Pasta alla carbonara.

I’d made pasta alla carbonara many times, using the recipe from Joy of Cooking or similar recipes that all worked primarily the same way – beat some eggs and toss the pasta in that mixture along with a little reserved pasta water, then adding the grated cheese and some cooked bacon. Even using all the right ingredients – Pecorino Romano and either pancetta or the harder-to-find guanciale – didn’t solve the basic problem of texture. No matter how quickly I moved or how carefully I managed the heat, the sauce would cook unevenly and I’d end up with some bits of sauce scrambling on the bottom of the pan.

As I tried to figure out a reason this might happen aside from user error (always a possibility in my kitchen), I had a small breakthrough while frying eggs for breakfast. The egg white cooks more or less the moment it hits the hot pan, while the cook can control the cooking of the yolk and keep it runny for quite some time. The sauce in pasta alla carbonara might have cooked too fast because I was using the wrong ratio of yolks to whites – instead of one to one, why not use more yolks and fewer whites? It turns out that it’s wrong to think of carbonara as a sauce. It’s a custard, and the texture of the finished sauce should be comparable to slightly melted gelato (itself a custard, just with a small amount of air beaten into it).

This turned out to be a one of the two major adjustments I made to the recipe while experimenting with the ratios. The other involves the pasta water. Most recipes that call for pasta water use it for its thickening power (it contains starch from the pasta itself, as well as some of the salt you added before adding the pasta), or to thin out a sauce that might otherwise be too thick. In this case, however, I decided to reserve twice as much of this water as the various recipes called for, and then used some of that to deglaze the pan in which I rendered and crisped the pancetta, imparting substantially more bacon-y flavor to the finished sauce.

Pasta alla carbonara is often served in the United States with long, thin shapes like fettuccini or spaghetti, but I prefer to go with shorter tube-shaped pastas with ridged exteriors. The tube shape allows the pasta to grab some of the smaller pieces of bacon in the sauce, and the sauce clings more easily to shapes with ridged exteriors, like penne or rigatoni. You can use whatever kind you like, of course, but I do think the shape and the sauce need to work together, and long, smooth shapes just leave too much sauce at the bottom of the bowl.

So, the summary:
* Use more yolks and fewer whole eggs
* Use real pancetta (or the similar guanciale) and Pecorino Romano
* Deglaze the bacon pan with pasta water
* Choose the right pasta shape
* Work quickly once you begin constructing the sauce in the pasta pot
* Don’t add anything else – that means no cream, no butter, no chicken, no vegetables, nothing. The sauce is the star and this is a one-man show.

And, finally, I don’t want to hear about how unhealthful this dish is. I’m not suggesting you make this every night. This is peasant food for the soul.

½ pound penne, rigatoni, or similar shape
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
¾ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
About 75 grams of pancetta or guanciale, finely chopped for rendering (this was about 3 thick slices for me)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Hardware: Pasta pot, saute pan, tempered glass measuring cup, strainer, long-handled wooden spoon or heatproof plastic tongs

1. Render the bacon in the saute pan. I prefer the method from the indispensable Ruhlman’s Twenty, in which you just barely cover the meat with water in the pan, put the lid on, and heat it on high until the water’s gone, reducing the heat as the bacon sizzles and browns. You can do this as you cook the pasta as long as the pancetta is done ahead of time. Drain and reserve the rendered fat, and reserve the meat, but do not clean the pan.
2. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, making sure to use plenty of water and salt it aggressively before adding the pasta.
3. Beat the eggs together until homogenous.
4. Here’s where things speed up.
a) When the pasta is just barely al dente, use the measuring cup to remove a cup of the pasta water. Use ¼ to ½ cup to deglaze the hot saute pan, scraping the bottom to clean it. Hold this water in the pan for now; it can simmer but don’t let it boil.
b) Drain the pasta and return it to the pot, off heat, tossing with enough of the bacon fat to just barely coat the pasta and keep it from sticking together.
c) Add the eggs to the pasta along with the deglazing liquid and stir or toss aggressively. Don’t let the sauce sit at the bottom of the pan. You want this to get warm, about 160 degrees F, but never hot.
d) Once the pasta is coated and the egg/water sauce is warm, add ½ cup of the cheese and toss. Then add the bacon, toss again, and season with freshly ground black pepper. Serve with the remaining cheese as an optional garnish.

