Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara

Don’t freak out, I haven’t become a vegetarian (not that there’s anything wrong with that). While I am trying to cut down on the amount of meat I eat, this recipe was borne of necessity: I was out of pancetta.

To be precise, it was 6:30 PM and Martine and I were pooped and hungry after a 20+ km bike ride. Unusually, I had not planned anything for dinner that night, so I had to come up with something quick using available ingredients. I knew there was a pile of cremini mushrooms that were asking to be eaten, so I thought I’d bang up a quick spaghetti with mushrooms, garlic, and olive oil, along with a bit of Parmesano Reggiano. Quick, simple, and tasty,

As I was getting the stuff ready, I found myself thinking of spaghetti carbonara and wishing I hadn’t run out of pancetta. Then it occurred to me; if I added eggs, I would essentially be making spaghetti carbonara, minus the pancetta and plus the mushrooms.

But here’s the thing; the mushrooms in this dish are not intended to imitate pancetta. That would be a hopeless ambition. However, I wanted to make sure the mushrooms were as unctuous as possible so as to at least put them in the same neighbourhood, a sort of umami that would not be found by merely sautéing the mushrooms. That meant I had to literally brown the mushrooms.

So what, you might say. Browning, sautéing. What’s the diff? Well, most people never actually brown the mushrooms that they think they’re browning. If you load up the pan with mushrooms and then sauté them (which means to cook them quickly while stirring or tossing) they will cook but they won’t really brown.

To properly brown the mushrooms you need to follow Julia Child’s classic and sage advice; don’t crowd the pan and don’t stir them too much. Crowding the pan causes the mushrooms to steam instead of brown. You need the pieces far enough apart so that the steam dissipates without blasting the other pieces. Take away the steam and you get a nice Maillard reaction, which is a fancy way of saying “browning.”

You’ll probably have to brown your mushrooms in two or three batches, depending on how many you’re browning and how big your pan is. I used a 10-inch skillet and it took two batches to brown a dozen mushrooms cut between 5 and 7 mm thick.

raw mushrooms

So here’s the deal; to brown the mushrooms, put a thin coat of olive oil in the pan and heat it up until it’s shimmering. Then put the mushrooms in the pan, one by one, until the pan is full of mushrooms with a good half centimeter distance between each. This distance will increase as the mushrooms give off their liquid. If you’ve sautéed mushrooms before you’ll know that when mushrooms give off their liquid the pan usually gets very moist. You want to avoid this, and by not overloading the pan you will.

frying mushrooms

Don’t move the mushrooms as they cook. Let ’em sit there, browning. You can lift the pan and swirl it around if there is oil or mushroom moisture accumulating somewhere, but don’t stir the mushrooms.

After a few minutes you’ll see the edges browning. At that point, flip them. I recommend using tongs and doing it one by one. (Using a spatula is frustrating because when you flip them they always land browned side down.) By the way, think in advance and add the raw mushrooms to the pan beginning at one side and moving towards the other (I go from left to right). That way, the timing works when you individually flip them following the same pattern.

At the end of this process you’ll have a nice dish of properly browned mushrooms. Julia would be proud.

bowl of browned mushrooms

Below, then, is my recipe for vegetarian spaghetti carbonara, which I’m going to call Blork’s Spaghetti alla Funghonara. This is adapted from Blork’s Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

the final result

Blork’s Spaghetti alla Fungonara (for two)

Ingredients:

  • About a dozen crimini mushrooms, thickly sliced.
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, minced.
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese (more if you’re using a fine microplane grater*).
  • 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romana cheese (more if you’re using a fine microplane grater*).
  • 1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk (ideally, eggs should be at room temperature).
  • 180 g of spaghetti.
  • 3 tbsp olive oil.
  • Salt to taste.
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Method:

