine. Let the wine burn off the alcohol and then add the stock. Season and taste. Bring it to a boil and reduce it by half. Taste again and adjust the seasoning.

6. Add the sausage and peas. Heat until the peas are warmed through. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add a tablespoon of chopped chives and parsley. Stir.

7. Spread the polenta on a platter, top with the peas and sausage, and serve.