by Charles Schlussel | June 26, 2018 5:30 am
I don’t know about you, but one of the things I absolutely love about living in the Midwest is the vivid and dramatic contrast of the seasons we enjoy here in the Omaha area. Now, I realize some of you are possibly shaking your heads in wonder at such a statement after enduring another round of subzero arctic blasts of old man winter here in Nebraska.
But honestly is there anything as marvelously magical as stepping out into a frigid moonlit night as we exhale and can see our first frosty breathes of winter visibly hanging in the air as we gaze in wonder at the stunning beauty of geometrically diverse shapes of frozen water falling past our faces? I would say yes, that the wonderful dichotomy of the harsh splendor of a frozen wasteland is only so much the sweeter as we ache with deep longing for the sunlit joys of the spring to come. I believe that the age old adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is very applicable in this instance as well. In the middle of double digit wind chills we know that in a few short months we’ll soon be walking barefoot on a warm fresh cut lawn with the intoxicating scents of tulips, crocuses and hyacinths gently wafting through the air.
At this point you may be asking yourself, “What in the heck does this have to do with food?” I would propose that the correlation between the change of seasons and food is quite apropos. Because of a renewed and maybe even an unprecedented interest in delicious food and recipes we now have easy access to a myriad of ingredients that our grandparents had never heard of, much less dreamt of.
As wonderful as all this easy access to exotic ingredients is, it all comes with a price. Because of a relatively inexpensive high speed transportation system we can now have any fruit and any vegetable any time any hour of any day. The question is, just because we can, should we? Is there really a difference between fresh locally grown food and what I get at the grocery store? If you’re not sure of the answer to this question I challenge you to make a trip to the Bellevue Berry Farm this spring and place your hand picked berries next to the standard grocery store variety and have your own taste testing.
If you’ve never had a fresh picked warm from the garden strawberry I guarantee you will be astonished. The in-season fruit absolutely explodes with a vibrant intensity of flavor that will rock your taste buds into a shocked realization that you’ve never really tasted a strawberry before! This revelation of the incredible deliciousness of locally grown and sourced foods is the reason why the beginning of spring always has me daydreaming of a walk through the garden. I revel in seeing the first few verdant green stalks of asparagus poking their heads through the warm spring soil.
At the same time the first few weeks of warmth also herald the heartbreakingly short morel mushroom season. Foraging for the elusive, but decadently delicious morels is an exciting adventure that is all too short, but the rewards of finding a few of the delectable umami rich fungi can make for a delightful family adventure. I’d be lying if I said I only cook in season, but the wonderful longing anticipation of the first trip to the Old Market Farmers Market always has me swooning.
This brings me to our spring Food & Spirits recipe, “Springtime Pasta Carbonara.” In all honesty I must admit that until recently I haven’t had or made carbonara since my early 20s. I made it when I was in the bare infancy of any real culinary knowledge and made it only because a friend thought it sounded like an interesting recipe. Carbonara is a classic Italian pasta with crispy pancetta and a sauce of grated cheese, raw egg yolks and fresh cracked black pepper. The yolks are cooked by rapidly mixing the drained but still steaming hot pasta with the yolks and cheese to create a rich, creamy and satisfying peppery sauce.
As I stated earlier, my first attempt of this classic dish was a bit of a disaster. I had almost zero kitchen knowledge of any sort and I was a little freaked out by a dish of pasta sauced with raw eggs. My kitchen organizational skills being almost nil meant that after having overcooked the pasta to a nice sticky mush, I then let it drain while prepping the sauce mixture. It took another ten minutes plus before I was mixing the now cold noodles with the yolks and cheese. Suffice it to say that I was trying not to outwardly grimace as I lifted the first bite of pasta to my mouth.
Although it was basically inedible we both managed to choke down a few mouthfuls as we lied to each other about the wonderful gourmet meal we had experienced. Fast forward a few decades and I found myself pushing past my traumatic first exposure to carbonara and wanting to see what made this dish a classic. After much research and recipe development, I now understand why carbonara has stood the test of time. Properly prepared carbonara is a richly decadent bowl of pasta goodness, perfectly tender yet still al dente bites of pasta (pasta cooked just until tender, but still having a slight resistance as you bite into it) are coated in rich and cheesy egg yolk sauce. My version has the crispy crunch of salty bacon accented with bites of freshly picked baby asparagus, the rich umami flavor of morel mushrooms and then garnished with a few chopped spring onion greens.
