“Okay, I think we have a plan,” my friend Jeff said. “Why don’t you and Jenny come over on Friday at six, we’ll have a quick drink at our house, and then head out to dinner. Sound good?”
Given that Jeff and his wife, Kirsten, live in Washington, DC, which is only 20 miles from my parents’ house, and given that we’d been trying in vain to set up a dinner together for two years now, yeah, this plan sounded good. It sounded perfect.
Except Jenny and I got stuck in traffic and showed up half an hour late. And then, it was a beautiful spring night, so we sat out on the stoop at dusk and drank some wine, and that one drink turned into a couple of drinks, and Kirsten was newly pregnant with their second kid, so we heard all about the pregnancy and their plans for moving into a bigger place, and before we knew it, our quick drink had turned into a bottle of wine.* Jeff looked at his watch.
“We’d better go,” he said. “None of these places take reservations and it’s kind of late, so we might be screwed.”
We were screwed.
By the time we’d walked over to 14th Street, that much was clear. We checked a tapas place: hour to an hour and a half wait, crowd spilling into the street, no chorizo for you. We checked an extremely fun-looking oyster bar: yeah right, was basically the message. We checked another place that was so full, they suggested we put our names on the list and go to the bar next door, where they’d come find us when they had a table. We went to that bar, only to realize we were too old (and pregnant) to be hanging out in bars. Were we going to have to stand up the whole time? My back was killing me. And boy, was it dark in there! And was the music ever loud. Did the speakers have to be so big? Jeez. Isn’t that bad for your hearing? I had a sudden flash of how my dad must have felt when I dragged him to my first concert – Judas Priest, Capital Center, 1984 – and he spent the whole time, wedged between a group of biker dudes with long yellow beards, inhaling enormous clouds of second-hand weed smoke and leaning forward every few minutes to shout, ARE YOUR EARS RINGING, TOO and DO YOU THINK WE NEED TO STAY FOR THE WHOLE THING?
We lasted about five minutes. Back on the street, we huddled up to think. I felt bad for Jeff. The pressure was on. “I know,” he said. “There’s a place a few blocks down that Kirsten and I went to for our anniversary,” and when we got there, we poked our heads in and yes, thank god, we were in luck: they had a table! It was a perfectly nice restaurant, but it was also the kind of place with starched white tablecloths and those Reidel glasses that can hold like two bottles of wine, entrees that start at $30 and a kind of hushed, West Elm, serioso vibe. The maitre d grabbed four menus and started to lead us to our table.
“Do we want to do this,” Jeff said, verbalizing what we were all secretly thinking, “or do we wanna just go back to the house and cook in? We can make some pasta and drink wine and hang out.”
The man was speaking our language. “Let’s go home,” we all said.
And so we did. We walked home, cut the babysitter loose, and cranked up some music. As always, we all ended up in the little kitchen, watching as Jeff made his moves behind the stove, and their two-year-old, Billie, slept soundly upstairs. He grabbed some Pecorino and bacon and eggs and whipped up a Carbonara – he’d experimented with many artery-wrecking versions over the years, but the one he made that night, and the one he liked best, was one he found on youtube and had adapted to his specifications. Instead of straight Pecorino, he did half Pecorino and half Parm. Instead of pancetta, he went with cubes of good bacon. Instead of three eggs, he used four – and we showed him how to temper the eggs before adding, which made the whole oh-God-will-they-scramble-or-will-they-not part of the meal much less stressful. Instead of dropping 250 bucks on dinner, we had something that was every bit as good for about ten bucks. It was also a hell of a lot more fun. — Andy
* Chardonnay, actually. Jeff did this to f*ck with me. He thinks it’s hilarious that I enjoy a good glass of chardonnay. He can’t get over it. Like the guy is a Navy SEAL or something. Like he owns power tools. Plus, I don’t like Chardonnay. I like French Chardonnay. Which is even worse.
Restaurant Worthy Carbonara
As simple as this recipe is, it can go to the scrambled-eggs place fast if you’re not careful. As far as we can tell, there are two important steps to take to avoid this. First, the pasta water. Adding a little of it to the eggs is called tempering, and it helps get the eggs used to the idea of heat slowly rather than all at once (which usually results in scrambling). The other crucial step is to remove the pan from the heat completely before adding the eggs. We set the skillet down on a cutting board before adding them. (Some cooks like to do the egg-tossing in the pasta’s serving dish.) If you are cooking this for guests for the first time, we recommend a dry run so you’re not in panic mode. On the other hand, even if the eggs do scramble, it will still taste delicious.
1 pound spaghetti
1 clove garlic, minced
2-3 thick slices pancetta or bacon, chopped into lardons, or cubes
3/4 cup Pecornio, shredded, plus more for serving
freshly ground pepper
Prepare spaghetti according to package directions — don’t forget to salt the water. While spaghetti cooks, fry pancetta in a large deep-sided skillet set over medium heat until crisp. Lower heat and add garlic towards the last minute of bacon-crisping. While everything is crisping, whisk your eggs in a medium bowl.
Drain pasta, reserving about a half cup of pasta water. Add spaghetti to the skillet while it’s still a little wet and, using tongs, toss with garlic and bacon fat, adding a drizzle of pasta water to keep it loose, and to prevent spaghetti from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Remove pan from heat completely. (We set the skillet down on a cutting board on the counter.)
Vigorously whisk in about a tablespoon or two of hot pasta water to your eggs — this is the tempering. Add eggs to the pasta slowly, tossing until pasta looks silky and coated, but not drippy and wet. Toss in cheese. Serve immediately with more cheese and freshly ground pepper.