The remaining pasta water has two purposes. One is to thin the sauce in the pot if it’s looking too thick. The other is to thin the sauce if it’s been sitting for a few minutes before anyone can get a second helping; this sauce thickens (or maybe just contracts) as it cools.

Macaroni & Cheese with Gruyère and Thyme.

Before I get to the recipe, I wanted to point out that Amazon.com is selling a one-year subscription to ESPN the Magazine for $5 this week. I believe that this will also get you a year of Insider.

One of my wife’s friends from “moms group” made this recipe for my wife and daughter, and it was a hit … but I can’t help tinkering, and since I can’t abide cheddar cheese, I decided to reboot it with Gruyère, a milder cheese that’s also one of the best melting cheeses I’ve ever used.

Gruyère also happens to be the classic cheese at the heart of a sauce mornay, and mac and cheese is little more than cooked pasta covered in a sauce mornay with extra cheese and baked till semi-firm and golden brown on down. A sauce mornay is built on a sauce Béchamel*, one of the “mother sauces” and a somewhat secret ingredient in dishes like lasagna. A Béchamel starts with a flour-butter roux to which one adds milk (the traditional method is to steep an onion studded with a bay leaf and a few cloves in the milk first) and then simmers very gently until thickened. Add Gruyère and Parmiggiano-Reggiano to a Béchamel and you have a mornay.

*So one of the Food and Wine pavilions at Epcot this year had some dish served in a Béchamel sauce, and while I was walking by, I overheard a female tourist from somewhere in the northeast yell to her family that the dish was in a “buh-KAM-el” sauce. Granted, not everyone knows what a Béchamel is or how to say it, but if you saw that word and didn’t know it, how far down the list of potential pronunciations would “buh-KAM-el” be? Twentieth? Eightieth? A hundred and twelfth?

Since Gruyère is a French and Swiss-French cheese I went for one of the Frenchiest herbs I could think of, thyme, which pairs very well with Gruyère, and added parsley for some background music. Tarragon is probably the other herb I most associate with French cooking, but it’s too assertive for this dish in my opinion, and it’s more of a spring herb than a fall/winter comfort food flavor. Chives might work. I guess what I’m saying is that you can and should play with the herbs in this dish, just bearing in mind that the cheese flavor is on the soft side and you don’t want the finished product to taste like grass or licorice.

I’ve tried the dish with and without bread crumbs in the topping and I prefer it without, but it’s just a matter of taste. I also cut the mustard (!) in half to keep it in the background; it’s also a very French flavor but not everyone likes a mustardy smack in the mouth.

Whole Foods has organic whole wheat elbows under the 365 label for $1.99. I found a Swiss Gruyère at Trader Joes for $9.99 a pound; a roughly 10-11 ounce brick should give you enough for two batches.

1 1/2 cups elbow-shaped pasta (whole wheat works fine; you can try other shapes but it may alter the cooking time in the oven)
3 T unsalted butter
3 T all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp dry mustard
2 cups milk, anything but skim
1 1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 cups (about 5 ounces) grated Gruyère cheese (nothing too fancy like “cave aged for 20 years” or anything)
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp Parmiggiano-Reggiano
salt/pepper to tastes

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a saucier (if you have one) or deep skillet or sauté pan, melt the butter and allow to foam but not brown. Add the flour and whisk constantly until a small paste forms. Add the mustard.
3. Gradually add the milk (you may choose to heat it first for faster cooking), still whisking constantly to create a smooth liquid.
4. Allow the mixture to simmer gently for 5-7 minutes until it’s visibly thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Add the herbs, then begin adding the Gruyère in small handfuls, whisking each addition into the sauce until it’s fully integrated. (If you add it all at once and whisk, you will end up with a big congealed clump in the center of your whisk – a hot mess if ever there was one.) Add 1/2 cup of the Parmiggiano-Reggiano and kill the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper (white pepper works well here for aesthetic reasons).
5. Cook the pasta in several quarts of salted water and drain. You don’t want the pasta sitting and waiting for the sauce, so I usually put a small pot of water on high heat when I start the roux.
6. Grease a casserole dish and add the pasta. Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss to coat. Spread the remaining Parmiggiano-Reggiano over the top and bake until the top is golden, brown, and delicious and the center is slightly firm, 20-25 minutes, 30 if you want to be able to cut firm, stable wedges of the dish.

