Spaghetti alla carbonara with asparagus & lamb bacon
"Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor."
-- Truman Capote
Fear of failure.
It is the hidden poison in the cook's psychological pantry. Like salt, mistaken for sugar, that takes a cake from delicious to disastrous, or high humidity that can leave graceful macarons flat-footed, the tiniest pinch of trepidation can ruin a perfectly fine recipe. Whereas confidence and fearlessness heighten the joy of cooking, fear of failure weighs it down like an anchor on a balloon. I should know.
When it comes to cooking, I showed enough promise in my early teen years that my mother entrusted some of the family dinner preparation to me. With only her rudimentary instructions and the natural confidence of youth, I quickly established my specialties: flavorful baked chicken, super-creamy scalloped potatoes and my crowning glory, spaghetti alla carbonara. I don't recall if it was Mama who showed me how to make this simple rich pasta, but it was my favorite recipe to show off my nascent culinary skills. Unfortunately, it was also the dish which taught me that self-confidence in cookery is as fragile as an eggshell; it is a lesson indelibly recorded in my memory.
The scene: a small apartment kitchen - daytime.
The players: Four giggly teen girls, preparing a 'fancy' lunch for themselves, each busy with her own preparation but all the while chatting away. Girl TN is confident friends will be so impressed by her spaghetti alla carbonara.
The action: Girl TN neglects rule #1 of boiling pasta and dumps noodles into pot of cold water. Then she neglects rule #2 of boiling pasta and doesn't stir on occasion. Noodles settle to bottom, stick to each and burn. Girl TN attempts to salvage disaster but it is hopeless. Deeply embarrassed, she serves sticky noodles permeated with essence of char that no amount of bacon or parmesan cheese can mask. Cooking confidence crushed, Girl TN never makes spaghetti alla carbonara again.
Battered and Deep-fried Pride
Next to plain buttered noodles, carbonara is perhaps the most simple pasta dish to make, yet I managed to screw up - in front of my peers, no less, whose opinions mattered most at that age. It didn't occur to me that this failure would make me doubt my aptitude in the kitchen for years and how that loss of confidence consequently affected my attitude toward new cooking experiences. But according to psychologist and author Jonathon Brown, my battered pride would set the stage for a timid approach to future culinary challenges. In a 1995 study on self-esteem and its effects on perceptions of failure and success, Brown observed that persons with low self-esteem (LSE) were much more negatively impacted by failure, leading them to become more cautious, risk averse and critical of their own competence (Psychology n.p.).
"Failure hurts LSE people more than HSE [high self-esteem] people . . . They may become more concerned with protecting the self from the pain of failure rather than risking success . . . Doubting their ability to successfully execute self-aggrandizing interpersonal behaviors [they] assume a public posture of modesty and conservatism." (Brown, 720)(Image from www2.wabash.edu)
Then I read a post by Mardi of Eat.Live.Travel.Write, in which she recounted her recent travails with macaron-making. Involving five batches, three recipes and a tower of Tupperware filled with failed attempts, Mardi's two-week ordeal finally culminated in pretty pastel-hued confections. But it was her perseverance, not these sweet little rounds, that held my admiration. Where I would have likely cut my losses after the first fail, she continued to try - tweaking a step here, changing the technique there - until she found success. For Mardi, each shortfall was an opportunity to learn; more importantly, a failed mac was just a flattened bit of meringue, not a metaphor for competence.
Cooking Up Confidence
So enough of the self-pity and the tremulousness: I once made crappy carbonara and now it's time to get over it. I refuse to be a LSE person, just two letters short of being a 'loser'. As a first step in rehabilitating my self-esteem, I made spaghetti alla carbonara for the first time in nearly twenty-two years - and it wasn't terrible.
In fact, it was so not terrible that I decided to make it my very first submission to Beet 'n' Squash You, the monthly cooking challenge hosted by two incredible food bloggers - Mel of GourmetFury and Leela of SheSimmers. The entries to their battles have been nothing short of phenomenal, so I'm not sure how mine will stand against others.
But as Julia Child once said, "The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you've got to have a 'What the hell!' attitude."
"Help, I've Failed and I Can't Get Up!" Psychology Today website. Sept. 1, 1995 n.p.
Brown, Jonathon and Keith A. Dutton. "The Thrill of Victory, the Complexity of Defeat." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 68, no 4. 1995: 712-22.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Asparagus and Lamb Bacon
Spring is a time for renewal, so what better way to refresh one's confidence than to primp a classic dish with a little bit of printemps and enter it in this month's Battle Asparagus? Although the vegetable is the focus of the challenge, my entry is definitely an ensemble piece, as the sauce's creamy texture from whole eggs and grated cheese is countered by the tender crunch of blanched asparagus and from crispy lamb bacon. Oh, yes - lamb bacon . . . do I really need to describe it? It's lamb, it's bacon and it's divine. I procured mine from Bar 5 Meat and Poultry at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, but if you can't find any nearby, consider this simple method for home curing.
It's all about the sauce, so if you already have a favorite carbonara recipe, by all means stick to it. The asparagus and lamb bacon are really just another twist on the popular addition of green peas and smoky bacon to classic carbonara. Otherwise, here's how I prepared my dish:
8 oz spaghetti
4 oz lamb bacon, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 large eggs (2 is sufficient to coat the noodles, but use 3 if you like it a bit more 'saucy')
1/2 cup Grana Padano, grated (coarse or fine, your choice), plus more for finished plate
Salt and 1/2 tsp pepper
1 cup asparagus, blanched and cut into 1.5" pieces
Important: With the exception of the blanched asparagus, do not prepare any of the other ingredients ahead of time. Heat from just-cooked bacon and pasta help to 'cook' the raw egg sauce, so they are best utilized immediately after they are done.
2. As bacon is cooking, make spaghetti according to package direction or your preference;
3. While noodles are cooking, prepare carbonara sauce: in a large bowl (enough to hold the pasta), beat eggs very well so that yolk and whites are completely mixed. Add pepper.
4. Whisk 1/4 cup Grana Padano into beaten eggs and mix well, then add remainder and mix again.
5. When spaghetti is done, do not drain! Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water, then immediately add hot noodles directly from the pot to the bowl of egg mixture.
6. Toss spaghetti in the sauce, making sure all strands are well-coated. The hot noodles help to 'cook' the raw egg sauce. If sauce seems too thick or 'dry', add reserved pasta water a few tablespoons at a time until desired consistency.
7. Add lamb bacon with garlic, including as much of the rendered fat as preferred, and toss well; then add asparagus and toss to mix.
8. Let carbonara sit for a minute or two, allowing the sauce to thicken a bit, then serve. Buon appetito!
Please join us for Eating Your Words 2010 - just let your food do the talking and Andrew Zimmern may choose you as the winner of a fabulous aebleskiver pan from Aunt Else's Aebleskiver!
Deadline is Wednesday, March 31