It’s getting cold in Iowa. The other day, wet snowflakes fell. Yesterday, we walked around Lake MacBride in a lowering, gloomy, chilly dusk. The lily pads have all withered to dark thin stalks with pods at the top; they looked like a spooky, abandoned miniature sci-fi city floating on the surface. Geese flapped over the becalmed lake. Smaller birds flew up from the weeds at the water’s edge in an eerie rush of beating wings. The grasses and leaves blazed bright white-gold, orange, and russet. Dingo frisked along, flushing a deer, chasing squirrels, grinning up at us as he barreled by. He loves cold weather. It makes him a puppy again. We hunched in our coats with our hands in our pockets to keep them warm until we’d walked far and fast enough to get our blood going.
After our walk, we fed Dingo his dinner—kibble, a squirt of fish oil, his chondroitin/glucosamine/MSM tablet, and some cut-up apple in lieu of the canned stuff he usually gets—on the ground by the car, followed by a bowl of water. He fell on his piquenique sur l’herbe grunting—with joy, we presumed. Then we drove to Mount Vernon for our Wednesday night dinner at the Lincoln Café. We were both starving; we’d been working all day and had both forgotten to eat lunch. We ordered the prawn appetizer; five big shrimp came with their heads on, eyes broiled red, tiny arms and all, drenched in miso butter with pickled daikon radish and cayenne-puffed rice. We grunted like Dingo as we ate them. Five minutes later the plate was practically licked clean.
Then came the trout salads: fresh green lettuce with carrot and cucumber slices, capers, chunks of smoked trout, and a trout paté. This is our current favorite thing, anywhere. After we demolished those, we got huge plates of chicken breasts wrapped in bacon over “heirloom buckwheat” polenta with chanterelles and cheddar and horseradish-apple salad. Given that combination of ingredients, plus the fact that the people cooking back there really know what they’re doing, of course it was fantastic, but I could barely eat mine; the trout salad is filling. So we had it boxed up and brought it home.
This morning, I cut up the chicken and bacon while a pot of corn polenta simmered, then added the cubed meat to the pot with the leftover buckwheat polenta and chanterelles, then dished it up in bowls. We needed a warming breakfast. The polenta was as creamy as hot cereal, which it arguably is. And what doesn’t go with chicken and bacon?
Warm silkiness not something I generally think much about, but lately it’s the quality in food I’ve been craving most, without realizing it until just now. I’m in the mood for food with the texture of Al Green’s voice. The other day, I made a rich, light avgolemono, an easy fast Greek egg-chicken lemon-rice soup. A couple of days before that, we made a tagliatelle alla carbonara (Brendan found a really good gluten-free pasta, imported from Italy, made of brown rice, salt, and egg) with twice the eggs and cheese and bacon the recipe called for. We used uncured English bacon, which was lean, chewy, and full of porky flavor.
I’m also hankering after zabaglione, the Italian egg custard made with vin santo or Marsala and very little sugar.
All of these dishes are made with barely-cooked beaten eggs, which provide the sexiest texture I know of. Raw beaten eggs are tossed with piping-hot pasta and sautéed chopped bacon for carbonara. For avgolemono, Arborio rice and chicken are simmered in chicken stock, then some of the hot broth is drizzled into beaten eggs and lemon juice while whisking, then that mixture is, in turn, folded back into the pot after the heat’s been turned off. For zabaglione, beaten eggs, sugar, and dessert wine are stirred over a double boiler until they thicken, then served immediately. In each case, the eggs turn delicate, satiny, decadent, sheeny, the texture of nursery pap—Cream of Wheat, pillowy tapioca pudding. All three of these savory egg dishes are a yolky, buttery yellow-gold.
Sometimes on winter mornings Brendan makes “coddled” eggs; but his version doesn’t involve whole eggs in a bain-marie. He beats four very fresh eggs with a little salt and sugar and a dollop of half and half. After melting plenty of butter in a simmering double boiler, he gently coaxes the eggs along in the warm butter until they form big, creamy, barely coalescent curds. We eat them with buttered toast, like little kids, wriggling our toes.
The carbonari are the charcoal burners in Italy who, according to some, were the original inventors of this dish, which could be tossed together on a cold night in the hills as they tended their charcoal fires. (In the States, it’s sometimes called “coal miner’s spaghetti.”)
In Italy, it’s usually made with Guanciale, unsmoked cheek bacon, the closest American approximation of which is “jowl bacon,” a staple of soul food. Some day when I find both, I want to make cheek-by-jowl carbonara, but for now, plain old bacon works fine.
Cook a pound of long, thin pasta; spaghetti is best, but linguine or tagliatelle are good, too.
While the pasta is cooking, chop 8 ounces of slab bacon or pancetta and slice 4 garlic cloves and sauté it all in 4 tablespoons of olive oil until crisp.
In a large mixing bowl, beat 4 eggs and add a cup (or two) of grated parmigiano-reggiano and plenty of black pepper.
When the pasta is done, drain it well (this recipe requires no reserved cooking liquid) and toss it in the pan with the bacon and garlic until it’s soaked up the fat and flavors, then add the whole shebang to the egg-cheese mixture and toss it fast and lightly until the strands of pasta are coated with barely-cooked, silky egg and melted cheese. Serve immediately with more grated cheese and chopped flat-leaf parsley.