Despite what many people think, watching shows about cooking, even great shows about famous chefs, isn’t the same as cooking or knowing how to cook. Early this year, up in Philadelphia, my husband and I stood outside the Ritz-Carlton chatting with one of the valets while waiting for our car. He told us about watching the cooking shows – Top Chef, The Great Food Truck Race – and laughed that he used to tell Chef Jennifer Carroll, then-just departed chef de cuisine of 10 Arts and onetime Top Chef competitor, that he felt like almost a pro himself after watching the shows, that it was practically the same. “No, it isn’t,” I replied. “That’s exactly what Jen used to say,” he told me, getting my door.
It’s true. You can’t learn to cook just by watching TV, and even our Ritz-Carlton valet conceded that he mostly had heard of things like shiso but had no idea how they tasted, and knew that risotto is supposed to be runny, not stiff, but couldn’t make it himself. Top Chef is great, but you can’t learn to cook by watching it. If you choose the right show, though, you can actually learn some useful things from TV, like how it looks to dice an onion like a pro, or sear a piece of meat, or make a sugar cage. In case you haven’t had the pleasure, the Great Chefs television series back in the 80s and 90s on PBS featured chefs in their restaurant kitchens, cooking at their stations as though they were talking you through the dish just before service. There was no faux-home kitchen, no excruciating banter, no mugging for the camera, no corny catch-phrases. No BAM, just great technique and superb cooking. They did have some appallingly and catchy theme tunes – “Great chefs, great cities, great food – lovingly prepared by the best” – and the most important chefs in America at the time, both established and up-and-coming. I never missed an episode if I could help it. This was the age of the VCR, and I taped episodes to watch after work, rewinding to watch a chef brunoise a carrot, peel and concasse a tomato, mount butter into a sauce, sear a pork chop before finishing in the oven, and then trying the same from my outdated Minneapolis kitchen.
The enduring lesson of Great Chefs is that fundamentals are essential to good cooking. You can’t adapt a classic dish to personalize it, or make it modern in a way that makes sense, without good technique. Any one of the chefs featured on the series could peel and turn a bushel of turnips in the time it takes most people to dice a five pound bag of potatoes. I don’t golf – never took to it – but in cooking, as in golf, practice pays off. Once you know what you’re doing, you can turn to old favorites and give them your own flair.
Linguine, “guanciale” belly, fried poached egg
I learned about New Orleans by watching Great Chefs long before I ever had the opportunity to visit the city. PBS was a superb tour guide, taking viewers through the kitchens at Commander’s, Brennan’s, La Provence, and the other temples to gastronomy of the day. Years later, in the early 2000s, I traveled regularly to New Orleans on business and dined at the likes of Acme and Herbsaint, Central Grocery and Bayona, banh mí joints in the afternoon, August or Cochon at night. This last September, I took my husband for his first visit, during an engagement to speak at a seminar on food and the law hosted by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
On our last night in the city, we dined at my favorite NOLA restaurant, Herbsaint. The same dish drew both his eyes and mine: “Housemade spaghetti with guanciale and fried poached egg.” We surmised this was an adaptation of spaghetti alla carbonara, and although that was clearly its inspiration, the kitchen had taken it a few steps further. The most interesting quality of the dish, to me, was that it tasted a little like sour cream and chive potato chips – in a good way – but it also seemed that the eggs are coated in ordinary breadcrumbs, not, say, potato chip dust. It seemed to me that the pasta sauce might not be the simple egg and cheese mixture of the classic carbonara, but a cream sauce incorporating garlic, which combined with the fried egg for the chive/chip taste.
I generally don’t like to imitate restaurant dishes, but this one was too good to pass up. When we returned home, I cured some pork belly in the manner of guanciale since I didn’t want to wait to order pork jowls. After about a week of curing, I fried the belly into small crisp cubes, made a simple garlic parmesan cream, and poached a few eggs before coating in panko and frying. We don’t have a pasta extruder, essential for producing housemade durum wheat pasta, and frankly homemade dried pasta usually isn’t as good as the kind you buy in the store, so I just used regular bronze die-extruded linguine from Montebello. The resulting dish is creamy, salty, crisp, and savory, reminiscent of the classic carbonara, but adapted to a modern palate.
With the exception of the pork-curing step, you can execute this dish from start to finish in the time it takes to bring the water to a boil and cook the pasta – in other words, about 25 minutes. To be on the safe side, if you are not accustomed to handling poached eggs, I recommend you make a few extra in case you overcook, or the egg falls apart, or you inadvertently break the yolk while breading or removing from the frying oil. All are possibilities. Eat the mistakes on toast or atop grits, with cheese.
1 c heavy cream
12 cloves garlic
1 egg yolk
1 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and black pepper
4 oz guanciale or unsmoked bacon
12 oz dried linguine
1/2 c AP flour
1 egg, beaten with 1 tbsp water
1 c panko
black truffle salt
Combine the cream, peeled garlic cloves, and cheese in a saucepot and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 minutes and then transfer to a vitaprep or blender. Blitz until smooth, adding the egg yolk halfway through (if using a lower powered blender, push through a chinois). Set aside.
Cut the guanciale, bacon, or what have you into batons. Fry in a hot pan until crisp and golden; drain and set aside the crisped batons. [Note: a recipe for guanciale follows]
Poach the eggs in simmering water. Remove carefully with a slotted/perf spoon and slip into an ice water bath. Prepare a clean kitchen towel.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add your pasta. Meanwhile, pour oil about 1″ deep in a small shallow pan, and bring to 350F. Set up a three part breading station. As your pasta cooks, dry the eggs on the clean towel and then bread the eggs (use your hands, not a spoon or tongs as they will be delicate). Fry on both sides. This step only takes a minute or so. Drain on paper towels set over a rack.
Retherm the garlic parmesan cream and drain the pasta. Toss the pasta and reserved guanciale batons in the cream, season with truffle salt, divide among four plates, and top each with minced chive and the fried poached egg.
Pork belly in the style of guanciale
Pork jowl can be hard to find, although a good butcher can get it to you. Rather than go out of your way, try curing pork belly in the manner of guanciale. Although the result will be fattier and less meaty, you can substitute it for guanciale in recipes that call for it, like carbonara, or amatriciana. Not traditional, but close enough.
This is a relatively quick and low-maintenance process that does not involve a subsequent air-drying process.
2 lb pork belly, skin removed
100g kosher salt
50g granulated sugar
5g TCM/pink salt
5g juniper berries
15g black peppercorn
8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
6 branches thyme
Crack the juniper and peppercorns coarsely. Combine the dry ingredients. Coat the belly well in the cure.
Place the coated belly in a plastic sealing bag with the crushed garlic and thyme, double bag (to avoid leakage), and refrigerate for about 7-10 days. Turn the bag over once a day to distribute the cure and the expelled liquid.
Remove from the cure and rinse. At this point you may firm up the belly by placing on a rack in a 180F oven for about 2 hours, or simply refrigerate or freeze for immediate use. If refrigerated, use or freeze within a week.