Italy. What can I say about Italy? One of my favorite foods in the universe is pasta. Most everyone I know, except my sister and my husband, love the stuff. And even they love other Italian foods. So I gave a lot of thought to doing 80 Plates: Italy. I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to be worthy of Italian cooking. I wanted to make things that would make me love Italy even more than I already do and know I can--Italy remains my #1 choice for a vacation spot--anyone wanna give me/us a free trip?
So a while ago, while surfing YouTube, I happened upon a user by the name of PrincessDiana161. She made a video called "Rigatoni Carbonara", and I was totally intrigued by the idea that one could put raw eggs onto hot pasta and not have it become scrambled eggs with pasta. I was intrigued by the prospect, but with my distaste for eggs, I brushed it aside as an interesting but unlikely thing to cook. However, when deciding to do 80 Plates Italy, my mind immediately came back to that video. I did a little search and found it pretty quickly, only to discover it was at the center of a firestorm, causing her to rename the video "Rigatoni Carbonara ((MY VERSION))".
Her video had been featured on YouTube's front page, and apparently she was round ridiculed by classical Italian chefs for putting heavy cream into her carbonara. The commenters posted over and over again that there was no heavy cream in real carbonara, it was just eggs and cheese. More recent commenters decried her use of rigatoni instead of spaghetti. Well damn it, I wanted to make it, and in deference to her, I decided I was going to use rigatoni too! Thus were the seedlings of 80 Plates Italy formed.
Several weeks ago, I was again watching Tyler's Ultimate, and he made tagliatelle bolognese. (Why I keep watching this dude, I do not know, but all his stuff does look awesome!!!) Once he topped it with ricotta cheese, I was totally drooling. I had to have it. HAD TO. So I went on the Food Network website and found the recipe. But in reading the comments, everyone said the dish was lackluster and the measurements were incorrect. Hmpf. So again, something I wanted, but it wasn't quite right.
So I did a little research. I found a recipe for tagliatelle bolognese in my Around the World in 450 Recipes and decided to use that. However, the carbonara recipe in the same book included heavy cream, throwing the authenticity of the entire book into doubt! I decided to stick with the tagliatelle recipe and continue my hunt for an authentic carbonara recipe. Eventually I stumbled upon this one and decided to use it.
Eventually, we decided on a date that worked for Elizabeth, who graciously agreed to be our Test Italian and we were set. Until word got out. "I wish I knew how to make zeppole," the General said. He has talking about these mysterious zeppole for some time now, but I've never eaten them, nor have I ever heard of them. A quick Google search confirmed their existence, via MangiaBenePasta.com, and what's more, Zeppole are traditionally eaten to celebrate St. Joseph's Day on March 19th! Well, better late than never to celebrate the "adoptive father" of Jesus, so I added those in as our dessert choice. Last week, I was discussing the meal plans with my dad, and he said, "Well, you should really make bruschetta," so I added that on as well. Elizabeth later asked if she could bring something, and I decided that we might need some sort of vegetation, so I asked her to bring a salad.
Thus was our menu solidified!
So, the first order of business was to round up the ingredients we would need for everything. I had a pretty decent list going, and I knew from previous excursions where I was likely or unlikely to find certain items. If you read the carbonara recipe, you will know it calls for guanciale or pancetta. Pancetta is a type of bacon, guanciale (as I have learned from watching Under the Tuscan Gun is the smoked cheek of the pig. While I am all for using up as much of the animal as possible once it has been slaughtered, I also feel a wee bit skittish to use certain parts of said animal. My foray into pig hocks was enough. I opted for pancetta. However, I knew that our local grocery stores only carry pancetta in thin strips for an exorbitant amount of money. Remember the cooking of the Coq au Vin, when the thin strips of pancetta wouldn't cooperate? Well, I remember even if you don't! And I was not going through that again. I decided to shop around. Additionally, I couldn't find tagliatelle anywhere in F'burg, so I decided to take the show on the road and haul butt up to Woodbridge and shop at Wegman's. I believed Wegman's wouldn't let me down.
And I was right! I was able to get everything I needed there for a low price. And the beauty of buying the pancetta there was that it was sold in little pillow packs already diced!!! I bought two and tucked one in the freezer for a rainy day (OK, not exactly true, but I'll get to that in a bit)!
So on Friday night, I got to doing the prep work for our meal. I decided to make up the topping for the bruscetta ahead of time, thinking that it would be good to let the flavors all marry in the fridge overnight. I found this recipe for bruschetta and decided it would be the one I used. It's not just "chop stuff up, throw in a bowl, add a dash of oil and vinegar, done!" It's fun with parboiling tomatoes! Who wouldn't love that?
Ok, so first thing's first, I was parboiling the tomatoes. I got some beautiful plum tomatoes at Wegmans. Parboiling is a snap for these babies. All you do is boil up some water, take it off the burner, throw the tomatoes in, and let them sit for a minute, then pull them out! Voila! Parboiled tomatoes! This makes them much easier to skin and seed, which was the next step. When I was done peeling them and taking out the guts, I had a regular tomato crime scene on my hands!
