I hope you don’t mind, but before I get to the food portion of this post I’d like to share with you something very exciting that happened to me yesterday. After 10 years of flying in a small, single-engine plane as my husband’s unofficial co-pilot (assisting with the charts/GPS, watching for other traffic and taking the yoke occasionally), I finally flew from the Captain’s seat (left side)! Of course, I was with an instructor but I can’t begin to tell you the thrill I felt to be airborne and to start something I’ve wanted to do since I was 18 years old. Thanks to my husband for lighting a fire under my bum to get the licensing process rolling by hiring an instructor for me. Equipped with my headset, we headed to the airport for my flying session. I must admit that I was both excited and nervous on the way. Never mind that I have almost 1000 hours as a passenger in a small Cessna; the idea that the upcoming session would require some responsibility on my part was daunting. I hoped to simply fly with the instructor and observe, but he had other ideas. I did so much more than I imagined. I learned to taxi the plane and guess what, this was not easy. Instead of following the straight yellow lines leading to the runway, I looked like I was following a switchback trail! Left and right, left and right. I kept wanting to use the yoke (pictured above) to direct the plane when I should have been using the rudder pedals! Jeff, my instructor, finally told me to put my hands on my lap so I’d be forced to use my feet to control the direction of the plane. Thankfully, this began to make sense after a while.
Next, takeoff! I actually got the plane off the ground myself! How completely exhilarating! The sensation is markedly different sitting as a passenger versus pulling the yoke yourself. Once airborne, Jeff, handled the radio communication with air traffic control and guided me in monitoring the panel, but I flew the plane to our destination (another airport). At 3.500-ft altitude I practiced turns, ascents, descents and airport approaches. We did three takeoffs and landings throughout the 2-hour session, enough time to feel sufficiently overwhelmed by all I had to learn. When we returned, my ever thoughtful husband had a pilot log book waiting for me so that my instructor could record my first flight hours. I beamed from ear-to-ear for the rest of the day. Well, I still am. I’m very grateful to see a dream begin to materialize after 20 years.
Now for even more good stuff. I made one of my favorite pasta dishes, Bucatini All’Amatriciana. It’s a popular tomato-based sauce that’s named after the town of Amatrice (central Italy). The dish is a study of gastronomic balance. The sweet tomatoes, spicy chili flakes, sharp/salty pecorino cheese and the full-flavored guanciale make eating this a truly satisfying experience. In Rome last year, I ate this and spaghetti carbonara with abandon. Cholesterol be, uh, darned.
Guanciale (guan-cha-leh) is a type of Italian bacon made from pork jowls (cheeks) and, in my opinion, is the star of this dish. Without it, you would essentially be enjoying an arrabiata sauce. Guanciale is a fatty piece of meat and imparts a wonderful porky goodness to a dish like this (and the carbonara I mentioned earlier). Pork cheeks are seasoned (but not smoked) and hung to cure for a few weeks. I’ve often fantasized about making my own guanciale at home (yes, I do fantasize about pork) but I’m not sure that I’d be able to pull it off. Has anyone ever tried? Typically, I get my guanciale from a local specialty store but between riding my bike, running errands and baking two desserts for a family barbecue tomorrow (Saturday), I didn’t have the time to make a special trip for just one item, as much as I would have liked to.
Instead, you’ll notice that I used bacon in place of guanciale. If you have access to the latter, I would highly recommend you give it a try. If not, our bacon is a decent substitute. Pancetta would be better; alas, I didn’t have any of that either. As for the rest of the ingredients, bucatini seems to be the pasta of choice (Pictured below. See the hollow center?) and it’s something I always try to keep in stock. Your local Safeway might not have it but a specialty store like A.G. Ferrari should. Otherwise, thick spaghetti will work just fine. The rest of the ingredients, onion, canned Italian tomatoes (or sweet fresh tomatoes) and pecorino cheese are easier to come by.
- 1 lb bucatini pasta, or thick spaghetti
- Half pound of guanciale, pancetta or bacon (unsmoked), chopped
- 1/2 – 3/4 cup onion (I used half of a large red onion), chopped
- 28 oz can of peeled Italian tomatoes
- Olive Oil
- Crushed chili flakes, a generous pinch
- Salt and pepper
- Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. 2. In a saucepan large enough to accommodate the cooked pasta, add 1 tbsp of olive oil and cook the bacon over medium heat. You want to cook the meat to render the fat but you don’t want it to be too crisp, so it’s best to watch it carefully. It took about eight minutes for me. 3. When the bacon is done, remove it from the pan and set aside. At this point, you can remove some of the fat that has rendered and leave enough to cook the onions. The fat is key to adding flavor to the sauce. I suggest that you remove 2/3 of it to start and set it aside so you can add more later if find your sauce lacks flavor. Cook the onions and chili flakes over medium heat in the remaining fat until they are translucent, about five minutes. 4. Take the whole, peeled tomatoes from the can and crush each one by hand as you add to the pan. Pour in the juice, as well. Bring this to a boil and simmer to allow the tomato flavor to concentrate a bit. The sauce will reduce a little. A few minutes into the simmer time I add the pasta to the boiling water. I like to time it so that the pasta cooks just as the sauce finishes simmering, which takes about 15 minutes, so I add the pasta at around the 7 minute mark. You can also add the bacon back to the pan at this point. Season with salt and pepper to taste but be mindful that if you use pecorino, this will add additional saltiness to the dish. 5. When the pasta’s ready, drain it and add to the sauce. Toss to coat the pasta well. Plate and sprinkle with pecorino cheese.