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Pasta Carbonara

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Andrew Carmellini, chef/owner of TriBeCa’s Locanda Verde, making pasta carbonara

[Daniel Krieger for The New York Times]

Tuesday night, the NYT put up an article by Ian Fisher at their home page about pasta carbonara as a Thanksgiving substitute. As a carbonara lover, I clicked on the article immediately, and found it sufficiently exciting that I thought of writing a post about it. The next morning, I saw that it was the front page feature story in the weekly Wednesday food section, and later in the day I noticed that it was #2 in the NYT list of most e-mailed articles. I wasn’t alone in my fascination with carbonara. And my service as linker to the article might be unnecessary. Yet here I am linking to it, in case you missed it.

Of special interest is the discussion of guanciale versus pancetta.

My wife has more confidence in my cooking skills than I do. When we were posted in Italy (I was the New York Times correspondent in Rome), she volunteered me to make carbonara at a party one summer afternoon in Tuscany. The host was a contessa, the mother of one of our sons’ school friends. I am American, and I could tell most of the guests did not hold much hope.

I hadn’t made much carbonara before and told her, “I’m nervous.”

She said, “You should be.”

It all went terribly. It was too hot for most Italians to enjoy heavy carbonara. I didn’t bring enough guanciale, the cured pig cheeks that for many Italians have become indispensable for carbonara. I had to chuck in some pancetta (pork belly as opposed to cheek) that the host had in the fridge. For this crowd, pancetta simply was not done. I botched the eggs to the point that they were scrambled.

No Italian adult would touch it, except the contessa, who did so with well-bred, fork-plucking politeness. But the children gobbled it down because — and this is the curse and the key to carbonara — eggs, bacon, cheese and pasta taste great, almost no matter what. It’s worth the effort, though, to get right, and that’s what I’ve striven for since, to the point of curing my own guanciale at home, which is less difficult than it sounds. No obsession here, I swear.

Fisher raises a series of questions: “Guanciale, pancetta or plain bacon? Only pecorino cheese, made from sheep’s milk? Or is a bit of Parmesan O.K.? Peas or not? Onion? Whole eggs or yolks? Or, heaven forbid, the ingredient that most divides devotees of a dish that, above all, aims for creaminess: actual cream?” It would appear that the answer is, whatever works.

Andrew Carmellini, the chef and owner of Locanda Verde in Manhattan, studied cooking in Italy but has gone his own way, while keeping true to the dish’s nature. In his version, which he calls Spaghetti Friuliano, after the region in Italy where part of his family comes from, he uses speck, which is like prosciutto, as well as onions, cabbage, eggs, smoked pecorino from Sardinia and, yes, cream. He even finishes it with a little grappa.

After seeing Skyfall last night, Gail and I took a route home that would bring us past a favorite neighborhood restaurant, La Côte Café. In mid afternoon, we had eaten a late lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers. As we passed La Côte Café at around 8:15 PM, we weren’t in need of a full dinner. I suggested that we stop for dessert crepes.

Earlier this year, in converting from La Côte Crêperie to La Côte Café, the restaurant substantially revised their menu. Many of the crepe selections were dropped. Lasagna and pasta carbonara — perhaps the best carbonara in Seattle — were added. This presented a bit of a problem, since we really weren’t there for a full meal. With carbonara on my mind for four days, I had to exercise enormous restraint to stick with ordering just a light salad and a dessert crepe, which I did. Now we have to get back soon so I can satisfy my carbonara craving.

I wonder why French restaurants make such good pasta carbonara. Without doubt, I had my favorite version ever at the beachfront restaurant of the Majestic Hotel in La Baule, on the Brittany coast. That was in 1999, when we were visiting my sister and her family on the occasion of a big birthday for her. We ate there the night we arrived. I had the carbonara then, and again when we returned later in our stay.

I’m thinking that next month, when Joel is back, we can experiment a bit with our own version of pasta carbonara. Gail, what do you think?

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Categories: Food

Skyfall: Senior at Last

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

[Francois Duhamel]

We don’t go out to the movies much. The only sure-fire draw that gets me out of the house to the theater is James Bond. For him, I might even go on opening weekend. I was therefore dismayed on learning in the summer that the latest Bond film would open on November 9. I didn’t think Gail would want to celebrate her birthday on the 10th by seeing Skyfall, and the day after that I would be flying to Chicago. The next weekend, I’d have a visitor to entertain on Friday and we’d be going to the symphony on Saturday. Thus, we’d have to wait two weeks, or until yesterday.

During Thanksgiving dinner, Gail suggested to Jessica that she and Bryan join us. Yesterday morning, I looked into buying tickets online, not that I thought we would need to. I realize the prices shouldn’t have surprised me, but given that we don’t get out to the movies much, the $11.50 ticket price was indeed unexpected. Between that and the $1.50 per ticket fee, I was easily convinced that we could pass on online purchasing.

