The Not-Quite-Carbonara Pasta That’s Mostly Eggs

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A funny thing about interviewing people based on recipes they’ve submitted to this website is that you never know who you’re going to be talking to. When I reached out to Rhonda Thomson, a.k.a. Rhonda35, about her recipe for Spaghetti with Fried Eggs and Pangratatto for One, I really only knew a handful of things about her.

1. She was the author of a truly extraordinary recipe that prizes the rare pleasure of eating alone, so I suspected she was a lovely person. (Was I jumping to conclusions? Maybe. Was I wrong? Read on to find out.)

2. Her recipe headnote and instructions (including the bit about pouring yourself a glass of wine at the end) were written with a capable humanity, so I guessed she had quite a bit of experience in a home kitchen.

3. Her husband was in the Air Force when she developed this recipe, and she has a sister named Amanda.

After speaking with Rhonda at 11:00 at night—she’s a night owl—I learned that I was correct about my first assumption. Rhonda is lovely; so lovely, in fact, that even though she was thousands of miles away in Colorado, I felt as if we were in the same room. She was funny and articulate, and before I knew it, I found myself talking about my grandmother and what I’d made for dinner that night (a cauliflower curry from Meera Sodha, if you must know), as though we were old pals.

I was also correct about my second assumption: She has experience cooking. “We have a long line of good cooks in our family,” she told me.

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My grandmother, who’s 101, lived through the Great Depression, and I have a lot of memories of her looking around the house and saying, ‘I have this much bread and this much milk and an egg and a tomato…okay, I can serve 8 people.’ She had a real kind of creativeness with what’s available, and we inherited that.

When her sister Amanda was living in France and writing a cookbook, she turned to Rhonda to help her test the recipes. “I’d get these airmailed manila packets full of these recipes that she’d typed out, and I’d test the recipes,” she said. “Aside from the experience of helping someone that I really cared about and doing what I could for her, it was the first time I ever cooked all the way through a cookbook…and boy did I become a better cook.” She learned new techniques—both in cooking and recipe writing—and after the project with her sister, she went on to help with special projects for the National Chicken Council.

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Rhonda lived with her husband in England while he was deployed in the Air Force; that’s when the inspiration for this recipe struck. “I was eating it a lot because it was really comforting,” she told me. “I was missing my husband and worried about him because he was at war…well, it wasn’t called a war, it was called a conflict, but he was being shot at.” She was emailing her sister about this dish she was making and tweaking and loving, this pasta with soft bits of egg and crispy, seasoned breadcrumbs. “Amanda called me one night and I was totally being rude, eating while talking to her. She goes, ‘Rhonda, are you eating that spaghetti again? You’ve had that every night for 2 weeks; you’re going to have a coronary!’” Rhonda laughed. What could her sister possibly know? Was Amanda some sort of cooking expert? Some kind of recipe authority? Had she authored numerous cookbooks or co-founded a website like, say, Food52? Yes. I had walked into a conversation about cooking with Amanda Hesser’s sister. But Rhonda (and her recipe) are so much more than that.

Sarah Whitman-Salkin: You posted this recipe in 2010. When was the last time you made this dish?

Rhonda Thomson: 2010? Wow! At that point, I’d been making it for about a decade, so now I’m feeling a little old. The last time I made it was about three weeks ago. My husband and son, both bolognese fans, do not crave this pasta dish as much as I do, so I tend to make it when I am eating alone, just as I did back in the late 90s. Before that, the last time I made this was in the Food52 kitchen in the fall of 2016. I was visiting my sister at the Food52 office and she casually mentioned we were going to cook my recipe and make a Facebook Live video. I was a bit panicked, definitely fiddled with the breadcrumbs too much, and have no idea if the viewers learned anything new or not. I hope they did. I know I learned something very important: When it comes to the internet, never read the comments!

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SWS: In the headnote, you mention that you tweaked Arthur Schwartz’s recipe to fit your own tastes. What were some of the tweaks you made?

RT: It’s been close to 20 years, so I had to pull Naples at Table off the shelf to refresh my memory. The page was marked with a 5000 lire note, which made me feel semi-cosmopolitan for a moment. My version uses less fat, more garlic, and has the additions of Italian parsley and capers. Also, Schwartz’s recipe doesn’t use any pangrattato. It’s perfect as a finish for roasted fish or vegetables, too.

SWS: What changes have you continued to make to this recipe over the years?

RT: Sometimes I change up the herbs in the pangrattato, add some crisped pancetta, or substitute minced preserved lemon rind for the capers. It really depends on what I have on hand.

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SWS: Lots of commenters mentioned adding in all sorts of other ingredients, from golden raisins to walnuts to greens to anchovies. Have you ever tried any of these variations?

RT: Yes, there have been so many great suggestions! I love Hilarybee’s idea to add greens—so good!—and I especially like adding anchovy paste along with the garlic when I’m using greens. I’ve also tried golden raisins and crushed red pepper flakes and I like the contrast between the sweet and the heat. I have not tried adding walnuts, but I do like that idea and really need to give it a go. And I have to give a shout-out to Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen who features her version of the recipe in her latest book, Smitten Kitchen Every Day. She adds heat to the pangratatto with red pepper flakes and crisps the eggs, serving them on top of each portion instead of mixing them into the pasta. They seem like such small changes, but they solidly make it her own.

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SWS: Your recipe is for a single serving. Have you ever made it for a crowd? Does that change the preparation method at all?

RT: I have not made it for a crowd. Four people has been my max. It gets to be a lot of eggs. I use two frying pans and, for me, it transforms from an easy, no-thought-needed recipe to a precarious balancing act as I try to fry all those eggs without under- or over-cooking them. Someone else might find it easy to increase the servings for this recipe, but it just throws off my rhythm.

SWS: What about this dish is most comforting to you? What’s your favorite element of the dish?

RT: Oh, it’s 100% the eggs! Eggs are the ultimate comfort food for me and a healthy egg-laying chicken would be one of my “desert island” must-haves. What I especially love about this recipe is how it takes simple pantry ingredients and transforms them into something special enough to share with others.

SWS: Any tips for someone making this for the first time?

RT: Make the pangratatto first. In fact, make it ahead of time and store it in your fridge because you are going to want to sprinkle it over many things. Put a bowl or measuring cup under your colander in case you forget to save some of the pasta water (something I have been known to do more than once). Have your frying pan ready to go, but don’t start cooking the eggs until about halfway through the pasta cooking time. And, most importantly, pour yourself a glass of wine, put on your favorite tunes, and relax—delicious as the final result may be, it’s really just eggs and spaghetti, so chill.

What’s your go-to recipe for one? Let us know in the comments!

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