Saturday, 28 April 2012

Real Cheeky Carbonara

It was during one of my early market expeditions that I came across this Italian salumeria stand in the posh Parnell neighbourhood farmers market. Among the myriad of artisan cured Italian meats I eyed a sizable spectacular piece of Guanciale. I had to have it! What is it, you may ask? Well, it is the essential ingredient to an authentic Carbonara made from the pig’s cheeks, cured with salt and pepper. It is mild and beautifully aromatic, with a peppery flavour. I think it is subtler than pancetta, it's almost flowery.


Click link for Otello's Traditional Italian Small Goods site:

The dish itself originates from Rome. Back in the day Romans were very poor and had to make due with whatever scraps of meat they could get their hands on. Roman cuisine is, at its heart very humble, characterized by the use of cheap cuts and offal, or as Anthony Bourdain would call it, “the nasty bits”. This is cucina povera at its best.

Every time I make this dish, I am reminded of my first time. It was on a scorching mid-day in August in Rome. Trying to escape both the relentless sun and the bustling tourists, we made our way onto a narrow street across the Tevere. There, tucked away (as are all the good places to eat it seems) was a little Trattoria. It felt like stepping into Nonna’s dining room (or so I liked to imagine). There, I had this humble quintessential Roman pasta dish that induced in me the comforting sensation of being seven years old again, beckoned in from playing outside into the dim yet welcoming interior, and being nurtured back to life ready to take on the rest of the day.

Most people find it next to impossible to find Guanciale outside of Italy so they make due with bacon or pancetta for this dish. Being a stickler for authenticity, and knowing that these guys cure all their meats really well from nice free range New Zealand piggies, I just had to have my stash for future use. So here goes my as-authentic-as-it-gets Spaghetti alla Carbonara:

A word of warning: this is the most deceivingly simple of dishes. It is tricky to get just the right balance between taste and consistency so I will do my best to guide you through it.

  Spaghetti Alla Carbonara

  Spaghetti (use a good Italian brand) – around 120 to 140 g/person
  1 whole egg/person
  Parmigiano-Reggiano - grated
  Guanciale - diced (can use pancetta or double smoked bacon)
  Olive oil
  Salt, pepper

  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, add in a few tablespoons of salt.
  • Meanwhile, in a skillet, brown diced Guanciale in a bit of olive oil. Set aside.
  • In a bowl, whisk egg, grated parmigiano, salt and pepper to taste. The consistency should be like curdled milk or runny cottage cheese. Remember this is your sauce for the pasta so season well. Taste it.
  • Meanwhile place spaghetti in boiling water. Give it a few good stirs. Make sure you follow the instructions on the package and don’t cook it for any longer than indicted. Taste to make sure it is al dente.
  • Once pasta is cooked, take off the heat and drain keeping back a bit of the starchy pasta water as it may be necessary in the event that it is too dry.
  • Stir in the browned Guanciale into the pasta.
  • Then pour pasta into the eggy bowl and quickly stir everything together so that the pasta is nicely coated. Keep it moving around, stirring so as to ensure the egg does not begin to cook but also as a means of creating the unctuous texture that results from this action along with the cheese, egg and starch. If it seems too dry now is the time to add a bit of the left over starchy pasta water.
  • Top off with some more grated parmigiano reggiano and pepper.
  • Eat immediately!

Friday, 27 April 2012

Man Cannot Live on Lamb Alone

I am obsessed with food; good food, grounded in culinary traditions. What do I mean by good food? After all, the notion of what constitutes "good food" is subjective. I decided to write this blog as a way of exploring my subjective understanding of what good food is in the context of my current home, New Zealand.

I moved from Toronto to Auckland just over half a year ago. Prior to my moving here, a fear began to set in. You see, I dedicated the past seven years of my life to figuring out the culinary landscape of Toronto. Prior to that I lived in Germany and absolutely fell in love with German gastronomy. While living there I travelled as often and as rigorously as I could around Europe exploring the culinary traditions these countries had to offer, including those of my country of origin, Romania. Needless to say, the more wonderful foods I experienced abroad the more Toronto lacked in the form of quality fare and ingredients.

That was how I came to dedicate my time there to finding ingredients and foods that would allow me to eat as well as I did abroad; with the same passion and gusto. It was difficult at first but the more I knew what I was looking for the more I began to find what I longed to eat. It must be said, that with time Toronto itself went through a transformation. From shops stocking up on good ingredients from abroad to locally made products using old-world methods, not to mention the numerous proper bakeries, butcher shops, charcuteries and bistros that were popping up and promising a standard of eating I had not previously experienced in Toronto.

As I have always equated feelings of joy, wellbeing and connectedness with food, I could finally say I felt at home in Toronto. So here I was, about to move to yet another commonwealth country far far away, and my joie de vivre began to drain out of me in anticipation of the same gastronomic wasteland I had previously experienced in Toronto. Alright, I knew they’d have lamb, very good lamb indeed but man cannot live on lamb alone. What would I do without pancetta, passata, jamon, baquettes, sourdough breads and croissants? I really felt like someone had posed that old hypothetical question: If you were stranded on an island, what things would you want to take with you? Alas, this was really happening! I really was going to be stuck on a far off island for an indefinite period of time cut off from everything I love, or so I thought.

I remember not long before leaving, I asked my partner, a New Zealander, if there were any proper bakeries in Auckland. He said he’d never bothered to look but that he would get on the case immediately. Being my fatalistic old self I decided not to wait, and so I set out to learn how to make my own bread. The type of bread I’d had in Europe, the kind that takes its sweet time to rise, at least half a day, none of this bread-maker business. Feeling damn well proud that I could fend for myself on this island, my partner returned with some surprising finds from his reconnaissance mission. He managed to track down an actual old-school French & German bakery that even made my all-time favorite bread, the Bergsteiger . 

My first loaf of bread while still in

My heart fluttered as I was momentarily transported to those carefree early Saturday mornings back in Heidelberg, skipping off to Café Frisch for their freshly baked, awe-inspiring, warm, crusty loaf of bready goodness, the stately Bergsteiger Brot. I imagined the pure pleasure I'd get from smearing it with a knob of full fat butter, biting through its thick crust and into its densely moist brown flesh, needing little else to make me feel like all is right with the world. Not soon after snapping back to reality, did I tell myself that it probably won’t be very good at all and certainly nothing like the bread in Germany. I would soon discover that the Bergsteiger mission would prove to be just the tip of the iceberg of this unexpected culinary haven, New Zealand.

Bergsteiger Brot (translates into Mountain-Climber's bread)

(click link for Paris-Berlin Organic Bakery:

My lovely and equally obsessive partner took it upon himself to find other culinary delights he knew I could not live without. He set out on a similar quest that I went on seven years ago in Toronto, and within weeks he discovered the most surprising sources for gastronomic delights in Auckland before I even set foot on Kiwi soil. The rest of this blog is really about what I do with these awesome local foods. I hope you enjoy.