I let that sit and combined the ingredients for the sauce/marinade. This again was quite easy--minced garlic, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil. I decided to use a short cut on the garlic and used the minced garlic in a jar. It makes life easier when you have vast quanitities of cooking to be done. Where the basil was concerned, I like to do a chiffonade for my basil. This basically involves stacking all the leaves in a nice pile, rolling them into a tube, and slicing. You wind up with beautiful strips in no time.
Ok, so that done, I tossed everything together and made my bruschetta. Obviously I was not going to touch the bread until it was time to eat, so the bruschetta went into the fridge, covered up to try and eliminate garlic smells from the fridge.
That done, the only other thing I could really do in the evening was chop up the vegetables for the bolognese. Bolognese requires onions, garlic, celery, and carrots. The garlic is only crushed and peeled, not minced, so I decided to use a regular clove of it. Again, I elected to grate the carrots. Not only is it faster, but since the General was already sacrificing by attempting to eat pasta, I thought it would be more palatable if there weren't chunks of carrots in it.
Then it was time for bed! I felt good that I'd accomplished even this little bit, figuring it would make it that much easier when it was time to cook with a bunch of people in the house the following day.
So, the lumpia meal complete, Doug and I set off to Home Depot to pick up stuff for baby Leah's (if you haven't heard, it's a girl, not a boy!) closet. We got back and he got cranking around 3:00 and since the bolognese takes 3 hours to cook and we were eating at 6:00ish, I knew I'd better get on it. My assistant for the day was, again, my friend Jacalyn, to be joined later by Elizabeth. :-) Tagliatelle is pretty simple to cook, it just takes a long time.
Initially, all you do is sweat your vegetables in a little olive oil. Sweating means that they release their juices and all cook up nice and soft but they don't change color/brown. This allows everything to get nice and soft and tasty, but not to kill it. It involves a pretty precise measurement of heat--too hot and it browns, too cool and it doesn't heat. Still, I didn't find it that challenging, I must have hit it right the first time!
Once you're done with that (and it takes about 10 minutes), it's time to add some ground beef to the pan. The cookbook is European and says to add "minced beef", but it's the same thing. Using a wooden spoon, you stir up any clumps and you get nice tiny little pieces of beef mixed in with your vegetables.
This, again, is where even a rudimentary knowledge of wine comes in handy. For the second time, I was faced with a decision about what kind of wine to buy. The recipe said "150 ml red wine". It didn't even give me a type, like syrah! So Jacalyn picked up the bottle of red wine I had after I'd opened it (I'm getting handy with a corkscrew!) and said, "How'd you pick this?" Easy. It was Italian and it was the wine on sale next to the parmesan at Wegman's. This particular wine, Monte Antico being the brand name, is, if I'm translating the label correctly "a sampling of typically Tuscan wines", including sangiovese, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. I figured if you don't know what one wine to buy, you might as well go for a melange. And I have about 7/8 of a bottle left to use up! So anyone want some?
Ok, so I tossed in the wine. Then your job is to let the whole thing cook over medium heat until the wine evaporates. The tip says, "Don't skimp on the cooking time--it is essential for a full-flavoured Bolognese sauce. Some Italian cooks insist on cooking the sauce 3-4 hours, so the longer you can leave it, the better." Consequently, I let this cook for about 40 minutes until the pan was dry, but nothing was sticking to the bottom.
Then it was time to repeat the process with a cup of milk--pour it in and let it cook over medium heat until it evaporates. What you wind up with is a very soft meaty mass. It was smelling pretty good, but I was glad that the next instructions called for adding diced tomatoes and tomato paste, because that really was going to turn it into a sauce. And once that's added, you let it cook another 45 minutes at least.
In the meantime, Jacalyn and I had been preparing the zeppole batter so that after dinner I'd be able to fry them up very quickly and serve them hot out of the pan. Again, zeppoles are little fried dough balls, and actually are quite easy to make up. They have a minimum of ingredients, but they use TEN eggs! Holy smokes!
So to make them, all you do is boil some water and butter together on the stove. This looks a little strange, honestly.
You sift some flour and once the butter and water start to boil, you throw in the flour and stir it hard until the dough pulls away from the edge of the pan and you get a nice little mass of dough.
The next step is to start adding the eggs, one at a time, and incorporating them quickly so the warm dough doesn't cook them. Now, I wisely assigned Jacalyn to the task of mixing while I did the cracking of the eggs, but I'll be honest here, people, this was NOT HAPPENING. That dough got stiff in a jiffy and until the eggs were fully incorporated, it was like trying to mix concrete. The two of us couldn't get it together. My eye fell on the stand mixer, and I decided to demonstrate its power and brilliance to Jacalyn, who'd never used one.
Went from this...
...in no time flat. I left the dough in the bowl and it was done.