  1. Brown the mushrooms in 2 tbsp olive oil over medium heat until they are nice and browned. (See above for notes on browning.) Set aside in a bowl tossed with a bit of salt.
  2. Lower the heat, add more olive oil to the pan, and sweat the garlic for a couple of minutes until it’s translucent. (Unlike with the mushrooms, you do not want to brown the garlic). Add the translucent garlic to the mushrooms and mix well.
  3. Mix the egg and egg yolk in a small bowl with a tablespoon or two of water (you don’t have to beat it like crazy, just mix it up a bit).
  4. Mix 3/4 of the cheese in with the eggs.
  5. Boil the pasta until it is al dente. (Set aside a bit of the cooking water.)
  6. When the pasta is ready, strain it in a colander and dump it back into the warm pot.
    (Tip: let the pot cool for a minute before you put the pasta back into it: you want it warm but not blazing hot. Rinse with a tiny bit of cool water if necessary. Optionally, put the pasta in a warmed bowl instead.)
  7. Toss the egg-cheese mix into the hot pasta and stir it up so the heat of the pasta cooks the egg and everything gets nicely integrated. It should create a nice velvety sauce. If it’s a bit too thick or dry, slosh in a spoonful or two of the hot pasta water, but be careful! Too much will break the sauce.
  8. Scratch in a lot of freshly ground pepper and add the mushrooms along with some or all of the pan drippings and toss. If it tightens up, slosh in another spoonful of pasta water and stir it up.
  9. When everything is sufficiently mixed, divide into warm bowls and top with the rest of the cheese. (No salt is needed – between the salted mushrooms and the cheeses, it’s plenty salty.)

Enjoy!

* When you use a fine microplane grater (the kind that’s also use for zesting) you get a much higher apparent volume of cheese per gram because there’s a lot more air mixed in. If using such a grater, you’ll want a loose cup of each kind of cheese.  (Next time I make this dish I’ll try to remember to weigh the cheese, which will give a much better idea of the appropriate amount.)

[Update: Since the original publication of this recipe I have stopped using a microplane grater for Parmesan and pecorino cheeses that I want to melt into a sauce. I find that the microplaned cheese tends to melt too fast, causing lumps. I’m back to using a regular fine grater.]

Jack Kerouac and Poutine

Recently, on Twitter, @Audrey_Sprenger tweeted that Jack Kerouac’s favorite snack was “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” because “it reminded him of poutine.” My bullshit detector immediately sounded, and I replied saying so. After a bit of back-and-forth, I backed down, deferring to Sprenger’s expertise, because, as it turns out, she’s a Kerouac scholar and therefore knows a thousand times more about Jack Kerouac than I ever will.

However, my doubt persists. Unfortunately, Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, so there’s no way for @Audrey_Sprenger to provide much evidence, and conversely there’s no room for me to present my counter-argument. Hello Blork Blog!

This really should be a discussion in a hazy bar over several beers, but since it’s 2011 we have to hash this stuff out over the internet. Thus, here in brief, without malice, is why I doubt that Jack Kerouac had much – if any – nostalgia for poutine: the timing simply doesn’t add up.

Before we get into the details let’s take a quick overview. According to Wikipedia, poutine was invented in the late 1950s. As we all know, Jack Kerouac died in 1969. That leaves a ten or twelve year window for him to (a) find out about poutine, (b) get to like it, (c) get nostalgic about it. And that’s assuming he made the statement about his favorite burger in the year he died. What if he (supposedly) said that in 1964? Or 1960?

Let’s drill down a bit. First let’s look at Kerouac and his timing. To begin with, Jack Kerouac was not a French Canadian. His parents were French Canadians. Kerouac himself was born and raised in the United States. Although he spoke Joual before he spoke English, the majority of his cultural influences growing up would likely have been of the red, white, and blue variety. Even if French Canadian culture was very present in the Kerouac home, it would have been the culture of his parents’ generation. His parents moved to Massachusetts before Jack was born in 1922 – his birth being some 35 years before poutine was supposedly invented. Their nostalgia for Quebec would have been for things as they knew it in the first few years of the 20th century, a good 50 or more years before poutine arrived.

Anyone with a map will tell you that Massachusetts is not far from Quebec, and no doubt the Kerouacs maintained ties as close as they could. But there was no internet then. Long distance telephone calls were expensive and working-class people usually restricted them to emergencies or brief exchanges of news. I doubt there were any French Canadian newspapers or magazines in Lowell, and very likely no French Canadian radio. More importantly, by the time poutine was invented, Jack was long gone from the household, living at various times in the 1950s in New York, California, and Florida. How would word of the invention of poutine ever have reached him?

Now lets consider the timing of poutine. If Wikipedia is correct and it was invented (in the form and by the name we now know it) in the late 1950s, how long would it have taken for it to become a Quebec-wide cultural phenomenon? There was no internet in the 1960s. Whereas today a phenomenon can go global in a matter of hours, poutine had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hurry its popularity. It would have spread slowly, one grease bath at a time, fanning out from Drummondville.

