A food and drink lover, with no formal training or experience in the professional kitchen realm, I try to expose myself to as much inspiration as I can. To borrow from the host of a favourite destination food show, I eat, I cook, and I am hungry for more.
So, when a trip out to a restaurant produces an urge to recreate a dish at home, there are several reasons why. Firstly, the dish is accessible, something a lowly home cook can prepare with residential equipment. Secondly, the dish left an endearing mark, which can be either positive or negative.
Take, for instance, the dish I attempted from the most recent Celebrity Chefs of Canada event at the National Arts Centre (53 Elgin Street). I thought it brilliant. In fact, I found the “elk short ribs with creamy polenta and tasty crispy bits” dish by Chefs Jason Duffy of Ottawa’s ARC Lounge and Jason Bangerter of Toronto’s Oliver & Bonacini Luma and Canteen so good I wanted to understand it better, so attempted it with beef short ribs…and a red miso and maple syrup marinade. But, more on that in a proceeding post. Essentially, I wanted to know what went into the dish’s preparation and plating. Afterward, I lost myself in wonderment, trying to figure out how the dish was cooked, held, finished, plated, and served to hundreds of people. The recipe the event attendees were issued in our program booklets makes enough for two generous plates, meant to be shared family-style.
On the flip side, sometimes I have a dining experience so jarring, I am compelled to look into a dish further. What were the chef’s intentions? Why was it served the way it was? When asked, why did the server respond, “These aren’t udon noodles?!”
“Udon noodles? Aren’t those the ones that have the hole in the middle?” she then stammered. “Maybe the kitchen couldn’t buy them in time for tonight’s service.”
Here is what I was served at Izakaya (339 Elgin Street) on opening night.
It was a surprising take, so we took our server aside and tactfully explained why my table did not enjoy the dish, hoping our thoughts would make their way to the kitchen. When we paid, we discovered the offending dish was graciously removed from our bill.
Here is my take, prepared with Chef Curtis Luk’s pasta carbonara “technique.”
For those of you following the 2012 Top Chef Canada season, Luk is the same talented chef who moves at incredible speeds on the kitchen set, warning everyone in his way, “Hot Behind!” A Markham Ontario native, he is a long time member of Chef Michael Hay’s brigade at Ottawa’s venerable Courtyard Restaurant (21 George Street). And yes, I am “Team Curtis” and somewhat unhappy his attempt at a Moroccan lamb tagine from episode four wasn’t better received.
When the roster of competing chefs was released by Food Network Canada, along with their audition segments, Luk was asked to demo some dishes on CTVOttawa’s morning show. One of them was spaghetti carbonara.
Now, I have made oriental twists on classic Italian pasta carbonara before, employing cured, but unsmoked Chinese sausage.
Claire has a treasured family recipe for pasta carbonara, one that works damn well. As per tradition, it calls for al dente pasta, a whole egg, freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, black pepper, and cured, but unsmoked guanciale.
The “lap cheung” penne carbonara was a more Roman take, aldente pasta (with scant pasta water still clinging to it), egg yolks, freshly grated pecorino romano, black pepper, and cured but unsmoked Chinese sausage. While you can source a surprising variety of guanciale in Ottawa, we simply had none in the house, so Jenn and I improvised.
For udon carbonara, I decided to keep the fusion twists to a minimum. I wanted my dish to be somewhat respectful of the pasta carbonara tradition. It must be recognizable to both contributing cultures, Japanese and Italian. But, the flavours and textures must make sense.
First, which noodles to use? Udon comes in several forms in your local Chinese/oriental market. The most recognizable is fresh, thick wheat flour noodles that are round and smooth. These, you can buy in the refrigerator case.
We even came across an organic variety of dry udon.
Dry udon is what Chef Michael Radford employs in his udon carbonara at Izakaya. Flatter and thinner than fresh or instant udon, they don’t quite address expectations when someone orders udon from a menu.
Fresh udon, however, is not quite apt for the task of carbonara either. Fresh udon should be carefully prepared so that it is cooked through, but still elastic and chewy. The fresh udon above tends to be very slippery when cooked. It is also not quite firm enough to substitute for al dente pasta.
After some experimentation, Jenn and I went with frozen udon, the individually packaged 250g blocks that are cooked from frozen in about 3 minutes. They are purchased in packs of five.
What You’ll Need:
- 250 g of frozen udon noodles
- 2 tbsp of unsalted butter
- 2-3 tbsp of finely shredded parmigiano reggiano
- one egg yolk (2 will produce more sauce…one will just coat the 250g of udon noodles)
- 1 tbsp of whipped 35% cream
- 2-3 rashers of double smoked bacon
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Crisp your bacon in an oven preheated to 350 F on a rack over a pan to catch the drippings. For us, this took 45 minutes. Usually, we crisp a large batch and reheat the rashers under the broiler.
- Break your bacon rashers up into bite-sized pieces.
- Shred your parmesan into a metal mixing bowl that can accommodate the noodles and mix it with the egg yolk. Set it aside.
- Whip your 35% cream. We whipped 1/4 cup of chilled 35% cream with a chilled balloon whisk and a chilled metal mixing bowl to stiff peaks. From it, we portioned out the required whipped cream. The leftovers were sweetened and eaten with fruit.
- Finely chop your scallions and slice your nori. Set them both aside.
- Cook your frozen udon as per the packaged instructions. For us, we heated salted water to boiling, added the brick of noodles, and cooked them for 3 minutes.
- Meanwhile, on medium-low heat, melt your butter in a pan that can accommodate the noodles.
- When the noodles reach the desired doneness, raise heat on the butter-containing pan to medium, strain the noodles (discarding the cooking liquid), and add them to the pan.
- Very gently fry the noodles to dry them. No more than 10 seconds.
- Add the hot noodles from the pan to the mixing bowl with the egg yolk and cheese.
- Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and add the whipped cream.
- Mix vigorously with chopsticks or a silicone spatula.
- Plate with the bacon, scallions, and nori.
- Serve immediately.
Creamy, rich, and smacking of savouriness (umami), you don’t have to visit an izakaya to indulge in udon carbonara.