Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Night The Lights Went Out On Georgia

My husband and his high-school buddy were planning a trip to Georgia to attend a concert of another classmate who is a wonderful composer and jazz guitarist. (George Walker Petit - check him out at petitjazz.com).

Harto, Adam's friend, would drive to our house, overnight, and the two of them would head south in Adam's red Mustang. Her name is Ruby. My comment after a ride in Ruby is usually either: "Well we made good time!" or "I think you actually achieved lift-off!" Adam maintains it's Ruby's fault because she likes to stretch her legs. Of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that my husband enjoys blowing by the speed limit.

The last thing I wanted to think about was two guys, reminiscing about their good old days taking a male-only road trip in an extremely fast car.

So, instead, I thought about what to make Adam's friend for dinner. Adam had requested his favorite pasta, my eggless take on pasta alla carbonara that has bacon and peas, and tons of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. When he wants comfort food this is hands down his favorite and there are never any leftovers.

Going with an Italian theme, we'd start with a nice assortment of hors d'oeuvres, followed by the pasta, a simply dressed mixed salad and good crusty bread.

I turned on the house lights, turned up the volume on the jazz CD I chose to set the mood for the journey, lit a few candles, (unscented of course, so you don't compete with the food), and put out the antipasti.

Harto arrived, and after introductions were made we poured a nice Cabernet that he had graciously provided and toasted to old friends and new ones. Then, the power went out. Now, you have to understand that where we live this is nothing new. It happens all the time. If the wind blows the wrong way it goes out. Another small hiccup that we deal with, but it usually comes back on relatively quickly so we didn't pay too much attention at first. We stood around in the candle glow, chatting and munching on warm olives, cheese and prosciutto-wrapped bread sticks, commenting on how charming the situation was.

That quickly dissipated after a call to the power company confirmed that we were the only customers in this delightful situation. We answered their seemingly silly questions: Yes, our bill had been paid. Yes, we checked the breaker. They said they would send a repair crew - eventually. This did not bode well. And I still had to make dinner.

The good news - my Viking stove is dual-fuel so at least I could cook. The bad news - only one sorry flashlight in the house. So here I am, cradling this low-beamed pathetic imitation of a torch under my chin, trying to aim it at the burner while stirring a b├ęchamel sauce for the pasta. I could barely see my whisk. Adam comes to relieve me of this twisted cooking position that would have impressed a seasoned Cirque du Soleil performer. Then he started talking again, animated as always, and there went my light.

"Adam! I need the light!" I said.

Apology. Then, again, he was gone. This went on another five or six times as he needed to punctuate his conversation with hand gestures. Luckily the sauce was thickened and ready for the cheese. I removed it from the heat, pulled out my trusty rasp and started grating with abandon.

A quick salad toss, bowls on the table and dinner was served.

After the pasta was gone and the dessert was eaten (vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso on top), we talked well into the night. Still no power. Since the boys had to make an early get-away and needed an alarm clock, they decided to sleep at the main house which did have power. I opted to remain in the dark with the dogs and fell asleep to the sound of the waterfall in the big leather easy chair.
It was about 2 a.m. when the power was restored. Since I had not turned off all the lights and the CD player - the power, remember? - it was like an alien invasion had landed in my living room when it returned. I almost pole-vaulted out of that chair. Not the best way to wake from a deep sleep.

So I got up to turn off the lights but peeked in the kitchen first. It looked like a cheese bomb had gone off. Sighing, I decided to call it a night and clean up in the morning. Before I nodded off in the comfort of my bed, I thought about the evening's events and laughed.

I did learn one thing: a b├ęchamel is definitely one classic white sauce that every cook should have in his or her arsenal. Because once you master the relatively easy technique of stirring milk into a butter-flour roux, you can almost do it with your eyes closed.

Or at least in the dark with a really bad flashlight.

Pasta with Bacon and Peas
6 servings
  • 1/2 pound bacon, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 cup frozen baby peas, thawed
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup heavy cream, warmed
  • 1 cup whole milk, warmed
  • 1-1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • pinch of sugar
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Garnish: minced Italian parsley

  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil over medium-high heat, seasoned with 1 tablespoon kosher salt. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, 8 - 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove bacon and transfer to paper-towel-lined plate, reserving 1 tablespoon oil in pan.
  2. Add onion to skillet, sprinkle with salt, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and peas and cook for 1 minute more. Remove pan from heat, add bacon, cover and set aside.
  3. Cook pasta in boiling water, stirring occasionally until al dente, 8 - 10 minutes. Reserve about 1/3 cup pasta water; drain pasta and return to pot. Drizzle pasta with extra-virgin olive oil. Add onion and bacon mixture and cover while making sauce.
  4. Melt butter in a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat. Whisk in flour and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Slowly add in cream and milk, stirring constantly until smooth. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 8-10 minutes. Remove pan from heat, add cheese and season with nutmeg, sugar, salt and pepper.
  5. Pour sauce over pasta, tossing with tongs to combine, adding some reserved pasta water a little at a time to coat and achieve desired consistency. Serve immediately, garnishing with minced parsley and extra grated cheese.
... from the Picture-Perfect kitchen:
  • Planning: For the mixed salad: season greens with salt and pepper, a light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. It's super simple and so fresh.
  • Product Purity: Buy the best Parmesan. Nothing compares to Parmigiano-Reggiano. This name stenciled on the rind insures that the cheese was produced in the areas of Bologna, Modena or Parma from which the name originated and insures you are getting the real deal.
  • Presentation: Choose shallow bowls to showcase the pasta. White if you have them. It really makes food pop. Skip the tablecloth or placemats. A rustic dinner calls for a casual table. Grate extra cheese for the table and serve it in a wooden (or terra cotta) bowl.
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