Usually my eyes pass right over discount rates. Seniors, students, children—I don’t care. But, hey, I’m getting up there in years. This time, I took a closer look. The senior price was $10.50. Not much of a discount. Yet, maybe I qualified. That would be fun! The few times I’ve thought to ask about discounts, like on the Washington State Ferries a few months ago, I learn that I’m too young.

Well, thank you AMC Theatres! I can reap the savings at last, albeit only a dollar. That made my day.

As for Skyfall, having enjoyed the first two Daniel Craig Bond movies, I found this one disappointing. I dare not give too much away, so I won’t say much. My main criticism is that I found the story weak. Its focus on M — the head of British intelligence — provided a welcome opportunity for Judi Dench to have a larger role than usual. But I found the depiction of her relationships with Bond and the villain unconvincing. And with the emphasis on these relationships, there wasn’t much plot development.

However, it seems that I was missing something. Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian a month ago is full of praise:

This is the seventh time Judi Dench has played the enigmatic spy-chief M. But it is only in this storming new Bond movie that her M has really been all that she could be. Under the stylish direction of Sam Mendes, Dench’s M is quite simply the Bond girl to end all Bond girls. Watching this, I thought: of course. How could I have missed it? The real tension isn’t with Moneypenny, but with the boss herself. Now M is an imperious, subtly oedipal intelligence-matriarch with the double-O boys under her thumb. She’s treating them mean. She’s keeping them keen. And she is rewarded with passionate loyalty, varying with smouldering resentment. It’s a combination with its own unspoken eroticism, and it has also created the conditions for one of the most memorable Bond villains in recent times. …

The 50th anniversary of the big-screen Bond was the right time to pull off something big. Skyfall is a hugely enjoyable action spectacular, but more grounded and cogent than the previous and disappointing outing, Quantum of Solace. …

Daniel Craig’s Bond (above) looks older, more careworn, slightly more jug-eared. This is a Bond who has something to prove, and who could be damaged goods, physically and even mentally. Even at his lowest, however, he is still capable of pulling off a very scary drinking trick involving a scorpion. But now he must face one of his tastiest adversaries ever – the chilling Silva, played by Javier Bardem.

I may have to go back to see it again.

Categories: Life, Movies

An Evening with Manny

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

[From his website]

One Saturday a few months ago, Seattle Symphony single concert tickets went on sale at 10:00 AM. I was ready. Unfortunately, the website wasn’t. There were long hang-ups and, more frustrating, repeated messages that our purchases didn’t go through, meaning we lost our selected seats and would have to start over again. After an hour of frustration and long holds on the phone, I eventually emerged with the desired tickets. Among the concerts I had chosen was one featuring Emanual Ax playing Brahms’ second piano concerto.

I have long felt a bond with Manny. He’s about my age, a fellow New Yorker with similar background. Well, except that I wasn’t born in Lvov of Holocaust survivors, didn’t emigrate to Winnipeg on the way to New York, didn’t study at Juilliard. On the other hand, there’s the wedding I went to of a good college friend of mine, while we were in grad school, flying into Ithaca in the morning, hanging out in the hotel with other friends of the bride and groom, among which was someone named Manny who was going to have to depart that evening to get back to the city for a concert. Pretty interesting guy, lots of good stories. I never did catch his last name. But I realized a few days later, back in my Cambridge apartment, that he sure did look like the pianist pictured on the cover of one of my record albums. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Our seats last week were in the fifth row, left of center, which is to say, we were pretty darn close to the piano. Maybe not ideal for a balanced sound. Ideal if you wanted to study Manny’s pedal technique — when I stared straight ahead, my line of vision went straight through the pedals.

The concerto opened the program. Not only was the piano close; so was Manny. Fifteen feet away, allowing us to observe his facial expressions as we listened to the music. I can’t imagine how many hundreds of times he has played the Brahms concerto. Yet, he appeared enthralled by the music, and fully enjoying the partnership with the orchestra. The magnificent adagio features the principal cellist as co-soloist, and Manny took special pleasure in trading the lead back and forth with Seattle’s cellist, Efe Baltacigil. (More about Baltacigil here. This is just his second year with the symphony. He was outstanding.)

Following the concerto, on being called back to the stage for a second time, Manny sat at the piano and explained that it would be natural, since the Brahms piece is essentially for two soloists, to do an encore for both piano and cello. He and Baltacigil then performed the slow movement of Chopin’s cello sonata. An unexpected and most welcome treat. (Below I’m inserting a youtube performance of it by cellist Umberto Clerici and pianist Diego Mingolla.)

Following the intermission, the symphony played Henri Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time. As the program notes explain, Seattle conductor Ludovic Morlot and the symphony have “embarked on a survey of the orchestral music of Henri Dutilleux.” The piece consists of five short sections, during one of which three boy soloists sing “Pourquoi nous? Pourquoi l’étoile” (Why us? Why the star?) several times over. The programmatic significance of this escaped me, but on the whole I enjoyed the piece, which I hadn’t heard before. As I did Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. A fine show piece for the orchestra. But I wouldn’t have come for those pieces alone. I was there for Manny, and he was great.

Categories: Music