Wednesday, July 6, 2011

For the Love of Veg

Last Thursday a major change happened in our household—we got cable internet and upgraded our cable television selection! The internet upgrade was wonderful. The pictures for my blog upload almost instantly, which was a big improvement from the 1 to 2 minutes it took with my cell phone hot spot connection. I’m in heaven!

I’m also in heaven because we now get the Cooking Channel. (I can just see Michael rolling his eyes. He just doesn’t understand my need to watch cooking shows! But then, I don’t understand his love for old western television shows—Gunsmoke, The Big Valley—so I guess we’re even.)

Jamie Oliver has always been one of my favorites, ever since his days as The Naked Chef. (No, not what you think!) I like his way of using the freshest ingredients to create a simple but delicious dish. And the fact that he is British makes him even more appealing to my anglophile heart.

The Cooking Channel is showing his series “Jamie at Home,” which I never got the chance to see when it originally ran on The Food Network. Yesterday I went to the library and found the cookbook that goes with the series; Jamie at Home: Cooking Your Way to the Good Life (Hyperion, 2007). 

The book is a delight to read, especially since I love gardening but now live in a downtown apartment with no outside space whatsoever. (Thank goodness for the Wednesday and Saturday farmer’s markets just a few blocks away.) The book is full of delicious ways to cook just about any vegetable imaginable—rhubarb, asparagus, peas, beans, tomatoes—plus recipes for game birds, meats, and fruity desserts. He also includes growing tips, a list of the vegetable varieties in his garden, and lots of beautiful photographs.

Oliver begins by talking about his "extramarital affair" with his vegetable garden. He writes, “I just like spending time with my veg. And I’ll tell you something, this has been the best cooking year of my life…Like most people these days, with a busy family life and a hectic working schedule, I began to struggle with finding a balance between the two. I seem to have evened things up a bit now, and it’s all thanks to my veg garden, believe it or not. I love spending the odd hour out there, as it really relaxes me. You might think I sound like a complete hippie now, but growing my own veg for these past few years has filled me with such pride, pleasure, and passion.”

Here is his recipe for Beautiful Zucchini Carbonara, which I also found on The Food Network’s web site—go there to check out a photo of the dish. Yum! (  Since everyone seems to grow an excess of zucchini, this is a delicious and simple way to use some of it up. Now I’m headed to to buy my own copy of the book!

Beautiful Zucchini Carbonara
From Jamie at Home: Cooking Your Way to the Good Life by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion, 2007)

Carbonara is a classic pasta sauce made with cream, bacon and Parmesan and is absolutely delicious. Try to buy the best ingredients you can, as that's what really helps to make this dish amazing. I'm using a flowering variegated variety of thyme but normal thyme is fine to use. When it comes to the type of pasta, you can serve carbonara with spaghetti or linguine, but I've been told by Italian mammas (who I don't argue with!) that penne is the original, so that's what I'm using in this recipe.

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 medium green and yellow zucchini
1 pound penne
4 large free-range or organic egg yolks
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 good handfuls freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
12 thick slices pancetta or lean bacon, cut into chunky pieces
A small bunch fresh thyme, leaves picked and chopped, flowers reserved (if you can get hold of flowering thyme)
Optional: a few zucchini flowers

Before you start cooking, it's important to get yourself a very large pan, or use a high-sided roasting pan so you can give the pasta a good toss.

Put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Halve and then quarter any larger zucchini lengthwise. Cut out and discard any fluffy middle bits, and slice the zucchini at an angle into pieces roughly the same size and shape as the penne. Smaller zucchini can simply be sliced finely. Your water will now be boiling, so add the penne to the pan and cook according to the package instructions.

To make your creamy carbonara sauce, put the egg yolks into a bowl, add the cream and half the Parmesan, and mix together with a fork. Season lightly with salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat a very large frying pan (a 14-inch is a good start - every house should have one!), add a good splash of olive oil and fry the pancetta or bacon until dark brown and crisp. Add the zucchini slices and 2 big pinches of black pepper, not just to season but to give it a bit of a kick. Sprinkle in the thyme leaves, give everything a stir, so the zucchini is coated with all the lovely bacon-flavored oil, and fry until they start to turn lightly golden and have softened slightly.

It's very important to get this next bit right or your carbonara could end up ruined. You need to work quickly. When the pasta is cooked, drain it, reserving a little of the cooking water. Immediately, toss the pasta in the pan with the zucchini, bacon and lovely flavors, then remove from the heat and add a ladleful of the reserved cooking water and your creamy sauce. Stir together quickly. (No more cooking now, otherwise you'll scramble the eggs.)

Get everyone around the table, ready to eat straightaway. While you're tossing the pasta and sauce, sprinkle in the rest of the Parmesan and a little more of the cooking water if needed, to give you a silky and shiny sauce. Taste quickly for seasoning. If you've managed to get any zucchini flowers, tear them over the top, then serve and eat immediately, as the sauce can become thick and stodgy if left too long.

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