Where does inspiration come from? Sometimes it starts with one word. My latest kick-start was: Ricotta. Actually, it was more like my hearing Margaret from over my shoulder saying something like, “Leftover ricotta” or “that leftover ricotta.” As obsessive as I can be about food, those words effectively nail-gunned a thought bubble, with a question mark inside, over my head. Well, since that day was a Sunday–and Margaret went out with her sister, Missi, to the Center for Urban Horticulture sale–I had all afternoon to ponder the question. First stop: www.epicurious.com.
Sadly, I found no immediate satisfaction there. Epicurious normally yields something marvelous, but search terms combining, “ricotta, chicken, and mushrooms,” all failed to provide enough inspiration. I tend to go there first to get a general idea for something, survey the field of recipes, and then blaze my own path. This first go-around was no help for something easy, straightforward, and not lasagna.
Suddenly, I remembered that there was something else in the refrigerator that was begging for attention. Here, we need to stop and acknowledge an ingredient source. Least any foodie living in Seattle let this slip by, I need to pay homage to this rare provider of artisanal meats:
So, once upon a few days ago, Margaret and I happened to be driving past 3207 California Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98116, and I noticed the drawing of the pig in window (same as the picture above). We had to stop in. There, we discovered a tiny butcher shop.
Lovely place, The Swinery (http://www.swinerymeats.com/). All meats and eggs are sourced within 300 miles of this little artisan butcher in West Seattle. What I admire the most is that they buy whole carcasses from small farms. That means the farmers aren’t stuck with cuts that are low in demand. Money gets lost that way. If you want to support organic-fed, free-ranged animal farmers, this is how meat needs to be bought and sold. Beyond that point, people need to become engaged with their cooking and eating. Yes, The Swinery has amazing recipes printed on handy-sized card stock paper.
One last thing about The Swinery. If you want to see the most exquisitely beautiful whole chickens for sale, go there and be amazed. I kid you not! Margaret and I were there when the delivery came in and the chicken displayed. The skin was taut and firm around the bird and had this radiant, pure, near-holy, whiteness. Mags and I were thunderstruck with awe! I think the fat content had to be pretty low, as there wasn’t the usual yellow of fat lurking around. Also, the meticulousness of the farmer’s knife showed in the perfectly round cut of the skin at the tip of each drumstick bone. Sadly, we didn’t have cameras with us—let alone ones that would do justice to the vision of the birds. Food for thought: Given the price of organic, free-range chicken eggs, you can imagine the price for these. Still, you are getting one wonderously amazing chicken. Like, where else are you going to get a whole chicken that actually comes with its own aura?
One of the culinary wonders we did purchase from The Swinery was some lamb bacon. I kid you not! Freakin’ LAMB bacon. Now, how cool is that? I mean, everyone loves bacon–except, and with all due respect to, our Semitic brethren. But, in the case of lamb bacon, everyone gets the free pass and can now love bacon like the rest of us heathens. This becomes a good thing, because the world can now share another common culinary reference point (Something other than McDonald’s and KFC, please?) Bacon can now be globally democratized.
Of course, I’m not saying this particular lamb is kosher or halal. What I am suggesting is that bacon is now liberated from being strictly pork and, therefore, can be made from a kosher/halal animal. Of course, there will be bacon Nazis and neo-Nazis who will insist that bacon can only be from pork. But, Cripes! Isn’t there already bacon made from turkey and tofu or some crap like that? While I hesitate to call these formulations bacon, I direct collective gazes below.
Yum, yum, yum! That looks like bacon to me! How does it taste? Yes, a breakfast test run was performed. Umm… Well… to be honest… Pretty damn funky! But in a good way (as in James Brown “funky”). It cooked up like bacon, and the chewy texture was as it should be expected for such thickly-cut slices. However, for those who do not frequent lamb—as well as for those who passionately do—pan-fried lamb bacon makes the kitchen smell gamey. This could be a love/hate thing. Still, for those who love lamb meat and sheep and goat cheeses, consider this a guilty pleasure. I did feel naughty, having neglected to crank the exhaust hood fan to the max. Steenky!
[Note: I experienced another glip with posting, and lost practically everything I typed after the picture of the t-shirt. WT Exasperating F!!! So much for the beautiful rhythm of writing birthed from a Dionysian frenzy.]
So now I know I have ricotta and lamb bacon. Hmm?! Italian and non-specific Mediterranean? And then I recall part of the raison d’être of this blog: La Femmes d’Coop! They and their gift of eggs, that is.
Cheese, bacon, and eggs combined with pasta point to Carbonara. But, wait: Ricotta and lamb bacon? That isn’t Carbonara. Yes, that is true; however: THIS is NOT Carbonara. This is Carbonara Madness–and just bordering on heresy!!! Heresy! You want to talk about heresy? Not me. The way I see it, if you’re a purist, then do go to Rome and pester the chefs, take your notes and pictures, write your book or post your blog, and bask in the afterglow. But, don’t do that here.
More seriously, the idea of the dish to come is more about the culinary mechanics that lies at the heart of a Carbonara dish—not authentic Roman Italian Carbonara. I make no pretense to authenticity. What I’m more interested in is figuring out how to good make use of random ingredients by utilizing the solid nuts-and-bolts mechanics of various traditional techniques. So let’s talk again little about Carbonara.
