By Walter Sanders
I caught the tail-end of a Ruth Reichl interview on NPR the other day. Ruth, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, is getting a ton of air time in the wake of that iconic publication’s demise and her new cookbook.
She was asked about her favorite, go-to, family, comfort food, a meal she enjoys making and eating at home. She answered quickly, decisively: “Spaghetti carbonara.” Then she rattled off her recipe, threw in some technique details, and convinced me that she was practicing what she was preaching.
I’ve met people whose love for Italian food could be traced to their first encounter with an authentic carbonara. But I haven’t met many whose career was shaped by its defining ingredient and flavor – pancetta – cured pork belly.
Warren Stephens is chef and a business partner with Butcher and Calcasieu, two enterprises of the wildly successful Link Restaurant Group of New Orleans. He had his pancetta moment in Tuscany. Stephens, born and raised in North Carolina, always felt drawn to food. But when he visited a friend living in Tuscany, and tasted his first carbonara, he became fascinated by the alluring flavor of pancetta. “I bought hunks of it, and experimented with cutting, cooking, and tasting it. That led to me to exploring more about pork products, and eventually returning to the U.S. to make and sell my own cured meats.”
Located just around the corner from sister-restaurant Cochon (where I lunched on panéed pork cheeks with onion gravy, figs and goat cheese), Butcher is a pretty much a pork deli with a bar, featuring a range of salumi, soups, cheeses and libations which complement the hearty fare.
Stephens gave me a quick tour of the establishment. He took special glee in showing me his curing room which he created by co-opting office space. “My partners weren’t too pleased with smaller offices, but we all benefit from great sausage!”
Pancetta is salted and lightly spiced pork belly that is typically rolled like a sausage instead of remaining in a slab like American bacon. Pancetta is sometimes smoked, especially in the northern Alpine regions of Italy but is usually simply cured. Slowly cooking the pancetta to render its fat is essential to the unctuous quality of the egg sauce for the carbonara. Here is Sharon’s version of the famous pancetta dish Spaghetti alla Carbonara.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
4 ounces thick-cut pancetta
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 pound dried spaghetti
1 tablespoon salt
4 large eggs
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 cup shredded Swiss Gruyére cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Set a covered large pot of water over high heat.
Place the pancetta on a cutting board. Cut into thin strips and then cut strips into small pieces. Scatter the pancetta in a large cold sauté pan with a splash of olive oil. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes, or until fat is rendered. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate. Reduce the heat to low. Add the garlic; stir to mix with the drippings. Cook about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Turn off the heat.
When the water boils, add the spaghetti and salt. Stir. Cover and return to the boil. Uncover and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
Meanwhile, with a fork, beat the eggs in a bowl while gradually adding 1 cup of water from the pot. Reserve an additional 1 cup of the cooking water.
Drain the spaghetti. Add to the sauté pan. Add the egg mixture. Cook over medium-low heat, tossing constantly, about 2 minutes, or until a creamy sauce coats the spaghetti. Do not allow to boil. Remove from the heat. Add the Parmesan and Gruyére; toss to melt. Add some of the reserved water, if needed, to loosen the sauce. Season to taste with pepper. Sprinkle each serving with the reserved pancetta.
Serves 8 as a primo (first course)
The Gruyére may be replaced with young Tuscan Pecorino or Spanish Manchego cheese.