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Carbonara, Real and Re-imagined

22 Jun

Carbonara smoked bacon garlic scapes

Growing up with an Italian background, I’ve developed a passion for the great food my relatives introduced me to throughout my childhood. Generally though, I’m not one who believes that there are rules around Italian food that must be followed at all times… with three exceptions: bruschetta is pronounced “bru-sketta,” sugar doesn’t belong in tomato sauce, and spaghetti carbonara contains no cream. Ever.

While the name carbonara is derived from the Italian for “charcoal burner,” the dish’s origins are a bit murkier. One take is that it was called carbonara simply because the pepper resembled tiny flecks of coal. Another story says carbonara was created by coal miners as a quick meal that was easily prepared at job sites. I personally like this story best – because really, what self-respecting Italian preparing for a long stretch away from home wouldn’t pack some dried pasta and cured pork products?

The beauty of carbonara lies in its simplicity. Ultimately, it’s just pasta, pancetta, eggs and pepper. Beyond that, variations are hotly debated among carbonara purists. Some insist that only spaghetti be used, while others (myself included) say any noodle is fine. Some add onions, some garlic, and others use both. While pancetta is most common, some use guanciale instead. The thing everyone seems to agree on is that if it contains cream (relatively common in restaurants), it’s not carbonara.

I usually stick to the basics when I make my carbonara, while adding onions most of the time for a bit of extra flavour. Of course, I also don’t get to make it for dinner very often – its simplicity means carbonara lacks the protein, vegetables and nutrients that Jenny hopes for in a pasta dish. So as much as I get worked up about “real” carbonara, I’m usually trying to find ways to jazz it up and add a bit of nutritional value so my wife will let me make it. Once in a while I’ll add shrimp, or throw in something green and leafy.

eggs smoked bacon garlic scapes

My carbonara craving last night happened to coincide with a visit to the Brickworks Farmers Market this past weekend, which led me to create a version of the dish that – while still abiding by my central rule of no cream – threw out pretty much every other basic tenet of carbonara creation. I’d picked up some great smoked bacon from a vendor at the market, so in that went in place of pancetta. I also picked up some garlic scapes, which I thought would provide a compromise solution between onions or garlic. And I also added some frozen spinach and served the sauce on spelt noodles in order to add some nutrients and fibre. Whether or not the resulting dish was “true” carbonara is perhaps a matter of debate, but it tasted great and satisfied my craving nicely.

bacon garlic scapes chopped egg

Smoked Bacon and Garlic Scape Carbonara

Smoked bacon (enough to make the dish as bacon-y as your little heart desires)
2 garlic scapes
2 eggs
Spinach (ideally a large handful of fresh, though I used frozen spinach, thawed and drained, because it’s what I had on hand)
A cup or so of freshly grated parmigiano and/or pecorino-romano cheese

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, grated cheese and several turns of fresh ground pepper. Set aside.

Dice bacon into small cubes, and dice garlic scapes.

Prepare pasta according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and sautee bacon and garlic scapes until both become translucent. Then, turn off the heat.

Before draining pasta, reserve a half cup of the cooking water. Temper the eggs by slowly pouring a few teaspoons of this water into the bowl with your beaten eggs, whisking quickly as you do.

The next couple of steps require some quick work in order to retain the heat in the pasta, which will be used to “cook” the egg:

Toss drained pasta in the pan with the bacon and garlic scapes. Transfer to a large serving bowl, then slowly pour in egg/cheese mixture, tossing the pasta to coat as you pour. The goal is to have the egg sauce heated by the pasta, but to not get so hot that it curdles like scrambled eggs.

Serve in bowls, topped with more grated cheese and fresh ground pepper.

Better With Bacon: Skillet Bacon Spread

23 Nov

Skillet Bacon Spread

It’s certainly been a while since our last installment of Better With Bacon. Far too long, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been sorely deficient in my bacon intake lately. So it’s appropriate that the bacon product featured this time around is so versatile (read: can be easily incorporated into basically any meal). Skillet Bacon Spread is essentially a bacon “jam” – spreadable, slightly sweet, and full of delicious bacon. It was created about three years ago by Josh Henderson, the man behind Skillet Street Food, a Seattle-based fleet of street food trucks. He initially created the recipe to serve as a condiment on the company’s burgers. But as bacon became fairly recognized as the delicious food group it is and the popularity of the spread grew (a mention by Martha Stewart didn’t hurt), Skillet Street Food began packaging and shipping it all over the place.

