I should warn you right off the top, this blog is really a rant…
The words we use to describe food mean something. They are precise abbreviations for often complex techniques and combinations of ingredients. There may be variations in the end result, but a marinara is not a bolognaise, braising is not stewing, and ice cream is not sorbet. We rely on a consistent use of the culinary vernacular to understand what the chef is doing back there behind the swinging door.
I really hate ordering something off the menu and receiving something completely different from the description. For example, a few years ago at an upscale golf course clubhouse, my dining companion ordered a peach crumble for dessert. She got gooey peaches covered with a soggy pie crust. It was neither buckle nor cobbler and certainly not a crumble. All this tells me that the “chef” had no idea what he was cooking… didn’t know the ingredients and didn’t know the techniques… and by my estimation he’s not a chef.
Fettuccine Alfredo is one of those dishes that has been bastardized beyond the point of recognition by far too many food manufacturers and restaurants. Butter, cream, parmigiano reggiano, salt and pepper to taste and maybe a dash of nutmeg… that’s all that should be in an Alfredo sauce. Instead, you are more likely to get a béchamel with Pecorino Romano because it’s cheap and easy. At the rink where my husband plays hockey, the pub serves pasta with an “Alfredo Carbonara.” My best guess is that they think that you need bacon but not eggs to make a Carbonara, that Alfredo just means creamy cheese sauce and that the terms are more or less interchangeable. What ever “Carbonara Alfredo” is, it’s neither of the dishes the names describe. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not expecting anything that didn’t come from a plastic bucket or the freezer when I go to the hockey rink. I just wish they wouldn’t use these words incorrectly or misleadingly. Again, I am forced to conclude that the word “chef” should not appear on this guy’s resume.
And then there are the abominations that you’ll find in the grocery store. I won’t name names but you know what I’m talking about. Just read the ingredients list:
- Milk, Cream Water, Cheese (Parmesan, Asiago), Butter, Modified Cornstarch, White Wine, Parmesan Cheese Flavour, Salt, Modified Milk Ingredients, Garlic, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Onions, Chilies, Spices, Sulphites.
I admit I buy these ready-made sauces from time to time when I’m in a rush. A little chorizo and some sautéed vegetables mixed in and you have a pretty good meal in 15 minutes. It might be convenient and even tasty but it’s NOT Alfredo.
The real deal Alfredo is both delightfully simple and sinful… so utterly rich and decadent that a small portion is plenty. I don’t make it often but when I do, I want to feel like I’ve indulged. With so few ingredients it pays to use the best you can lay your hands on. Don’t worry, you won’t need much. It takes no time to make but it won’t sit around waiting for you either. This is not a make-ahead meal. Mise en place is important for this one. Have your ingredients ready to go before you put the pasta in the water. Your sauce will be ready in the time that it takes for your pasta to cook. Remember to reserve a little pasta water to finish the sauce with. That starchy water pulls everything together. Top it off with a little freshly ground black pepper and a sprinkle of extra cheese… and maybe a sprinkling of parsley for some colour.
- 10 oz (300 g) dried fettuccine
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 2/3 cup unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
- salt and pepper to taste
- pinch of nutmeg
Cook fettuccine in salted water until al dente. Reserve 2/3 cup of pasta water.
Add pasta and cheese to skillet and toss with 1/3 cup of reserved cooking liquid. Toss together and let simmer for about a minute. The pasta will soak up some of the liquid and the sauce will thicken. Add more cooking liquid if required. Add more salt if required at the end.
Note: Be careful not to add too much salt while cooking because both the cooking liquid and the parmesan cheese are salty.
As beautiful as Alfredo is all on its own, you can use it as the base for all sorts of things. I like to add smoked salmon and green onions. A few sautéed shrimp are also a nice touch. Sometimes I like to sauté garlic and dried chili flakes in the butter before I add the cream. And tossing the pasta and sauce with some barely-wilted spinach with sautéed mushrooms, garlic and shallots is really great too. Last night I served my Alfredo straight up with a piece of Salmon and some asparagus on the side. What can I say but, mmmmm.
I hope you enjoy Fettuccine Alfredo as much as I do. But remember the next time you’re served pasta with some flour laden, cornstarch thickened cheese sauce, it’s not Alfredo, not matter what the menu says.