Back to Teresa. She says that she set out to write a traditional cookbook, but instead, it turned into delicious stories about the foods and people she loves. In her words- "... a collection of recipes turned into a celebration of those who have given meaning and dimension to my cooking. My mentors are ordinary folk, all of them, going about their daily business of baking bread and pouring hearty wine. The ingredients they use are not exotic, their techniques are not complex." That's my kind of inspiration. Since I am relatively new to this quest for learning technique and experimenting in the kitchen, a book such as this one is truly a treasure, even though most of the dishes she references are not new to me.
Teresa begins her gourmand storytelling with polenta, a dish that certainly sounded exotic to me, until I realized that it is cornmeal mush. A common dish from Italy to Georgia. Her Italian grandmother Teresa (I bet my name sounds exotic when pronounced by un vrai Italien...) is the star of this story. She was serving polenta for dinner to her husband one night when Teresa's mom decided to take her new husband, Teresa's future dad, to her parents' house for dinner-- unannounced. It seems that polenta, to this vraie Italienne, was an embarrassment because she didn't know her new son-in-law very well, not well enough to serve him polenta, for heaven's sake, a dish that is family food, cheap, a staple for people when times are tight and there's not much in the cupboard. It's Italian comfort food. But Grandma Teresa had to serve it-- it was all that she had prepared, although I got the feeling that if she could have gotten away with it, she would have headed right back in the kitchen and whipped up something fancier. New son-in-law made it a grand success (and himself in the process, I bet) by not only asking for seconds, but for thirds. He couldn't get enough of this dish, he of German descent, on this night in 1959. But imagine... hot, creamy polenta, slices of provolone, mozzarella and Gorgonzola cheeses topped with beef stew that has been simmering on the stove all afternoon, with a final generous sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I will try this recipe very soon. (I would make it right this minute for breakfast, if at all possible.)
Teresa devotes chapters to making scones, bread, risotto, strawberry shortcake, and pie crusts, just to name a few. I imagine I will work my way through most of these recipes. What a task!
I decided to put one of the recipes to the test last night. Both boys were home for dinner, a very rare occurrence these days. They love to eat good food and when trying a new recipe, I always charge them with letting me know if a recipe is a keeper and if I need to tweak it a bit. (They really need to learn to cook and I hope they will-- they would both be good at it.) This one was deemed a keeper, but I needed to fry the bacon until it was crisper.
The story behind this is simple enough. A simple recipe, called white spaghetti by Teresa and her sisters, quickly prepared by mom on her bowling nights. She didn't even know it's real name, pasta alla carbonara, until years later. Evidently, it is a staple on trattoria menus in Rome. Unfortunately, I didn't have any while there in 2008. It is very close to what Mme P, my new French amie, served us while she was here in April. She added cream to her sauce. I knew this recipe would go over well. Bacon, Parmesan cheese, and pasta. How can you go wrong with that combination?
From Pass The Polenta and other writings from the kitchen by Teresa Lust, Ballantine Books, New York, 1998
1 pound spaghetti (I used linguine because that is what was in the cupboard)
1/2 pound good-quality bacon, diced
A couple handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, about 1/2 cup, plus more for garnishing
Fresh, coarsely ground black pepper
Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente. Meanwhile, render the diced bacon in a large frying pan, stirring occasionally. After the bacon turns golden and starts to crisp, pour off most of the fat and remove the pan from the heat. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and cheese until thoroughly combined. When the spaghetti is done cooking, drain it quickly in a colander, then add it immediately to the bacon in the skillet. Drizzle in the eggs, add a liberal grinding of pepper, and stir continuously with a wooden fork until the pasta is well-coated and the eggs and cheese have cooked gently into a slightly thickened sauce. Pour into a serving bowl and garnish with additional grated cheese.
Bon appétit, Teresa!