From its invention in the late 1950s, it probably wasn’t before the mid-1960s that it became a regular feature at casse-croutes across Quebec. Maybe longer, but let’s say it was that soon. In the meantime, Kerouac was enjoying literary and pop cultural success, living the “high” life, strung out, drinking, and doing the bo-ho-beatnik lifestyle. Where, in that haze of opium and hash smoke, booze, and poetry, would he have had the time and inclination to find out about an obscure snack in the home of his parents, and to not only know of it, but to try it, like it, and become nostalgic about it?

But then, I’m not a Kerouac scholar. I’m basing this all on logic, a sense of timing, and a pretty clear understanding of how rumours, folklore, and magical thinking spread.

On Twitter I made the mistake of thinking that Audrey Sprenger was just a random Kerouac fan who easily fell for a line of bull (as we all do when we’re fans of something). So perhaps I’m also mistaken with my counter-hypothesis. If someone is able to prove so (or even present compelling evidence) I’ll gladly accept it and will be grateful for the knowledge. But until then, I’m sticking with my gut feeling on this.

To reiterate, my gut feeling is that Jack Kerouac was never nostalgic for poutine.

I will leave room for the following possibility: I know that towards the end of his young life Kerouac was suffering from a number of problems, including an identity crisis of sorts. That identity crisis might have lead him to investigate his French Canadian heritage (I think I’ve read something to that effect, but I can’t cite it) and in doing so he might have heard of this new-fangled poutine thing. He might even have taken a road trip to Quebec in order to try it. And he might have mentioned it a few times, which under the circumstances would not qualify as true nostalgia but as a type of cloak-wearing, not unlike what we saw in that famous episode of The Sopranos when Tony and the boys go to Italy to attend to some business, and Paulie Walnuts finds himself being more Italian than the Italians even though he gets it all wrong and can’t even speak the language.

But that’s all just speculation based on how things go when people start questioning who they are and look to their heritage for answers. I have no idea if Jack Kerouac did that, but it would provide an explanation for a poutine reference, if indeed one exists.

Recipe: Pasta e fagioli all’isolana

Here is the recipe I mentioned a few days ago. It’s a fairly quick and hearty one-pot meal that I’ve adapted from a classic recipe I found in the October 1989 issue of La Cucina Italiana. It’s a bit unusual in that the pasta is cooked in the pot along with the sauce, which if I hadn’t read it in an Italian magazine I would have dismissed as an almost heretical technique. But hey, perché no?

The recipe calls for cannellini beans, which are essentially (but not exactly) white kidney beans. I’m a big fan of this glorious bean, and I recommend using the real thing if you can find them. By that I mean beans imported from Italy. (For more information on that topic, go here.)

The original recipe used dried beans, and yielded six servings. My version uses canned beans and yields two servings. You can easily adapt this recipe for four, six, or eight by multiplying accordingly. Note, however, that my quantities are all approximate, due to the conversion, the use of canned beans, plus the fact that a bit more or a bit less of any ingredient won’t ruin the dish; it will just make it a bit different.

I’ve only made this once so far (a few days ago), and my adapted recipe is taken from my memory of what I did then. (I didn’t take notes.) Over time I will return to this recipe and will modify it if I find the quantities aren’t quite right. The most iffy thing is the amount of water to use; you want enough for it to cook, and be absorbed by, the pasta, but not so much that you’ll end up with a soup. The main thing is to keep an eye on it for the last ten minutes or so and to add small quantities of water if it seems like it’s getting too dry.

pasta and cannellini beans, 2011

Pasta e fagioli all’isolana

Ingredients

  • About 50 g (almost 2 oz) pancetta, cut into smallish pieces
  • A bit of olive oil
  • 1 stalk of celery, finely diced
  • 1 generous pinch of chili pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • About half of an 800 ml (28 oz) can of whole Italian tomatoes
  • 8-10 basil leaves, cut into fine ribbons
  • 400 ml (14 oz) can of cannellini beans (or white kidney beans), drained and rinsed.
  • About 60 g pasta of your choice (I recommend some kind of tubes, such as penne, cannelloni, or interneti. Or you could follow the original recipe and use a mix of styles)
  • About 30 g (1 oz) grated pamesano reggiano cheese
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • About 750 ml (3 cups) of water

