From the sumptuous cover photograph of green almonds, prosciutto and white-rose nectarines to the glowing praise on the jacket back, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (W.W. Norton & Co., 2002, $35) is stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with exceptional recipes and advice.
This is a cookbook for people who love to cook. Judy Rodgers, chef and part-owner of San Francisco's popular Zuni Cafe, offers 250 sensual recipes from the restaurant's menus. Rodgers, who received an award as Best Chef: California 2000 by the James Beard Foundation, is a wonderfully engaging writer who makes all 545 pages even more inviting.
As she says in her introduction, many recipes here are "labor-of-love-intensive," and she's right. The extra effort required for chicken stock - three pages of instruction - "guarantees a depth of flavor" that makes the work worthwhile.
Although most recipes call for ingredients you may not find handy, Rodgers makes a persuasive case for cooks to seek the freshest available, "to nurture a shopping sense" that is drawn to "what is in season and of good quality."
The Zuni Cafe is a sort of upscale Joy of Cooking that can educate beginners and challenge cooks with experience. It may not be a cookbook you have the time to use every day, but Rodgers is such a likable author and such an admirable cook that you will find yourself making time to spend in her kitchen.
Pasta alla Carbonara
Makes 4 to 5 servings
5 ounces bacon (4 or 5 thick slices), cut into 1/4 -inch- to 1/2 -inch-segments)
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 large or 5 small eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese, at room temperature
1 pound spaghetti, penne or bucatini
about 3/4 cup shucked sweet English peas or mature sugar snap peas or double-peeled favas
about 2 ounces pecorino Romano or pecorino sardo, grated (1 cup lightly packed)
freshly cracked black pepper
Warm the bacon in the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet or 3-quart saute pan (see note below) over low heat. It should gradually render a little fat, which will mix with the oil.
Meanwhile, lightly beat the eggs with the ricotta.
Drop the pasta into 6 quarts rapidly boiling water seasoned with a scant 2 tablespoons salt. Stir, and cook until al dente.
When the pasta is about 1 minute from being al dente, add the peas to the water and raise the heat under the bacon. Cook the bacon until it is just crispy on the edges but still tender in the middle. Turn off the heat, slide the pan from the heat, and swirl it a few times to cool it slightly.
Drain the pasta, shake off the excess water, and slide the pasta and peas into the pan of bacon; you'll hear a discreet sizzle. Place back on the burner (the one you used to cook the bacon, which should still be quite warm). Immediately pour the beaten eggs all over the steaming pasta, add most of the pecorino and lots of cracked black pepper, and fold to combine. Work quickly so the heat of the noodles, bacon and bacon fat slightly cook the eggs. The eggs and ricotta will coat the pasta and form tiny, soft, golden curds.
Serve in warm bowls and offer the remaining pecorino and black pepper.
Note: You'll need to decide what kind of pan you're using because if you plan to return the pasta to the heat after adding the eggs, you'll need to use a nonstick pan; otherwise much of the eggs, and some of the pasta, will stick to the skillet.