When I lived in Barcelona, my Italian roommate and I would cook side-by-side. She wanted to learn how to cook gluten-free since her nephew had Celiac and I wanted to learn how to make traditional Italian food. Surprisingly, most Italian food is easily converted to gluten-free. One day, inspired by a recent acquisition of Parmigiano-Reggiano (which is fairly difficult to find in Spain) at a market, Michela wanted to treat our roommates to pasta alla carbonara.
Carbonara is the closest thing to eggs and bacon as Italians get. The basics of pasta alla carbonara are pasta, cured fatty pork, grated cheese, eggs, and black pepper. Just like my lovely Italian roommate, carbonara is straight forward and beautiful, but can be temperamental if not treated correctly. Michela worked at a restaurant in Bologna for years while putting herself through university and told me that the name refers to the carbon black color from fresh cracked black pepper. The black pepper has to be visible in order for it to be a carbonara according to her. Though the recipe sounds simple, I cannot emphasis how important mise en place is for making it well. That means having everything ready to rock and roll. Otherwise, you would risk, as my Italian friend would say, “Disastro!” This dish comes together very quickly with high reward.
While working at Fundación Alicia in Spain, one of our last duties as an intern was to make a dish that is typical of where we live — that was an intimidating task considering that two of the staff were elBulli chefs. My Italian roommate and fellow intern, Michela, wanted to do a trial run of her dish, gnocchi, at the apartment. Again, we cooked side-by-side, as I made the gluten-free version of her gnocchi.
She explained that gnocchi is a very basic ratio: 1 kilogram of potatoes to 100 grams of flour to 1 egg with a generous pinch of salt. While working at a restaurant in Bologna, she made 10 kilogram batches of gnocchi on a regular basis. (That is 22 pounds: a lot of gnocchi.) The secret to perfect gnocchi, she confided, was that half the potatoes should be starchy (russets/Idaho) and the other half waxy (red). The flour has very little impact in this recipe, and I figured that potato flour made the most sense to use since it's naturally gluten-free. It makes so much sense that I wonder why all potato gnocchi is not made with potato starch.
For her presentation, Michela made sauces in colors of the Italian flag for the gnocchi — red tomato sauce, white gorgonzola sauce, and green pesto. This presentation does make a statement for a special occasion, but I wanted to simplify the sauces to just one. Tomato sauce is so easy to make, delicious, and still makes for a special dinner. Once you try this recipe, you will never go back to jarred pasta sauce. Though gnocchi do require significant work, it is a great way to show your love for someone through good food.
This is the classic ragù of Bologna, the city where I was born and raised. It is also the ragù that coated the homemade tagliatelle my mother would make on Sundays. This ragù, however, is also terrific over rigatoni, penne, and spaghetti.
Great Italian appetizers are less about technique and more about buying the right stuff. That's actually true of all cuisine. Mortadella, also called baloney because it comes from Bologna, is a wonderful cold cut, so smooth as it slides over your tongue when you have it sliced super thin. Sometimes it has pistachios in it. Robiola cheese is, to my way of thinking, the sexiest cream cheese of all time. It's from Piemonte. When he saw me putting this together, Michael couldn't resist chiming in with, "I love this, Batali is making baloney and cream cheese sandwiches." He had a point; you could use regular old baloney instead of mortadella, and cream cheese works too. You roll 'em up with a basil leaf, cook 'em up on a grill pan. Finito!
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