Method

  1. Gently brown the pancetta in about a tablespoon of olive oil.
  2. When the pancetta is starting to get crispy, add the celery and the pepper flakes and cook for another few minutes.
  3. Turn up the heat a bit and add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds to a minute (be careful not to burn the garlic).
  4. Add the tomatoes. Stir, and use the spoon to break them up. Add a pinch of salt (to taste, but remember that the pancetta is already adding salt). Add about 500 ml (2 cups) of water and the basil, and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add the beans. Return to a light boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for another 10 minutes. (The mixture will seem way too watery at this point, but don’t worry; that will change when you add the pasta.)
  7. Return to a boil and stir in the pasta. Keep uncovered and at a low boil, stirring regularly until the pasta is cooked al-dente. It will probably take a bit longer than if you were boiling it in plain water. If the sauce thickens up too much before the pasta is cooked, add more water, a few spoonfuls at a time.
  8. When the pasta is cooked and the sauce is very slightly wetter than you want, remove the pot from the heat. Stir in half of the grated parmesan cheese. (This will add yumminess and a bit of thickening.) Check the seasoning and add a bit of salt if necessary.

Serve topped with a bit more grated parmesan cheese and some freshly ground black pepper. Traditionally, this dish is served either hot or at room temperature, depending on the season (i.e., hot in the cold months).

La (Mia) Cvcina Italiana

A rather unusual gift arrived chez moi last weekend; a stack of La Cucina Italiana food magazines from the late 1980s and 1990s, 21 copies in all. They weigh a ton, as they’re printed on heavy stock in that old fashioned way, and they’re full of articles, ads, color photographs, and most importantly, recipes. There’s only one problem; it’s all written in Italian.

La Cucina Italiana

Fortunately, I can decipher the recipes fairly easily with a bit of patience, frequent trips to Google’s translation page, and a few leaps of faith. So far I’ve only tried one (more on that later).

As far as I know, La Cucina Italiana was at the time (and may still be) the premiere food publication in Italy. It is currently enjoying a ride on the international foodie wave, and has web sites in several different languages, including English. However, these older issues seem quite middlebrow and unfancy, aimed apparently at homemakers who were not interested in venturing beyond the conventional Italian gustatory canon. (And it should be said that I am a big fan of that canon.)

What I find most surprising is how unappealing some of the food is. Although the magazines are only 10 to 20 years old, a good many of the photographs bring to mind old Good Housekeeping magazines from the 1960s and you can imagine the plates being held by Betty Draper-like house moms in their ranch style kitchens in Westchester county.

But then, classic Italian cooking has always been about simplicity, and in these days of endless food porn a simple plate of meatballs draped with a beige cream sauce is unappealing only because it was photographed on a floral patterned plate and without fancy lighting or bokeh overload.

I don’t know how much I’ll actually learn from these magazines, or how much time I’ll spend with them. For now they’re fun to flip through and to look at the ads for  unexpected things like corn oils and margarines. I expect I’ll try a few recipes, such as the cannellini beans and pasta that I’ve already deciphered and modified. (An odd choice for a hot day, but I love cannellini beans and I had all the ingredients on hand.) In that case, the main differences between the original version and mine are:

  • The original recipe takes three hours. Mine took 40 minutes because I used canned beans instead of dried.
  • The original served six; mine served two.
  • The original recipe called for a mix of pasta types while I used only one.
  • The original’s bean-to-pasta ratio emphasized the beans, while mine had a higher ratio of pasta. Next time I’ll try to make it more like the original. (After all, I see this as more of a bean recipe than a pasta recipe.)
  • My sauce was thicker than the original’s but that was just luck as I was guessing at the amount of water to use. Making it wetter (which is not unappealing) would have been just a matter of adding a couple of tablespoons of water at the end.

It’s worth making again, so I will transcribe the recipe soon and present it here. (Update: recipe posted.)

Pasta e fagioli all’isolana as photgraphed by La Cucina Italiana in 1989 (with no bokeh).

pasta and cannellini beans, 1987

Below: Pasta e fagioli all’isolana as photographed by blork in 2011 (with just a touch of bokeh).

pasta and cannellini beans, 2011

Recipe coming soon.