April 3, 2006

The Power of Taste

Tonight, thanks to my brother, E and I had pasta a la carbonara con carne di cervo.

Carne di cervo (aka venison) is a delicacy that I never ate in Italy. Only as an adult have I come to realize how spoiled I was to grow up a meat-eating kid in a family of hunter/fisherpeople. Fresh venison sausage from the butcher who processed the deer that was killed, a side of beef raised by the local 4-h boy, half a pig raised by the local 4-h girl, and all varieties of fowl (pheasant, quail, turkey, ducks) and fish (tuna, trout, and salmon were the big ones) regularly graced our table. I ate very well as a child.

But, like many Americans who travel to Italy, it was in Italy that I truly learned to appreciate food. I believe carne di cervo was probably available during my most recent and longest stay in Italy, but I was poor, an unemployed dot-com bubble victim, on a trek to find herself, learn Italian, and, save money by living very cheaply. Carne di cervo didn't make the list (but Prosciutto di San Daniele did...).

In terms of saving money, I came out ahead. In 2002, it was actually cheaper to be an unemployed student/tourist in Italy and paying rent in San Francisco, as well as paying for plane flights to Europe, and European lodging, transport, and food costs, than it was to cover my bay area pared-down monthly expenses upon my return.

Of course, despite the fact that I saved money, I still ate well. That's one of the greatest things about Italy -- you can eat like royalty on $5/day. For the first two weeks of language school, I paid my $30/week to have the cook feed me two meals a day at a huge communal table. I rounded out my sustinence with trips to the bar for cappucini in the morning and $0.50 wine at night. And I was never hungry.

Then, I realized I was getting ripped off. The meals served by the school were simple combinations of easy to prepare ingredients from the local supermarket. They were inspired, mind you. But I wanted to cook like that. I wanted to practice. I was certain I could do it, and for much cheaper. So, I organized a revolt and 8 of my fellow students and I decided to exercise our option not to pay the cook. This was quite a scandal -- apparently, the school had never had to deal with this before and the $30/week was calculated upon economies of scale. With 8 of us out of the loop, we were warned, the other students may not be able to enjoy the cook. The American in me was appalled. How dare they use the others' possible hunger and inability to pay a higher price for the cook to shame us into paying for an "optional" service. But the swiss-Italian blood in me recognized it as a cultural difference that I should respect. So I smiled, apologized, and explained that I wanted to learn how to cook in the great style of Le Marche (the region where I was staying). Somehow, the cook still got paid, the other students ate, and I learned to cook simple and filling Italian dishes for 4-8 people on less than $2-$4/day.

Tonight, for the first time since Le Marche, I made pasta a la carbonara. Sure, I didn't use the leftover pork. I actually had venison/pork sausage. But otherwise, it was the same.

The power of the memories that came flooding back with the smells of the dish cooking and the first taste in my mouth were amazing. This dish will always be an embodiment of Italy to me. Never before my travels had I had it. It's peasant food. Simple. Basic. Filling. Warm. And so ridiculously delicious I can't believe I haven't made it since my return.

E made a primal grunt of happiness while eating his pasta tonight. It's the first time I've heard that noise as his wife. I'd heard it before as his fiancée, but that was at least a couple of months ago -- not all good food can elicit the cave man grunt. I get quite a ridiculous level of satisfaction from hearing that grunt. And then, for me, independent of enjoying E's enjoyment, I can't explain how happy and content I was to eat such simple and delicious food. The memories that flooded back made me smile and reminded me that I can do anything (pack up and leave the country when the job market gets tough -- just go!) and that I can live and eat well on next to nothing. It was very comforting.

So, if you're looking for some amazingly simple and hearty pasta, might I recommend the peasant favorite:

Pasta a la carbonara

1. Boil 1/2 packet spaghetti or 1/2 box Barilla semolina pasta of choice in hot water with a touch of oil and salt 'til al dente. Remove from heat and drain water. Do not rinse in cold water.

2. While pasta is boiling, chop 2 cloves garlic and place in sautee pan. Add meat and sautee lightly. (Traditionally -- use 1/2 lb chopped pork in butter and/or olive oil. Alternatively, use sausage, or just cook some fatty bacon cuttings in their own lard.) Cook through.

3. Add 2/3 cup of grated aged parmigiano, 1 can chopped chilis (4 oz), some olives (chopped in a can, pitted kalamata, whatever's available), and the cooked pasta to the meat. Toss.

4. Beat 3-4 eggs with 1/2 cup of half-and-half and a generous helping of ground black pepper (If no half-and-half, use cream or milk, whatever you've got. No liquid milk products? No problem, use more cheese in step 3. Not enough eggs? No problem. Use more milk products.)

5. When the the cheese is reasonably melted and the pasta is evenly heated, add the milk/egg mixture to the sautee pan and stir for 1 minute. Keep stirring and remove from heat when the eggs are cooked through (the sauce has taken a solid-like texture)

6. Add 1/2 cup of chopped parsely, stir in, cover for 5 minutes, and serve.

I dare you to not enjoy this dish.

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