The Pleasure Of... Carbs

On carbonara, Girl Scout cookies, and cooking in French

Cooking has always been an uncomplicated pleasure for me, a form of relaxation and solitude and creativity (and procrastination) that’s reassuringly concrete—there’s always something to show for a few hours in the kitchen, even if its evanescence is the point. But in this strange world we find ourselves in—at least those of us who are lucky and healthy and sheltering in stable homes—cooking has become a less simple and more public undertaking. All the buried things, the politics and logistics and labor and expense of feeding ourselves, are bubbling unpredictably to the surface now. I find my attention pulled between recipes that are elaborate projects and those that are easy and cheap and only use what, in theory, I have in my pantry. Worries about supply chains and the ethics of delivery and cultural appropriation in the food world chase each other around, while visions of sugarplums (or sourdough) dance in my feeds.

I’ve subscribed for a while to the New York Times’s weekly newsletter, Five Weeknight Dishes, which like everything else has become a reflection on anxiety and domesticity and the way we live now. But it’s a nice way to have someone else do the basic but sometimes exhausting work of figuring out what you might want to eat. This week I made this roasted cherry tomato penne, a very simple dish that was unexpected enough to be interesting, using a method that I would never have come up with on my own, of roasting the tomatoes in the oven under a blanket of cheese and breadcrumbs, and then stirring in cooked pasta at the end. It’s rich and summery, despite the oven, and also cheap—even though the headnote calls for the best possible version of all the ingredients, I doubt you need heirloom fancy cherry tomatoes. You’re roasting them, after all. I guess you could go to town on the cheese, but I used Parmesan from Costco and breadcrumbs from the freezer, and it was great: rich, sweet, and a little oily. I’d advise easing up on the oil and going long on tomatoes, and also subscribing to the New York Times Cooking Comments Instagram feed because… it’s wild.

Last night I made carbonara, because this is not a time for low carb anything. I’ve tried this a lot, with varying degrees of accidental scrambled eggs, so this time I worked from Claire Saffitz’s Bon Appetit recipe, halving the quantity of pasta and eggs, but otherwise resisting my usual temptation to cut corners and pinch pennies. I didn’t have guanciale but good quality, fatty bacon worked fine, and otherwise I followed it to the letter, even bothering to separate the eggs, and obeying the parts that seemed crazy, like pouring boiling water into a hot skillet of bacon fat (hissy but otherwise uneventful). And guess what, it worked. Not just worked: it was probably the best carbonara I’ve ever had, thick and silky and rich, and I wish I’d made the full amount. I really want to make it again with guanciale, and that’s rare for me, wanting to throw out my own tweaks and make it just like they said I should. And make it for everyone I know. (God, I miss having people over for dinner.) I’m late to the Claire Saffitz love-fest, but we honored her carbonara and the last of our Girl Scout cookies by watching the appropriate episode of Gourmet Makes (a series where she reverse-engineers and upgrades mass-produced treats). I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to DIY-ing Samoas and Thin Mints, but it’s nice to know I could. One could. If one needed a project. 

My other foodie pleasure this week came from these two new books, a belated Mother’s Day treat that we were able to pick up (joyfully) from a human person in the doorway of Astoria Bookshop. Most of the time I feel vaguely resentful when things feel like they’ve been cooked up in a lab specifically for me, but I choose to be defiant about these. The first sentence of Melissa Clark’s book declares that she doesn’t speak French “but I cook in French,” and I like the idea that cooking is a language, with its own levels of native and acquired fluency, vocabulary (ingredients) and grammar (techniques), and the power to communicate. I also cook in French, I think, or at least it’s the language where I feel most at home. Both these books, by writers I love, share a refreshing sort of confidence—these aren’t Americans pretending to be French, or expressing a slavish devotion to the superiority of France, but ones that understand the quirks and silliness and miscommunications of crossing cultures, while also appreciating the way that cooking and drinking are consecrated in French culture. (I’ve always sort of wanted to write a history of Anglo-American Francophilia, its strange blend of debasement and longing and contempt.)

In the meantime... My latest Paris Review “Feminize Your Canon” subject is Fanny Fern, once the best-paid columnist in America, who wrote candidly about a huge range of subjects from a perspective rooted firmly in her identity as a woman and a mother. Writing this two months postpartum gave me a fresh appreciation for what she notices about babies and children, and the importance she gives to that attention, and also inspired me to think more carefully about the notion of sentimentality. I’m mulling over the idea of a book club linked to this series. Would you be interested in an online discussion of some overlooked works by women writers? Please do reply and let me know. You can always reply with comments, by the way, and I love to hear from you!

As ever, please do share this not-a-newsletter if you like it (hit the button below) and if you’re so moved, you can buy me a coffee (or a packet of pasta). Happy cooking!

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