What do fine art, storytelling, cooking, profanities and a $10,000 hamburger have in common? They’re all passions, qualities or experiences of Rob Chirico of Greenfield.
In Chirico’s world, all of the above are grist for his mill as a self-described raconteur and foodie; author of cookbooks, mystery novels, non-fiction books about cocktails and swear words; and the one-time winner of a $10,000 prize for “building a better burger” in the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger contest. The burger in question is a lamb burger served in pita bread and smothered with chutney, which is chock-full of mint, cilantro, jalapenos, ginger and other tasty goodies.
Spoiler alert! You will not get that recipe today. For that, you will have to go to Chirico’s latest cookbook, “Not My Mother’s Kitchen: Rediscovering Italian-American Cooking Through Stories and Recipes.” The book is a charming, humorous cookbook-as-memoir of growing up Italian in a home where his mother, now in her 90s, hated cooking and believed that Italian restaurants were where you got Italian food, and home was where you got TV dinners. Filled with Italian recipes and a story to go with each, along with many of his own illustrations, this book is not like any other Italian cookbook because the recipes are uncomplicated and the history of the recipe or its ingredients help to inform and enhance the preparation. Likewise, there are numerous hints and tips on what to stock in your kitchen for Italian cooking and key utensils for preparing any type of meal.
Roxann: When did you begin cooking?
Rob: Food, for better or for worse, has always been a part of my life. I’ve always had an instinct for what could be good, even in my mother’s kitchen. Once, when I was about 12, she had made a red sauce for pasta with canned tomatoes and it was very good. I asked her what she put in it and she thought I was going to make fun of her, but I didn’t. It turned out the tomatoes were Luigi Vitelli San Marzano tomatoes, the best. But it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I began to take a real interest in cooking, and that was cooking Chinese food. Then I started reading the cookbooks of Julia Child and tried to master French cooking. It was during my studies in Italy on a graduate fellowship that I learned what real Italian cooking was like. I was hooked. It turns out the best cooking is that of la cucina povera, which is “cooking of the poor” or “peasant cooking.”
RW: Who is your cooking muse?
RC: I suppose you could say my mother-in-law made me do it. When I first started dating my wife, we’d go to her parents’ house on weekends. They always had parties and the people were very boring, so I’d wander into the kitchen to get away. Soon, I became one of the cooks for the parties. But I have probably three dozen Italian cookbooks from the last century that provide me with inspiration. It’s interesting to see how the cooking has changed over the years. I also take inspiration from what’s available, what’s in season, like the recipe I’m going to do today.
RW: What recipe do you have for us today?
RC: I wanted to do a recipe from “Not My Mother’s Kitchen,” so I chose the Roman spaghetti carbonara, and because we’re in the oh-so-short asparagus season, I’m adding some asparagus into what is usually a humble meat, egg and cheese pasta dish.
As I recount in my book, there are many stories about the origins of spaghetti a la carbonara. It could have been so named because it was an easy to prepare meal for Italian charcoal workers, hence carbon; or because of the flecks of black pepper that are prominent in the dish; or, according to the definition given by Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” it was invented in 1944 when many Italians were eating eggs and bacon supplied by American occupation troops.
While most Italian-American recipes call for bacon as the meat ingredient, I like to use the more traditional Italian pork, guanciale (pronounced wan chali), which is a cured meat that comes from the jowl or cheek of the pig. It’s generally cured in ground black pepper or red pepper, and thyme, fennel and garlic. Some people may be put off by the fact that the recipe uses raw eggs, but the heat from the cooking means that shouldn’t be a problem, plus I use only locally-sourced fresh eggs.
Also, you’ll see some carbonara recipes that have cream in them. That is a definite no-no. The rich creaminess of the dish comes from using some of the hot pasta water mixed in with finely grated parmesan cheese.
RW: Anything else special about the preparation of this meal or any meal you’d like readers to know?
RC: If you don’t have access to guanciale, you can use pancetta. I purchased the guanciale from the internet, but it’s often at Provisions in Northampton. Also, I only use really good pasta. It doesn’t have to be fresh, just a good Italian brand. You’ll pay a bit more, but it will taste better.
Remember to reserve some of the pasta cooking water, as noted in the recipe. The dish goes well with any type of wine: for red, an amarone or chianti; for white, an orvieto or light-bodied chardonnay. Or, for something different, try a Lambrusco with its slight sweetness and fizz to cut through the fat of the carbonara.
Roman Spaghetti Carbonara
2 T extra virgin olive oil
¼ lb. guanciale, thinly sliced and cut into ¼-inch pieces
2 T coarsely ground fresh black pepper
1 lb. spaghetti
½ cup grated parmigiano cheese, plus more for serving
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
Coarse or kosher salt to taste
Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat and add the olive oil. Add the guanciale and sauté until it is barely beginning to brown (five to six minutes). Stir in the pepper and cook for another minute. Transfer to a large bowl or serving dish and let cool slightly.
Bring four quarts of water to a boil. Salt the water, add the pasta and cook until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, add the parmigiano, eggs and salt to the guanciale.
Drain the pasta, reserving ¼ cup of pasta water. Toss the pasta with the sauce and slowly add the reserved water until the mixture is creamy (you may not need all of the water).
Serve, allowing your guests to sprinkle on more cheese and black pepper to taste. Makes six servings as a first course or four servings as a main course.