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Pre-Race Menu: La Carbonara

As this is the second recipe I’ve posted, you might be picking up on the fact that I like to cook.  And I think I’m pretty good at, all things considered.  Well, actually, one thing considered, namely that last night the owner of a well-known restaurant in NYC, helped himself to thirds of my Pollo al Cacciatore.  Unfortunately, he apparently didn’t like it enough to hire me as a line chef, despite my mentioning it about 30 times.

Today’s menu item is not pollo al cacciatore but spaghetti alla carbonara (or more accurately, pasta alla carbonara since I use organetti, little accordion pasta so my son can eat it.)  The dish is perhaps the simplest of all the pastas to make, so that leaves a little time for a digression.

In May of 2004, I went on an apartment hunting expedition to Rome in advance of my move.  I also arranged it so that I could partake of a week-long cycling trip to Sardegna on the back end, which happened to be one of the best run trips ever (and which also spurred my desire to starting a cycling vacation company.  That I wound up doing once I returned from Italy.)  Anyway, on the second day of the Rome portion of my trip, I had found a bike shop, through the yellow pages no less, that turned out to be my second home while I was in Rome.  Mario and Simone, the father and son owners of Cicli Lazzaretti, had extended an invitation to join a group ride from the shop the next weekend.  The night before the ride, I found myself roaming through the historical center, and as happens from time to time, I wandered on to a secluded piazza and into a tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurant.  Wanting to gets some carbs in for the looming ride, I mistook the carbonara for another dish.  Mistakes often lead to great discoveries.

The pasta was excellent, and as the restaurant was empty, I got into a half-Italian, half-English conversation with the waiter and the owner.  This may be common knowledge, but it was then that I learned that carbonara originated with the American servicemen during WWII.  Longing for the bacon and eggs of home, GIs starting adding it to pasta.  And that’s really the beauty of pasta, you can pretty much add whatever you want to it and you can’t muck it up too badly.

I had a great dinner that night.  Try as I might, I never found the restaurant again while I lived in Rome, but I did come home with a recipe.

Organetti alla Carbonara

La Carbonara
Prep Time:  15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes – this dish can be prepared in the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta.

Ingredients
A note about amounts:  As with any recipe I post, they’re all of the more or less variety.

• 7oz pancetta, cubed  – look for a block of pancetta as opposed to thinly sliced pancetta although either will do
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• 4 eggs – I use 3 egg whites and 1 whole egg, but you can vary this.  I like the thinness of having more egg whites
• Pecorino
• 1 box of pasta – the dish is traditionally made with spaghetti

Directions

  1. Set water for the pasta to boil on the stove.   While waiting for the water to boil begin making the sauce.  At some point during this process the water will boil.  Put the pasta in the water then.  If you buy Barilla or De Ceccho pasta, the box tells you how long to cook it.  They’re always right
  2. Cube the pancetta
  3. In a large sauce pan, add the olive oil and set heat to medium
  4. Once the oil is heated, add the pancetta and stir.  Cook until the pancetta begins to turn pink (about 2 minuts).  Remove from heat once done
  5. In a bowl, whisk eggs, a splash of milk and pepper
  6. When pasta is cooked, drain and reserve some pasta water
  7. Return pasta to the pasta pot and put over low flame
  8. Stir in pancetta
  9. Stir in egg mixture
  10. Continue stirring over low heat for 1-2 minutes or longer depending on how you like the eggs
  11. If necessary (and it shouldn’t be) use the reserved pasta water to cut the sauce (e.g., if too salty)
  12. Top with pecornino

That’s it.  Very, very easy and very, very satisfying.

That’s today’s view from the back (and unfortunately not from a small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Rome.)

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I have lots of neurosis when it comes to cycling.  Above all is my weather neurosis – it’s easy to pick me out at any of the Spring Series races when it’s cold, I’m the one with his whole closet stuffed in his backpack – but running a close second is my night before a race dinner routine.   Dinner has got to feature pasta, no ifs, ands or buts.

