Carbonara for Non-Italians

If you’re Italian, I suggest you turn away, because all things considered I definitely do not want you to wretch or cringe at what I’m about to share. I also do not want you to think less of me as a cook, because I’ve had enough of people thinking that every time I tell them how I once burned water while boiling it.

Lazy breakfasts. We don’t even toast bread anymore…

The last few days have gone by in a haze of confusion. A few of my recipe testers got back to me with their feedback on the dishes they’ve been testing and I have to say that I’ve been left bamboozled by some of their notes. This is no laughing matter, people. I think I will pour myself a drink tomorrow, better yet I’ll just hold the entire bottle close to my chest, and go through all of the feedback. I will report back on that.

Between recipe testing and writing and studying and attending baby showers in Texan suburbs, I have improvised upon the traditional spaghetti carbonara. It seems like me and Kumar (you guys can call him Sundaram, if you want) are preferring meals-in-a-whirl more and more, especially for the past few weeks of the new year. The mornings are quiet and cloudy, because that’s what Plano has been serving up for the last few weeks. But now and then, the sun will come out and bathe everything in bright, eye-hurting gold. Love those days. And all we want to do is walkabout outside and sit with our backs to the sun. We hardly feel like spending too much time in the kitchen. But we haven’t stopped cooking. We’ve just been finding shortcuts.

We made a fish curry that took exactly five minutes of prep. We make omelets with leftover mushrooms for breakfast and we don’t even bother to toast the bread. We learned a plain tomato pasta recipe from a friend of Kumar’s, that has sustained us multiple times over the last year and we have already made that four times in the last month. And then there were those cookies (which take less time than a pedicure, and is infinitely more pleasurable). All that is, of course, interspersed with generous doses of tonkatsu ramen from Ramen Hakata and Monta, dumpling from Sichuan Folk, and gelato from Amorino (only so we can dig into a big bowl of it while walking by the fountains in Legacy). Let’s chart it up to lack of time and convenience.

And now this carbonara. Which is not just for people out of time and non-Italians, it’s also for cooks who don’t always know what they’re doing in the kitchen.

Spaghetti Carbonara for Non-Italians

Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson, and heavily altered.

Ingredients:
Dried spaghetti, 2 servings worth
3-4 strips of smoky bacon
1 tbsp of minced garlic
2 tsps of red chili flakes
½ cup of chicken stock
¼ cup of cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1-inch piece of Parmesan cheese, plus more to grate over once the dish is ready
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley
Extra virgin olive oil, to dress

How to:
Bring a large pot of water to boil. While you’re waiting for the water to come to a boil, cook the bacon in a large non-stick or stainless steel pan until most of the fat is rendered. Remove the bacon from the pan and place on a bed of paper towels. When the pot of water starts boiling, add a generous amount of salt, add the spaghetti and cook till al dente. It’ll usually take 8 – 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in the pan in which you cooked the bacon, add garlic and chilli flakes. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook for 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock, cream cheese and the piece of Parmesan. Cover and cook on medium low until the stock is reduced to almost half. Before you drain the pasta retain ¼ cup of the starchy pasta water. Chop up the cooked bacon and add it back to the pan along with the spaghetti, the pasta water, salt and pepper. Cook uncovered on high heat till most of the liquid disappears from the pan. Take the pan off the heat and add in the parsley and lightly beaten eggs. Toss the eggs with the sauce and the spaghetti quickly to prevent it from scrambling. Serve and top with grated Parmesan and a generous drizzle of EVOO.

nosy neighbours and hot pasta sauce

Somewhere in the middle of 2005 I moved into what was “my first apartment”.

Roasted Tomatoes

A double-bedroom apartment that had a balcony overlooking one of Baroda’s busiest crossings. It was an open plan with a kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living and the kitchen was anything but. It was lined with pink granite counter-tops on two sides and the sole appliance it housed was a double gas-burner. The rest of the space was used for storing mounds of sheets and rolls of paper. The roles piled one on top of the other formed a mountain that almost reached the ceiling, short of a feet or two. They threatened to topple down on our heads at any moment, but their threats fell on deaf ears.