It was at this point in the game I realized I a) didn't have enough dutch oven pots to complete the evening's cooking and b) didn't have enough large burners on the stove. It was time to get the pasta cooking--two different types of pasta equals two pots, which is what I have but one had the bolognese sauce in it! So I put the bolognese in the electric frying pan to keep warm and washed out the pot. However, I also needed a burner for my large frying pan for my carbonara sauce to get going. And like any stove, I have two big burners and two small burners. *SIGH*
I decided to get the water going anyway and then I could put aside the tagliatelle water and put the big frying pan on the big burner to cook up the meat for the carbonara. Carbonara is a very quick meal to put together. Fry up some pancetta, add it to your cooked pasta, throw in some eggs and cheese and voila! Despite not using PrincessDiana161's recipe, it really did help to watch her technique and see how she did it, as it gave me the confidence to go ahead and try it for myself.
So while the pots were boiling, we turned on the oven, and I set Jacalyn to work on the bruschetta. I sliced the bread on the diagonal and she coated one side with olive oil. The directions said to put them olive oil side down on a baking pan in the oven at 450 for 5 minutes. This made me quite nervous--I've never tried toasting bread in the oven where it didn't totally burn. But I put my faith in the recipe maker and set the bread in the oven. I was watching that timer like a hawk though! But guess what!? It worked! Our bread came out BEAUTIFULLY!
Elizabeth and her husband arrived and I managed to find a space for her to make her salad. She is glowing with the joy of the impending arrival of her boy, isn't she!? I guess now instead of "Udvar" being Jack's best friend, he can be Leah's first boyfriend. :-)
Things were all happening very quickly now. It was a race to the finish! We put the bread aside (I didn't want to top it till the last minute) and I fried up the pancetta. I moved that to the middle of the back of the stove where there is a warming element, and I put the tagliatelle water back on and got that cooking. Meanwhile, I had dumped the rigatoni into its water, but due to the vast quantities involved, I knew almost immediately that it was sketchy if there was enough water or not. And it turned out to be VERY close indeed. Rigatoni sucks up A LOT of water. I should have cooked it in 2 separate pans or gotten my big pan out from downstairs. I really was getting very nervous indeed. I tried clamping the lid on the pot, which only served to make it boil over, thus loosing more precious water. In retrospect, I should have dumped in some of the water from the tagliatelle, but of course, everything is 20/20 in hindsight.
I mixed up the egg and cheese mixture for the carbonara. Basically, it's 2 eggs (yes, that's really all!) and a little bit of the 5 ounces of cheese that will ultimately find its way into the dish. The rigatoni finally finished, and it was time for the moment of truth--adding the eggs to the pasta and seeing if I could make it not scramble.
(As an aside, never have I hated a picture of myself more--this picture shows my desperate need for clothes that fit.)
But it worked!!!! And wouldn't you know, I didn't get a picture of the finished carbonara?!?!!?!? I was so excited by my success that I totally spaced out taking a picture!! AUGH! My dad has already secured a promise from me that I'll make it for him, so I will take a picture this spring when I make it again. Here's a picture of the noodles and the pancetta stirred together. Imagine it with a bit of a creamy sauce.
We dished up the tagliatelle, my nod to Tyler Florence being that I topped it with 2 heaping scoops of ricotta cheese like he did--I am fast becoming a fan of ricotta.
We put our bruschetta on our bread.
And the eight of us sat down to dinner.
As the kids today say, "OMGWTFBBQ!" The food was SO GOOD. In all fairness the tagliatelle bolognese suffered the fate of Japan's chicken teriyaki next to its cousin, carbonara, lovingly dubbed by Elizabeth as "a heart attack in a pan". That carbonara was one of the best things I've ever eaten, certainly the best pasta dish I've ever eaten. I would rank it above lasagna in my estimation.
The General, bless his heart, didn't care for any of it. He kept saying, "I'm trying, Susan, I'm sorry" and I knew he was and I loved him for it. He admitted that the carbonara was OK, but he didn't like the tagliatelle at all. We dumped the tomatoes off the bruschetta and he had just the bread plain. So I know it was a happy man who turned to the zeppoles at the end of the meal.
Hilariously, towards the end of dinner, everyone was saying how much they don't like eating fried foods. And so when it was time to make the zeppoles after clearing the table, I said, "Well, despite that, too bad, I'm about to fry dessert." However, I did use Enova oil to fry them in so they weren't as bad for us as they could have been. To fry zeppoles, all you do is heat up some oil and dump them a tablespoon at a time into the oil. They puff up HUGE! If you take them out early, you're in trouble. Let them sit in there for a good five minutes and they quadruple in size. They become very light and puffy, not at all dense. I served them with powdered sugar and with cinammon sugar.
While we all enjoyed them, Jacalyn's son Joram become King Zeppole. That kid ate zeppoles like they were manna from heaven! Ok, this picture is fuzzy because he was giggling like a madman while he ate, but I love it for the sheer glee and joy in his face. That's what food is about! :-)
Many thanks to my wonderful friends who cooked and ate with us! I had so much fun doing Italy, and the food was amazing.