Eat your hearts out: I'm in Italy. If all goes as scheduled (she says, checking the itinerary that somebody else put together) today I'll be in a villa somewhere north of Florence, touring the Chini pottery museum and listening to lectures on Renaissance Humanism and Italian Villas of the Renaissance, or "chilling out" or taking a siesta (both items included on the schedule). And eating a lot.
When I was growing up my mother did not cook anything ethnic. It's a wonder she cooked at all, since her mother never learned. She did well with meat/starch/veg, but there were seldom sauces involved. I don't think I saw her make a basic spaghetti sauce until I was well into my twenties.
She and my father ate out (now and then we kiddies would be included, on our best behavior), but mainly in "Continental" restaurants in New York. When we children were included we'd go to Trader Vic's (pupu platter!) or occasionally Mama Leone's (where Ed Sullivan was said to dine, not that we ever saw him). For lunch it was The Women's Exchange or Robert Day Dean's or Rumplemayer's. On a couple of memorable occasions, we were taken to Peacock Alley at the Waldorf Hotel. Apart from the pupu platter I can't remember anything I ate at any of them.
Isn't it a wonder I grew up loving to cook? I'll be the first to admit that I didn't "get" it until my first trip to Europe, the year I was 21. I didn't visit Italy until the following year, but I'd broken the ice by then. One seminal moment that I remember well: stopping at a street vendor for an ice cream, on my first day in Florence. I had no clue what half the flavors were, so I boldly said, "nocciola." One taste and I knew immediately: hazelnut. In fact, incredible hazelnut. It was amazing, and I've never forgotten the Italian word. In fact, about the half of my Italian vocabulary comes from food terms (the other half is from art history, although one is seldom called upon to use terms such as chiaroscuro or sfumato in ordinary conversation).
Most of the Italian cooking I've done comes from only one or two well-used cookbooks: the Sunset Italian Cook Book (1972), which I bought first, and Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973). I'll admit I haven't been very adventurous, and the recipes I've used most often have been for pasta sauces (I gave you one for a vegetable cream sauce in an earlier post here) or simple pasta dishes. Once my household discovered pesto, we've eaten it once or twice a month. Spaghetti alla carbonara is another favorite. (Guess what: my husband makes both!) They're quick and simple dishes, as long as you have the ingredients (fresh basil is a must for pesto!).
Spaghetti alla carbonara is a handy recipe because you can use up all the bits and pieces of sausage, bacon, ham, etc., that you have on hand. If you want to be authentic, you can use prosciutto or pancetta, both more widely available in American markets than it was back when I started making this. One more note: this dish involves raw eggs. Ideally the heat of the cooked spaghetti will cook the eggs. There have been concerns about the safety of undercooked eggs, but I think these have been addressed by people who raise chickens. If you have any issues, you might want to avoid this dish, but if you're an "over-easy" egg eater, go for it!
Spaghetti alla carbonara
¼ pound mild pork sausage
¼ pound prosciutto/pancetta/ham, diced
4 Tblsp butter
½ pound spaghetti (half a box, usually), cooked and drained
½ cup parsley, minced
3 well-beaten eggs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Dice the meat and sauté it in half the butter over medium-low heat (you don't want it to be crisp).
Cook your spaghetti according to your taste. Drain it and return it to the cooking pot, then immediately add the cooked meats, the rest of the butter, and the parsley. Mix to blend.
Quickly pour in the beaten eggs and lift and toss to coat the spaghetti evenly. Sprinkle on the cheese, add pepper, and toss again. Serve immediately. Mangia!
I am informed that on my trip I will have the opportunity to sample regional Italian delicacies such as farinata, garganelli, trofie and sgabei. I have no clue what they are, but I'll find out!