My half of the apartment included a single bedroom that was airy in summer and warm in the winter. It had an attached bath that was approximately the size of a small bento box and a large window that occupied an entire wall. The window overlooked a large courtyard and a common corridor that was always drenched in rainwater during the heavy monsoon months.

The corridor was also my nosy neighbour’s favourite hangout apparently.

She would take a stroll through it, up and down, every hour or so, pausing near my window every time she crossed it and then extend her long neck to take a peek inside. It was her regular routine. For the first year that I lived in that apartment, this habit of hers was torture. I would look up from my work and jump in panic as I’d spot her face floating on one corner of my window. After working long hours through the night, I’d take a long nap. And as I would open my droopy eyelids and turn my head, there’d be her face. Floating at my window. Again.

I spent that entire year arguing with her, starting with politeness and ending in sharp words, as I would try to make her see how she was invading my private space. I tried sarcasm. Then I moved on to anger. I resorted to contorting my face into ugliness as I spoke to her, hoping that my expressions would scare her off. I even tried threatening her with letters to the building management. And I also started to keep my curtains drawn at all times blocking out all the daylight, which, was not fun. But in my entire comparatively short-life I have never met any woman with such great will power as hers.

By the second year, I was used to her nosiness and too tired and busy to complain. But silently kept looking for a solution to the problem. The solution arrived sooner than I expected. In the shape and form of a man – a half-Goan-half-Portuguese curly-haired student of commerce. We had met over a roadside chai stall frequented by students of the University and an episode of puppy-love had followed. And besides all the drama and petting-rituals this relationship demanded, it also kept me watered and fed. We used to share our evening over episodes of How I Met Your Mother, bowls of spaghetti in watery tomato sauce, pressure-cooked chicken and tuna sandwiches from Subway. There was also the incident where we were too busy exchanging affections to notice that the apartment had started to flood due to a leaky faucet. Um…I’ve grown since.

I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this. In fact, I’m positive that you’ve already guessed how I scared off my neighbour. Oh well. Let’s just say, her floating head disappeared permanently from my window since that fateful evening when my friend showed up.

He did show up with another packet of supermarket spaghetti and another jar of watery tomato sauce and we never really got to eat much, but in retrospect that was a price I was willing to pay for revenge on a nosy neighbour.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Indianised salsa di pomodoro
inspired by Gordon Ramsey’s tomato soup in Chef’s Secrets

Any kind if tomatoes will do for this one, but try it with tomatoes on the vine as well. In that case, don’t remove the vine before roasting them. We like it hot and spicy over here, and if you do too, notch up the heat to two chillies instead of one. As an alternative, try roasting the tomatoes for 1 1/2 hours at 150 deg C. To turn this into a lovely tomato soup, just heat the sauce along with 1 1/2 cups of chicken/vegetable stock. The soup can be served with a dollop of crème fraiche and a toasted baguette. The recipe doubles easily if you require a larger batch.

5 medium tomatoes, in thick slices
2 medium red onions [or Spanish onions], sliced
1/2 head of garlic, skin on
1 red chilli [we keep the seeds intact, but remove the seeds if you prefer]
1 tsp of dried basil
1 tsp of dried thyme [or 2 tsp of fresh thyme leaves]
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1 tsp of ground coriander
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil, as needed
Juice of 1 lime [or half a lemon]
2 tbsp of honey
2 tbsp of barbecue sauce [store-bought is just fine]

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. Scatter tomatoes, onions and garlic on a baking tray. Sprinkle basil, thyme, turmeric, coriander over and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle a generous amount of olive oil, about 4-5 tablespoons, all over the ingredients. Roast for 45-50 minutes till the tomatoes start to fall apart. Let everything cool in the tray for 15 minutes before squeezing the garlic out of its skin. Blitz everything in a blender or food processor till smooth. Add lime juice, honey and barbecue sauce and stir well.
The sauce will keep for a week in an air-tight jar kept in the refrigerator. Use it as a dip or as a pasta sauce. To use with pasta, heat it up in a pan before adding cooked pasta along with fresh basil leaves and a handful of grated parmesan.