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.

 

Peas and Rice with Crispy Shallots

Rice and Peas with Crispy Shallots

I never feel like people like to cook rice unless of course they are from a country or region where it is a staple.  I will say it took me a while to get the hang of it.  Even after culinary school, because I didn’t cook rice often, it was a struggle.  It seemed like it would either be a gooey mess, or dry and not cooked all the way through.  Some recipes seemed to work one time and the next they failed.

It wasn’t until I started to look for a rhyme and reason that it started to get better for me.  I stopped buying different brands, types and kinds of rice for regular use and narrowed my selection down to two.  I use medium grain brown rice from Lundberg farms in California and a kapika short grain white rice from Japan.  For other dishes such as risottos or paella I use carnaroli.

For those not familiar with kapika it is a process where by the rice is polished using the grains themselves to remove the outer husk which also allows for greater water absorption.  What I like about the kapika process is you do not need to rinse the rice before it is cooked and it has a stickiness to it that allows you to be able to eat it with chopsticks if you choose.  Still there is more to kapika then just chopstick usability, there is the chew.  It has, for me, the perfect chew it is tender with a spring.

I cook brown rice using a method that is wildly different from how I cook any other rice.  I always parboil it in large quantities of lightly salted water, drain it and cool it much like you might pasta.  They I use it in applications like fried rice, casseroles and pilafs.

I usually by larger quantities of white rice then brown.  I love brown rice but brown rice can go rancid if left sitting around or because of lower turnover in the store, the rice is already old and needs to be used up before it goes south.  It has an acrid smell to it when it is old.  White rice like white flour has a longer shelf life.

Obviously brown rice is better for you because it is a whole grain but I am certain white rice is more soothing to my stomach.

For this recipe I could simply enjoy sitting at the table and eating it all on its own.  I need no other dish alongside it but if it is going to be a side dish roast chicken is a real good choice as is rabbit.

My absolute favorite condiment for this dish is the gelatinous stock (not the chicken fat) that forms on the bottom of the roast chicken pan.  If you have it available stir some of it in to the rice after it has cooked but before serving.

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups kapika rice

2 3/4 cup vegetable broth

1 cup peas, fresh or frozen

1/2 cup shallots, sliced into very thin rounds and separated

peanut or safflower oil

2 teaspoons fresh chives, minced

2 teaspoons parsley, minced

1. Place the rice into a 3 1/2 quart enameled Dutch oven with a heavy lid.  Add the vegetable stock and a pinch of salt.  Bring the broth to a boil over high heat.  Immediately turn down the heat to simmer and put the lid onto the pot (I weight the lid with a two pound weight but that is up to you).  Set a timer for 20 minutes.

2. While the timer is running place a 2 quart sauce pan over medium high heat.  Add a 1/2 inch worth of oil to the pan.  Once the oil is to temperature, you can test this by dropping in a shallot ring it should drop to the bottom then come back to the top all in slow motion, add the shallots.  It won’t take long for them to brown so don’t leave the stove.  Once they are brown remove them from the pan with a metal slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate and season them with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

3. When the rice timer goes of quickly lift the lid and add the peas.  Don’t stir them just leave them on top to steam.  Cover the pot and set the time for 10 minutes.

4. At the end of ten minutes remove the lid to the pot and with a fork fluff the rice which will also stir in the peas.  Bowl up the rice, sprinkle on the herbs and finish it with the shallot garnish.  Serve.