If you don’t have any asparagus growing in your backyard and are not fortunate enough to have any friends willing to divulge their super secret morel hunting grounds, you’re still in luck. Head on down to the Old Market for the Saturday farmer’s market and you can pick up all the ingredients; farm fresh eggs, locally produced bacon, fresh asparagus and spring onions. Morels are only available the first few weeks in spring and the farmers market has a very limited supply available on a first come first serve basis and they’re usually gone early in the morning (if you’re too late, dried morels soaked for 1/2 an hour in hot water will still be very delicious). However, you can also save the hassle of going to the market and trying out your luck at getting the best morels, by simply ordering them online. An online website for Organic Mushroom Supplies might help you explore some new varieties as well, that too irrespective of the season! Something that isn’t season-dependent is the meat and the dairy products. Fresh eggs is actually something you can have yourself right in your backyard, if you’re prepared to get up early to let the hens out and make sure you’re cleaning a chicken coop properly. Like your veggies, this is free produce supplied right outside your door, and it’s all done by you too. Hens are a lovely addition to your garden, so for that extra divine tasting eggs on toast, omelette or carbonara of course, I would definitely look into it!
After you’ve located all the items on your list at the farmer’s market, load everyone up and make one last stop at Midtown Crossing. I’ve greatly enjoyed eating at Ron Samuelson’s Della Costa and was very happy when he offered to supply the imported Italian bucatini pasta for the dish. I thought it would be nice but really didn’t think it would be a noticeable difference. I’ve always prided myself on using only the best ingredients, but I was surprised with what a difference authentic Italian pasta made in my carbonara. The bucatini cooked up with a soft exterior and a slightly chewy center and had a subtly nutty flavor which married perfectly with the carbonara sauce. Justin Halbert, Ron’s nephew and one of the owners, let me know that Della Costa is always happy to sell the bucatini as well as any other any kitchen supplies that their customers may need for a recipe.
So how about it my Food & Spirits friends, are you up for a springtime foraging adventure? Make a day of it, load your friends up in the car as you search for all the ingredients, stop at Della Costa to pick up the pasta and stay for a delicious lunch and maybe a well-deserved craft cocktail or two. Once you’re done dining head back home for a leisurely nap and then start getting ready to celebrate spring with an Italian dinner that will feed your heart and body with delicious flavors and memories that you can savor with your family and friends for years to come.
Springtime Pasta Carbonara
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (plus extra for garnish)
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1/2 pound smoked bacon cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup diced onions
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1 pound dried bucatini pasta
1/2 cup chopped fresh morel mushrooms (you may substitute with dried morels soaked for 1/2 hour in hot water, then drained )
1/2 cup blanched*diced asparagus (tough ends trimmed off)
2 Tbsp chopped spring onion greens
Bring 4 quarts of water and 2 Tbsp kosher salt to boil in a large pot and start cooking the pasta while sautéing the bacon and the asparagus and morel mixture.
Sauté the diced bacon in a 12 inch skillet over medium heat till the bacon is brown and crispy, drain the bacon on paper towels. Drain off all but 2 Tbsp of the bacon grease (save the rest for frying eggs for breakfast in the morning). Return heat to medium and sauté diced onions till softened, add the morel mushrooms and asparagus, sauté for a couple minutes till morels are lightly browned and asparagus is tender crisp, add garlic and black pepper*, stir for a minute, taking off the heat promptly and allow to slightly cool.
Lightly whisk the eggs yolks, cream, lemon juice and zest in a large warmed bowl (only warm, too hot and you will cook the eggs). Cook the pasta testing often till it is al dente*, drain the pasta saving one cup of the hot pasta water*, immediately use tongs to toss and evenly coat the hot pasta in the bowl with the egg yolks and cheese, the heat of the pasta will cook the egg yolks. Add a little of the hot pasta water as needed to slightly thin and meld the sauce and pasta together. Add the bacon and the warm mushroom and asparagus mixture to the pasta and toss lightly to mix, garnish with a sprinkle of green onions, extra Pecorino Romano and serve immediately.
If you really love your dinner guests make a little nest in the center of each plate of steaming hot pasta and nestle in a room temperature egg yolk for that extra wow factor.
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