Thursday, May 27, 2010

When Your Road Doesn’t Lead to Rome

This is about love. This is an admission of failure. I love, I mean really, really love spaghetti carbonara. I have tried many, many recipes, including Marcella Hazan’s. The results have ranged from reasonable to greasy pasta with scrambled eggs.

I have ordered spaghetti carbonara in many restaurants, sometimes with disturbing results. The strangest (to me) in Aigues-Mortes where it was served with a raw egg yolk on the half shell nestled in the middle, as if it were pasta tartar.

The Platonic ideal of this dish is available to everyone, well everyone in Rome anyway, at the Grotte Del Teatro Di Pompeo. This is reputedly the site of Mark Anthony’s oration over the aerated body of Julius Caesar. The restaurant has been there since Pompey’s Theatre, on the ruins of which it is built, closed – so don’t worry, it will still be there when you go, but what to do about the carbonara in the meantime?

Here is what I do. This is not spaghetti carbonara, but it is a satisfying approximation. I read this recipe in an article about what chefs make for themselves after a long night in the kitchen. I have made it with Philadelphia cream cheese when I couldn’t get mascarpone. It works in a pinch.

Set a pot of salted water to boil for your pasta. In a heat tolerant bowl whisk an egg together with about three tablespoons of mascarpone, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. While your pasta cooks hold the bowl just in or above the boiling water and continue to whisk. You want the cheese to melt and the egg to thicken, but not scramble. As the sauce cooks throw in some grated parmesan. When the pasta is cooked reserve a few tablespoons of the pasta water and add it to the sauce. Toss the pasta in the bowl with egg and cheese mixture. Garnish with more parmesan and, for “true faux” carbonara, some bits of crispy bacon or pancetta. Alternatively, it would be nice with half a cup of cooked and drained peas.

Friends, would-be Romans, it isn’t spaghetti carbonara, but to mix up my Shakespeare, ‘tis enough, t’will serve – as many as you like, just use an egg per person and scale the pasta and cheese accordingly.

Hardy’s luck
Dickens is often faulted for his reliance on coincidence. And I must say my life’s been short on serendipitous encounters with benefactors, but I have experienced at least one distinctly Dickensian coincidence. A few years ago I was telling Naomi I had stumbled on a book that I was really enjoying. “It’s just like Dickens,” I told her. She said she was reading something she just hated because, “It’s just like Dickens.” We were both reading Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.

Now that I’ve told you that story, I’m reminded of the incident in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat where two drunken friends share a hotel room. In the dark they climb into the same bed. Each man thinks he is in his own bed with a stranger. “There’s a man in my bed.” “There’s a man in my bed too.” A fight ensues. They both end up on the floor. “My man chucked me out.” “So did mine.” It’s not a very good hotel they conclude.

That sort of thing happens a lot. The other day at the gym I was trying to divert Steve from our next set of torture. I said I loved Thomas Hardy. Steve made a face. I feared pinky-only dead lifts would follow. He’d been made to read Tess in high school and hated it. What a shame! The place to start with Hardy is Under the Greenwood and Far from the Madding Crowd. Then, I know you won’t, but honestly, he’s a tremendous poet.

Hardy wrote cinematically before there were cinemas. I am thinking of the scene in Madding Crowd when Bathsheba and Gabriel struggle to save Boldwood’s hayricks from the rain and can only see each other by flashes of lightning. I am thinking of young Jude considering life, flat on his back in a field on a hot day looking through the interstices of his straw hat.

I know what you are thinking. It’s warm kidney salad all over again. And it’s a fair cop. Still, I hope you will take a wander through Wessex, in Hardy's early summer it is particularily fine.

P.S. We are all full of contradictions and to prove my own case, having said I don't make cakes that require icing, I made the cake pictured in the banner for Naomi's birthday. (She asked for 'elaborate' and it was more photogenic than spaghetti.)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Prufrock with a Cherry on Top

My friend Naomi and I once went to a resort in the Haliburton Highlands for the weekend. We were the only guests, strange at the best of times, ominous if you have seen The Shining. The chef was delighted to see us. So delighted he asked us if there was anything we didn’t like. I told him the one thing I did not like, from its texture to its taste, was kidneys. “Ah!” he said, “but you’ve never had my warm kidney salad,” his eyes, well, shining.

Note well: never tell someone who likes to cook that you don’t like THING YOU HATE GOES HERE, because they will say, “You should try HATED THING GOES HERE PREPARED IN QUESTIONABLE WAYS.”

I visited my friend Leah recently. We stood on her tranquil west facing balcony discussing what she wanted to plant there. She mentioned tomatoes. I suggested cherry tomatoes. Gentle Reader, you can be in no doubt as to her response. Yes, she does not like cherry tomatoes. My rose bud lips were forming the words “but you’ve never had my—” when thankfully the buzzer rang heralding other guests and I was saved from myself.

But you, Gentle Reader, are not.

This adaptation of a Lidia Bastianich recipe is fast, easy and it sings of spring (to me at least). Halve three cups of cherry tomatoes. Toss them in a large serving bowl with some olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes and salt. Let them marinate for about 20 minutes. Cook a pound of fusilli or rotini, reserving half a cup of the cooking water. Stir the pasta water into the marinated tomatoes along with some shredded fresh basil. Add the pasta and toss with the grated cheese of your choice, parmesan, asiago, pecorino or even chevre. This IS good.

Warm kidney salad, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired: something without kidneys.

Wither Jerusalem?
My parents immigrated to Canada in the late 50s leaving behind an England that my father felt closed its doors on him even before he knocked. Why? He didn’t go to the right school, he didn’t have a posh accent, in short he didn’t know the secret handshake.

He was baffled by Anglophiles. I remember him telling me that in England they built buildings to last a thousand years. In this country, he said approvingly, you build a building and 10 years later you tear it down and put up something better. (No, he wasn’t on Toronto City Council.)

At almost the same time as my parents left, Clive James went to England from Australia and Andrea Levy’s parents made the journey from Jamaica, resulting in their daughter’s book Small Island. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane concludes with one immigrant woman coaxing another out onto an ice rink. Does she dare? And does she dare? Her friend tells her, “This is England, you can do anything.” All of this is by way of explaining why I am intrigued by immigrants’ views of Britain.

I first discovered the poet and polymath Clive James via A Point of View essay. I ask myself why I have met so many wise and funny Australian men in print, but never in person. I am thinking of Barry Humphries, My Life As Me. I am thinking of Robert Hughes and his wonderful autobiography Things I Didn’t Know, and will take my mandatory digression here to recommend his book The Shock of the New. If you like modern art and especially if you don’t, read it. You may still not like it, but you will 'get it' and its context.

The second volume of James’ Unreliable Memoirs series, Falling Towards England is laugh out loud funny. James treats British xenophobia and bad food as well as his own lust, limitations and transgressions with equal doses of candor and wit. Here is a soupçon: “In the pub I got a piece of stale French loaf with a dead shallot laid out on it, a dollop of shepherd’s pie like a rhino’s diarrhea, and a good solid dose of rejection. By and large it is our failures that civilize us, but one doesn’t want to take that principle too far.”

Speaking of civilization, James does so brilliantly in a collection of alphabetically arranged portraits from Louis Armstrong to Hazlitt to Beatrix Potter and Wittgenstein and dozens of other fascinating men and women of diverse and occasionally dubious accomplishments called Cultural Amnesia, Notes in the Margin of My Time. It is tempting to call this a bathroom book because some of the essays are quite short, but it is more like a salle de bain book in the Sorbonne.