After another sojourn toEpicurious.com, and after scouting the landscape of Carbonara recipes, I came back with one solid bit of food intelligence. The food engineering mojo that seems to lie at the heart of a Carbonara is the whisked mix of eggs, Parmagiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and Italian parsley. Of course, this is not the first step you do in the kitchen, but it is the magic glue to the whole mess. This is what glues all-of-what-you-love-in-the-world to the pasta. I’ve read of chard, spinach, guanciale (pork jowl!), pork belly, bacon, zucchini, mushrooms, basil, and whatever-most-pleases-the-chef getting used. Still, what remains the same throughout all the versions are the eggs, the hard Parma and Romano cheeses, and the flat-leaf parsley. The mix to pasta proportions does vary through the various versions found at Epicurious—and I’m talking about anywhere from two to a dozen eggs for a pound of dried pasta. Do consult your family physician on this matter. Just the same, the proportions you will find in the recipe are on the prudent side of the dietary balance.
So I decided, from the start, to utilize ricotta cheese. This is inherently problematic, as ricotta is vastly creamier and milder than either Parma or Romano. On the other side, lamb bacon is vastly stronger in taste than pancetta and even guanciale. When I started thinking about the dish, it was necessary to compensate, to re-balance, the flavors that form the taste palette of a Carbonara. In the words of Van Morrison, “What you lose on the hobby horse, you gain on the swing.” Some kind of balance or compensation needs to be had.
So, with these caveats aside (and more to come…), it’s finally time to sally forth. Recipe time!
In order of cooking order:
Served Margaret and myself, but can easily be adjusted upwards to serve more.
1 tbls of olive oil
5 thick slices lamb bacon, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 large shallots, minced
2 handfuls of wild mushrooms. Here, I used fresh/frozen shiitakes, bunashimeji, maitake, crimini, and some dried black trumpet mushrooms I had lying around. The shiitakes and criminis should be sliced moderately thin, while the bunashimejis, maitakes, and black trumpet mushrooms, due to their shape, should be roughly chopped.
¼ cup (roughly) Madera or Sherry.
1/3 lb Thin-Spaghetti—the box says 6-7 minutes cooking time. High-boil for only 5 minutes for this dish.
1 cup of pasta cooking water, reserved.
2 large backyard chicken eggs (It’s good to source the local, isn’t it?).
½ cup finely grated Parmagiano Reggiano, ¼ cup kept in reserve for garnish.
¼ cup ricotta cheese.
1.4 cup finely minced or finely julienned fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley.
First, set a big pot of salted water over high heat for the pasta. Use the second largest burner on your stove for this. Of course, if you have a wonderfully huge stove top, you will have two monster huge burners in the front of equal size. If you own a 30” gas range, you will have, at best, one big double burner for boiling pasta water and high-temp speed cooking. In this case, you have to strategically choose what will occupy center stage and what will take the side or back.
While you wait for the water to boil, add a 1 tablespoon splash of olive oil to a large sautéing skillet over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer—don’t let it burn—start browning the bacon bits. Enjoy the gamey aroma! How brown and crispy is up to you. However, crispy makes for enjoyable texture in the final product, and the browning will build up flavor.
When the bacon is thoroughly browned and good and crispy, remove with a slotted spoon and reserve on the side. Pour off the accumulated fats. Here, you have the choice of wiping out all the remaining fats from the bottom of the pan (Don’t disturb the caramelized fond stuck to the pan. That’s flavor!) and maybe adding back some more olive oil, leaving all the fats in situ, or keeping your “options” open. I kept my options open by keeping the poured-off fats in reserve.
With the bacon now removed, add the shallots and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent. Be careful not to let the garlic burn. This should take roughly from two to three minutes. Still, trust your eye more than the clock. When the garlic and shallots are cooked, add all the mushrooms and cooked until somewhat browned. This ought to take about 10 minutes. If you feel you need more oil for the cooking, feel free to either add the reserved bacon fat or some olive oil. That’s what I meant about keeping your options open. When the mushrooms are cooked to your pleasure, add the Madeira. Stir everything around, loosening and incorporating the browned fond that has accumulated to the pan surface. With the fond all mixed in and the wine evaporated, add in the reserved lamb bacon. Stir and turn off the heat.
Move the sauté pan to the back, and carefully move the heating pasta water to the largest burner. You will need all the BTU’s you have to offer to keep the pasta cooking at a full boil throughout. The roiling water keeps the pasta from sinking to the bottom and sticking. The water is now at a full boil, right? Set your timer and add the pasta. But you know all this, don’t you?
While the pasta is cooking, crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk together. With a normal Carbonara, you would then fold in equal amounts of Parmagiano and Romano to the egg and then add the parsley. Since I obliged myself to using the soft ricotta, I utilized a food processor to both render it into very small bits and to blend it with the Parmagiano. This done, I folded the blended cheeses in with the eggs and then the minced parsley. Keep this on the ready. At this point, return the bacon and mushroom sauté back to a low heat.
About now, the pasta should be done. Be sure to save about a cup of the cooking water. This can be done by either placing a bowl beneath the colander you’re using for draining the pasta or by ladling it out. When the pasta is drained, return it to the cooking pot. Take ¼ cup of the hot pasta water and whisk it into the egg and cheese mixture. This will both salt and somewhat cook the mixture. Then take this mixture and toss it in with the pasta and thoroughly coat the noodles. As soon as this is accomplished, mix the pasta with the bacon and mushroom sauté. Since this recipe only called for two servings of pasta, the noodles went into the sauté pan. Had there been considerably more pasta, the sauté would have gone into the pot. Go figure.
So what did it look like? Here you go:
Was it as I imagined it? Close, but not exactly. Did it taste good? Absolutely! What would I do different, should I attempt the same again? Skip the ricotta and go with Romano, use half the amount of mushrooms or only go with porcinis, add some thinly sliced lemon zest when mixing the egg with the pasta, and maybe sneak in some quarter sliced young zucchini where it would be al dente at the finish line.
By the way, that t-shirt from The Swinery had this on the back:
Okay…! Right on! I didn’t realize that was there until after I got home.