The Skillet team takes onions, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, spices, and of course bacon, cooks everything down for about six hours and then quickly purees it so it’s smooth and spreadable, but still retains a nice texture and an appearance that still allows it to be recognizable as food. (Truthfully, it looks like something you’d serve your dog, but I’m not sure you’d get a much prettier result from cooking down and pureeing these ingredients in your home kitchen).

Eaten right off the spoon, Skillet Bacon Spread definitely has the smoky flavour of bacon, which is obviously helped by the fact that there are actual chunks of cooked bacon in the  mix. While the look of the spread doesn’t immediately scream “bacon!” the fact you’re guaranteed to bite into actual pieces of bacon lets you know this is the real thing. Unfortunately, the bite from the balsamic vinegar and the slight sweet kick from the rendered onions and brown sugar overwhelm the flavour a bit. But in a grilled cheese sandwich or spread on some toasted bread and topped with a fried egg, the other flavours become muted and the bacon flavour jumps out quite a bit. I can also definitely imagine it tossed into pasta, and while the combo of onions and balsamic aren’t going to work in my ice cream maker, I think this would make a great ingredient in a savory cookie or scone.

Skillet Bacon Spread

I was first turned on to the idea of bacon jam by Toronto’s Niagara Street Cafe, which I had heard served a jammified bacon concoction in some of its brunch dishes. Unfortunately, Niagara Street Cafe stopped serving brunch before I got the chance to check it out. But my sister, who had tasted the restaurant’s bacon jam at brunch, attempted a bacon jam recipe of her own last year. While hers was delicious, the process of prepping and cooking down the ingredients seemed messy and time-consuming. One of these days when I have an abundance of time and bacon, I’m definitely going to create a bacon jam of my own. In the meantime, it’s nice to know that there’s a prepared, packaged product that just an online order away. And speaking as a bacon lover with an eye on the holidays, I can’t imagine many stocking stuffers I’d appreciate better than a jar full of bacon. If you want to order me some as a present – or even for yourself – you can do so here.

** UPDATE (Aug 2011) – Skillet Bacon Spread is now available in Toronto at Ruby Eats in Leslieville!

Better With Bacon: Maple Bacon Cupcake

4 Sep

I can’t think of a better time to run our latest installment of Better With Bacon than International Bacon Day. That’s right – bacon has its own day. And why shouldn’t it? I mean, bacon is equally delicious for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in snacks… even in desserts. Today we’re going to look at the maple bacon mancake from Toronto’s For the Love of Cake, a baked good that could pass for either breakfast or dessert.

For the Love of Cake opened in early 2010 offering custom cakes, in addition to a selection of what they call 4 Dimensional Cupcakes. These cupcakes feature cake in a variety of flavours, fillings including creams and fruit, toppings including frosting and whipped cream, and a complementary garnish (cookies, chocolate pieces, etc.) But it’s the bakery’s mancakes – cupcakes including ingredients such as beer, whiskey, kirsch and bacon – that have garnered the most attention. And of course, it was the bacon that caught my attention.

I’d visited For the Love of Cake a few times hoping to try their maple bacon cupcake, only to discover the flavour unavailable on my visit days. Since I’m never one to turn down the chance to eat baked goods, I settled for trying other flavours on those occasions. And while a couple of the cupcakes I tasted were good – the japanese ginger, for one, was delicious – I didn’t taste any that were amazing enough for me to cross town to get my fix.

Fortunately, Jenny managed to grab me one of the elusive maple bacon cupcakes recently, and it was definitely worth the wait. For the Love of Cake’s maple bacon cupcake features a batter flavoured with maple syrup and including bacon pieces, filled with blueberry preserves, and topped with maple frosting and bacon pieces. The taste is similar to eating pancakes with maple syrup, with a side of bacon – as I said, a flavour combination that would work as dessert, or with your morning coffee.

If I had one complaint about the maple bacon cupcake, it would be the same one I have of all of For the Love of Cake’s cupcakes – they’re too small. For the Love of Cake’s cupcakes are dense and flavourful, but they look more like cupcakes you might cook at home than the large-sized ones you find at most bakeries. Still, that’s a small complaint when they manage to pack so much bacon goodness into such a little package.

And The Winner Is…

3 Sep

Congratulations to Chantelle (aka ChantelleJoy), who won the tickets to the Toronto International Film Festival’s opening night screening of Score: A Hockey Musical at Roy Thomson Hall, as well as passes to the gala party at Liberty Grand that follows the screening. Turns out Chantelle is a bit of a TIFF buff, to say the least: she has plans to see more than 20 films during the festival. We’ll be sure to follow her adventures during TIFF on her blog.