In 2003 when I did my first bike race in Italy, I was living alone (my then girlfriend/now wife still hadn’t made the trip over), and I still thought a pasta dinner meant opening a jar of Ragu, and given my cyclist’s arms that wasn’t always a guaranteed outcome.  These days I do all of the cooking at home, but back then I made it through the first four months without the wife on pizza and crashing dinner at my future sister-in-law’s home. 

That’s not entirely true as there was one dish I could make well, a pasta with a tuna sauce, and I made it often.  I did pretty well in that race and so pasta al tonno has become a staple of the pre-race routine.  Certainly not the only pasta, but it’s a got an open invitation to the pre-race dinner table.

The beauty of this dish is that whole thing can be done in the time it takes to boil water and cook the pasta.  Now while I won’t vouch for its caloric or nutritional value, – I have no idea, but it’s pasta so how bad for you can it be – I will vouch for its economic value both in terms of the preparation and cost of the ingredients.  And it’s downright one of the tastiest pastas you can make.

Pasta al Tonno

Pasta al Tonno

Pasta al Tonno
Prep Time:  5 minutes
Total Time:  20 minutes (depending on the pasta you choose)
Servings:  Kind of depends on how much you eat or how long the race is

Ingredients
A note about the amounts, they’re all of the more or less variety, e.g., if you like more tuna, put more tuna in, it won’t hurt.

  • 1 clove garlic, chopped or minced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 anchovies (key ingredient which really gives a burst of flavor to the sauce)
  • 7 oz tuna, drained
  • 12 oz passata di pomodoro (tomato puree) – this is a staple to have in your kitchen.  I like the La Valle Passata di Pomodoro although in a pinch I’ll also use Pomi
  • 12-15 kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1 ½ tablespoons capers
  • ½ vegetable bouillon cube
  • White wine (optional)
  • Peperoncini (red pepper flakes, optional)
  • 1 box pasta – for this dish I particularly like farfalle as the butterflies capture bits of tuna, olive and capers

Directions

  1. Set water for the pasta to boil on the stove.   While waiting for the water to boil begin making the sauce.  At some point during this process the water will boil.  Put the pasta in the water then.  If you buy Barilla or De Ceccho pasta, the box tells you how long to cook it.  They’re always right
  2. Chop the garlic
  3. Pit and chop the olives
  4. In a large sauce pan (large enough to fit the pasta once it is cooked – I like to use a cast iron pot) add olive oil, garlic and anchovies.  Set heat to medium-low and stir until anchovies are mostly dissolved.  Stirring will also keep the garlic from burning
  5. Add the tuna to the sauce pan.  Break up the chunks as you continue to stir – you want to break it up to the point that it is similar to chop meat
  6. Add white wine and stir for 2-3 minutes (this is optional, but gives the sauce more flavor)
  7. Add the passata di pomodoro and turn the heat to the low.  Continue stirring while the sauce simmers
  8. Add the bouillon cube and stir until dissolved
  9. Add the olives and stir for 1-2 minutes
  10. Add the capers with a touch of the brine from container the capers came in and stir
  11. Add salt to taste, although I find this unnecessary – that’s what the anchovies and the bouillon cube were for
Il Sugo - The Sauce

Il Sugo - The Sauce

At this point the sauce is pretty much complete although the longer you can simmer it the better it will be.  The most important part of this or any pasta dish comes when the pasta is cooked.  Do not put the pasta in a serving bowl and pour the sauce over it.  It’s imperative that you “cook” the sauce onto the pasta.   After you’ve drained the pasta throw it into the sauce pan with the heat on simmer and stir it around until the sauce and pasta are completely mixed.  I can’t stress how important this step is to bringing out the flavor and truly integrating the dish.

That’s it.  Simple.  It can’t take you more than 20 minutes and it can’t cost you more than $20 even if you are buying all the ingredients for the first time. 

Buon appetito.

That’s today’s view from the back (of the kitchen).

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