UPDATE: Reader Steve asked about adding leeks and/or bacon. I haven’t tried this variation, but here’s how I’d approach it:
* Chop the bacon finely and crisp in a skillet, rendering out as much fat as possible. Remove the bacon to a paper towel, then add to the casserole right before it goes in the oven.
* Pour out all but maybe 1 Tbsp of the fat from the skillet and use that to sweat the leeks. Slightly browning them is optional but would add more flavor – just don’t burn them. Add with the bacon to the mix right before baking.

Roasted Red Pepper Pesto.

Most people associate “pesto” with basil pesto, also known as pesto Genovese, a mixture of basil, Parmiggiano-Reggiano, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil. The term “pesto” just means “smashed” or “beaten,” and can refer to any sauce made from pureed ingredients in an emulsion with oil. On my last trip to Italy nine years ago, my wife had pasta with olive pesto in a little restaurant in Assisi, and liked it so much that we went back the next night so she could have it again. My personal favorite non-basil pesto is one with roasted red peppers.

This is ridiculously easy to make if you just want to use jarred roasted red peppers, although roasting your own is easy – do it on a grill or in a 400 degree oven until the skin of the pepper is charred (not burned to ash), then let it rest in a bowl with foil covering it for ten minutes, then peel the skin off. To use them for this recipe, make sure the peppers have no seeds or rib meat remaining.

1 roasted red pepper
1 clove garlic, pressed or chopped
3 Tbsp pecorino romano cheese, grated
3-4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
pinch salt, pepper, crushed dried chili pepper (optional)

Puree the first three ingredients, then gradually add the olive oil while continuing to puree to form an emulsion. Season with salt, pepper, and red pepper as desired. Serve over pasta (with grilled chicken, if you like) or use in place of tomato sauce on pizza.

Salmon with tangerine beurre blanc.

I was asked for some advice on fish, so here goes.

Before I get to the recipe – a simple favorite of mine – some tips on buying and storing fish. You should always strive to buy fish the day you’re going to cook it, and no more than one day ahead. Buy it at a reputable store with good turnover, where the fish is stored in front of you on ice and where you don’t actually smell fish at the counter. Don’t be afraid to ask to smell a piece of fish before it’s cut or before you buy it – if fish smells fishy, it has already started to go bad. The color of farmed fish can be affected by its feed, so color isn’t a great guide for buying fish, but the flesh of the fish should look firm and not soft or mushy. When you get it home, stash it in the coldest part of your fridge – usually the bottom rack, towards the rear – and if it’s not wrapped tightly, transfer it to a sealed ziploc bag or container. I always store my wrapped fish in one of these flexible ice packs, which won’t freeze the fish but will keep it extra-cold.

When buying salmon, the tail end of the fish is not lower quality but the flesh can lose its texture more easily, and the last inch or so of the tail is useless. Tail pieces also cook more quickly because they’re thin. This recipe is designed for cuts from the center of the fish. Be sure to run a hand along the fish to check for pinbones, which can be removed with good tweezers or a pair of (CLEAN) needlenose pliers.

Salmon with Tangerine-Cilantro Beurre Blanc

6 Tbsp tangerine juice (roughly the juice of one tangerine)
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar (white balsamic worked)
1 Tbsp wine/cognac
1 small shallot, minced
2 tsp chopped fresh cilantro (or flat-leaf parsley)
4 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Salt & pepper to taste
1 lb salmon fillet, cut into individual servings (1/3 pound per serving is usually good)

Preheat the oven to 350.

1. In a saucier, combine the first four ingredients and simmer down until the liquid is almost gone. Add the cilantro and remove from the heat.
2. While the sauce is reducing, heat an ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Season the salmon’s flesh side with salt and freshly ground black pepper and sear it flesh side down in the pan in about 1 Tbsp of olive or any vegetable oil. After two to three minutes the flesh side should be nicely browned; flip it and sear two more minutes before transferring to the oven to finish cooking, about five more minutes, until the center of the fish is no longer translucent but is still paler and more shimmering than the exterior of the fish.
3. To finish the sauce, adding about 1 Tbsp at a time, whisk in the butter quickly, using the heat remaining in the pan to melt it. The goal is to create and maintain an emulsion, which will not be possible if the pan and sauce cool while you’re still mounting the butter. If the sauce becomes too cool, place it over another pan with an inch of simmering water in it to warm it slowly. Placing the saucier directly over a burner risks breaking the emulsion.
4. Season the sauce with salt/pepper and serve as soon as possible. You can keep the sauce for 10-15 minutes by sitting the pan over (but not touching) hot water.