Cookbook #18: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Adapted from Cookbook #18:  The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (2002)

Recipe:  Pasta alla Carbonara

Oh Judy Rodgers, how I love thee, thy restaurant, thy straightforward cooking, thy sense of humor, and thy cookbook.  I have been waiting to cook from thy book since January, but I waited, waited as I should, for just the right English Peas from the Berkeley Bowl.  There they were, and, well, here I am. 

The Zuni Cafe is perfect:  bar and mezzanine are a corner shop, and you can sidle up to the floor to ceiling windows to sit on the benches, or you can make your way to the back to sit near the wood-burning oven or the oyster bar.  Upstairs, the tables are snuck into coveys and coves, and you sometimes feel as if you're the only ones in the restaurant, even at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.   The Zuni Cafe has a long history with the husband and me.  He spent his 21st birthday here having dinner with his father before tottering down the steep stairs and then out into the night to celebrate with his friends.  This was the very first restaurant the husband took me to in San Francisco back in 2000 where I had anchovies with celery for the most divine appetizer, the roast chicken with the bread salad (that we replicate at home when we mean to impress), and I had simple mountain Gorgonzola drizzled with lavender honey and a glass of Bonny Doon's vin de glaciere*.  I had no idea cheese, honey, and wine could be so perfect.  We have been here for family birthdays, Sunday afternoon hamburgers, rainy afternoon shoestring fries, weekend cocktails at the copper bar, out-of-town-guest oysters and martinis, pre-theater dinners, and post-beach Caesar salads.

And when I turned 30, the husband gave me this cookbook.

So it is with pleasure, I turn to page 210 with Judy Rodgers and her amazing cafe cookbook.  Behold the Pasta alla Carbonara.  The word "carbonara" means "coal-worker" or "coal-seller," and some say that this was a dish eaten by coal workers or that the black pepper resembled coal flakes.  But this recipe was not included in Italian cookbooks prior to World War II.   When the husband and I were in Italy with his family back in 2003, we heard a story that this pasta was created for American troops in Italy during the second world war.  Americans liked their eggs and bacon, and this was the way to satisfy them.  But others have suggested that the food shortages in Rome post 1944 forced Romans to get creative with their Allied rations of powdered eggs and bacon.  In the end, American, Italian, coal-worker or just plain black pepper, this little pasta recipe is fantastic, and Judy Rodgers does it just right.  She suggests serving it with Malbec.  I suggest just making the pasta right now.

*Seriously, click the Bonny Doon website link.  While I cannot find the vin de glaciere there anymore, their website is downright amazing.
4-5 servings

7 ounces bacon or 5 ounces guanciale cut into 1/4 to 1/2 inch segments
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup ricotta cheese (I used part skim), at room temperature
1/2 pound penne, spaghetti, or bucatini
1 1/4 cup shucked sweet English peas
2 ounces pecorino romano or pecorino sardo, grated
Lots of fresh black pepper

1.  Warm the bacon in olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over low heat.  It should gradually render a little fat, which will mix with the oil.

2.  Lightly beat the eggs with the ricotta.

3.  Drop the pasta into 6 quarts rapidly boiling water seasoned with scant 2 tablespoons salt (a little more if using kosher salt).  Stir, and cook until al dente.

4.  When the pasta is about a minute from being al dente, add the peas to the water and raise the heat under the bacon.  Cook the bacon until it is just crispy on the edges but still tender in the middle.  Turn off the heat under the bacon.

5.  Drain the pasta, shake off the excess water, and slide the pasta and peas into the pan of bacon.  Immediately pour the beaten eggs all over the steaming pasta, add most of the pecorino and lots of cracked black pepper.  Fold to combine, working quickly so that the heat of the noodles, bacon, and bacon fat slightly cooks the eggs.  The eggs and ricotta will coat the pasta and form tiny, soft, golden curds.  (If you prefer the eggs cooked further, return the pan to low hear, but use a nonstick pan, or the eggs and pasta will stick to the pan and to each other, becoming a big glob of pasta).

6.  Serve in warm bowls with the remaining pecorino and black pepper.


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