Thanks to everyone who entered by commenting with recipes, liking our Facebook Page, and tweeting about the contest. This was Communal Table’s first giveaway, but we’ll definitely run more great contests in the future, so be sure to keep reading for the heads up on entering!

In other news, we know it’s been a bit quiet here over the past week or so. But we have lots of great content scheduled, including the next installments of our Italy adventure (finally!), a look at our successful foray into brisket smoking last weekend, more bacon, and a few other fun things we’re working on. Stay tuned!

Better With Bacon: Bacon Lollipops

21 Jul

Maple Bacon Lollipops

What better occasion for the second installment of Communal Table’s Better With Bacon feature than National Junk Food Day, which just happens to be today. Not that bacon could ever be considered “junk food,” of course (not here, at least!). But bacon in candy form, which we’re focusing on today, fits comfortably into the junk food category.

When I discovered Das Foods’ Manbait Maple Bacon Lollipops a while back, I was intrigued. Das Foods is a Chicago-based company started in 2006 by Katie Das to sell a selection of gourmet salts. Since then, the Das line has been expanded to include gourmet caramels topped with their fleur de sel, as well as a selection of gourmet lollipops: Salty Caramel, Ginger Lemon, Orange Pomegranate, and Maple Bacon.

I’m definitely a fan of sweet-salty combinations involving bacon, including bacon with chocolate, bacon with caramel and – as you’ll read in an upcoming Better With Bacon post – bacon with baked goods. What I’m not a fan of is artificial bacon flavouring. So imagine my joy when I ripped the wrapper off my first Maple Bacon Lollipop and saw real pieces of bacon suspended in the maple-flavoured candy. They’re tiny flecks, but they’re there.

maple bacon lollipop

But while appearances are important, the taste is what counts. And man, are these lollipops bacon-y! Das Foods lollipops are all-natural, which in this case means real bacon pieces, and real maple syrup. And it shows in the taste, which is equal parts smoky and sweet, similar to dipping a slice of really good bacon into a pool of pure maple syrup.

The downside of these being so good is that my sample stash is now gone and I’m hooked, which means I’m going to have to track some more Maple Bacon Lollipops, stat. Fortunately, Das Foods’ lollipops are distributed in Canada through Gourmet Depot. Or for those who aren’t near a retailer, products can be ordered directly from the Das Foods website (though the company tells me Canadian customers will have to provide their address by email or phone).

Better With Bacon: Bacon Bourbon Caramel Corn

10 Jun

Bacon Bourbon Caramel Corn

There’s been a rather long stretch of silence here at Communal Table. But fear not – after a well-deserved taste of La Dolce Vita in Italy, we’re back. And the good news is that we have a whole slate of exciting posts scheduled over the next couple of weeks, including looks at some of the delicious things we ate on our vacation.

First up, though, is the introduction of a new feature that I hope will be a regular occurrence here. I’m calling it Better With Bacon because it will showcase – you guessed it – some great food products made even more delicious by one of the world’s most perfect meat products.

For our first Better With Bacon, I’m reviewing a sample I received from the folks at Salted Caramel, of their Bacon Bourbon Caramel Corn. This bacon-kissed snack treat came about when Chicago chef Ginna Haravon took up a 2007 Superbowl snack challenge. The product became a hit among Haravon’s friends and family, and after a bit of tweaking, she introduced it to the bacon-loving public in 2009.

I’ve always loved caramel corn. And while I’ve never loved caramel corn anywhere near as much as I love bacon, I knew that a product combining these two great tastes with a hint of delicious alcohol had to be good. And I was right. Salted Caramel’s Bacon Bourbon Caramel Corn is very good, not overly sweet, and gets a good kick of salt and smoke from both the bourbon in the caramel and the real bacon pieces tossed with the popcorn.

I have to admit, though, that as a bacon lover I was expecting a bit more of a pronounced smokey taste in the finished product. Enter Salted Caramel’s newest creation, Smoked Pecan Bourbon Caramel Corn. I was also sent a sample of this, and was surprised to find that the smoked pecans in this had that intense flavour I found a bit lacking in the Bacon Bourbon Caramel Corn. Perhaps the Salted Caramel team will consider combining the two into a Bacon Smoked Pecan Bourbon Caramel Corn for their next product?

In any case, these two products can be ordered online, and Canadians will be pleased to know that the company has just started shipping to Canada. The next Superbowl might be months away, but it’s not too late to order a couple bags to enjoy during the upcoming World Cup.

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