There are very few cookbooks that I have read from cover to cover. I love reading recipes, but they are like short stories - better suited to browsing and dipping in and out, than concentrated cover to cover reading. The exception to this rule, for me, is Nigel Slater. His early books seem to be simple reprints of his columns (which I love) and even with subsequent books he kept a very chatty casual tone. His masterpiece, in my opinion, is Appetite. I took this one with me on a trip to the US and read it through like a novel on the way there and back. The recipes could actually fit easily, with lead notes, in a book a quarter the size. What makes the book good reading is the food philosophy that makes up the main filler, with chapters entitled Why Cook?, Who are you cooking for?, Measurements (and why you don't need them) and Learning to trust your own taste. It's a delight.
One of the sections came to mind recently when I was scouring the cupboards and fridge, looking for inspiration for dinner. Storecupboard - a shortlist to save your life, on page 135, gives Nigel's list of what everyone should have in his or her kitchen. He starts out stating "I feel so inadequate, such a fraud, when I read most cook's lists of essential storecupboard items. They bear little or no resemblance to what I have in my cupboards, most of them sounding more like an inventory of Harod's food hall than a list of useful things to have around." One of the many reasons I love Nigel is that his list is very nearly identical with mine: salt, pepper, garlic, lemons, olive oil, pasta, noodles, rice, olives, Parmesan, soy sauce, stock, spices, Smarties (okay, I don't have those, but I can't fault the man for including them), sauces, tomato, pancetta or ham...well, I won't list them all. I don't agree with the Marmite and tomato juice, but really otherwise we are on the same wavelength.
And in that list you'll find the ingredients for a very soothing pasta dinner: quick and filling and so very satisfying. Some will argue that this is not a true carbonara, because it doesn't include egg. Well, in my current state, I'm not allowed anything approaching raw egg so I had to compromise with extra cream. It was still delicious. And it didn't involve my having to run to the store in the rain.
My Faux Pasta Carbonara
Pasta for two, reserving about half a cup of the salted cooking water
4-6 slices of prosciutto or pancetta
50 g butter
1/3 cup cream or creme fraiche
2 cloves garlic
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
lots of freshly ground pepper
While the pasta is boiling, put half the butter in a frying pan and melt until it begins to froth. Add the garlic, finely sliced. When the butter is just starting to turn golden (and smells wonderful) add the prosciutto or pancetta, sliced in thin strips about the length of a match. Grate the Parmesan.
Once the pasta is al dente, strain about a half a cup of the cooking water into the pan with the ham and garlic and then finish draining the pasta, keeping it in the warm saucepan. Toss the pasta with the remaining butter, then add the ham/garlic/water mixture, most of the cheese and the cream. Stir quickly to coat every strand of pasta. Serve with a handful of the remaining cheese on each plate and a generous grinding of pepper. Make sure when you are dividing up the pasta that you get every last bit of cream, ham and garlic out of the corners of the saucepan and into the bowls.
If you want to be authentic, you could add eggs and/or egg yolks to the sauce and rely on the heat of the pasta to slightly cook them. For me, that will have to wait until next May.