When I left the house yesterday morning the mercury was plummeting, snow was swirling thickly, and the roads were threatening to get icy. Our little ‘Spring Interlude’ had headed south. Oh, well. It was nice while it lasted. Sigh . . .
Once I got to the city, parked the car and fumbled around at the frozen machine to pay for my parking stub, stumbled and slid across the icy road while blowing on my fingers to keep them warm and finally made it inside the cozy warmth of the restaurant and kitchens for the NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) Culinary Arts Program, I was very happy to be there. The calming elegance of Ernest’s Restaurant and the welcome bustle of the teaching kitchens were my reward. I had made it into Aladdin’s cave, except the jewels in here were all emeralds – green, green and more green.
These were the vibrant springtime greens of fresh seedlings bursting with nutrition, ready to adorn plate after plate of wonderful food. Microgreens, to be exact. . . grown as an exciting new addition to NAIT’s culinary program.
Last August NAIT set up their indoor growing system and within weeks were producing all the fresh herbs and microgreens they needed to supply their kitchens and fine-dining restaurant. Kale, amaranth, sunflower, pea, and beet greens were just a few of the varieties on offer yesterday. Not only has NAIT reduced their carbon footprint by growing fresh greens mere steps from where they are consumed, they have vastly improved the flavour and nutritional quality they can offer their students and guests. Trays bursting with woolly coats of mini green shoots are always at the ready for chefs to pluck and use as ingredient or garnish in the culinary creations produced here.
Lucky me to have the opportunity to peek into NAIT’s bustling kitchens and then enjoy the grande finale of a lovely meal prepared by creative chefs and students, showcasing the bountiful microgreens harvest. Oooh, the activity in the kitchens excited me – everything from in-house cheeses being made, sausages and charcuterie curing or being smoked, huge vats, and pots and mixers being used. Fresh bagels were being slid into huge ovens, and bread was being kneaded. Foie gras was being deveined, garlic was being minced and sugar creations were being spun. It’s a magical place for a foodie to hang out in – kind of a grown-up version of Willie Wonka’s fantasy world.
And the meal – mmm mmm mmm. Each course was accented in some way with a sprinkling or a tangle of sprightly microgreens, from the starter of fresh beet and carrot juice, through the appetizer of glazed and pickled carrots with a trio of goat cheeses, the entree of seared wild salmon topped with a tangle of pea shoots, to the dessert plate which included an orange marmalade paired with kale shoots in a balsamic vinaigrette.
I left smiling and rubbing my tummy. . . . . . and arrived home inspired to use the fresh herbs growing in the big galvanized tub I hauled in from our deck last fall. They sit in a sunny window between the two red armchairs in our family room, and though they don’t receive the same loving attention as the microgreens at NAIT (my herbs are lucky if they get watered before they start gasping for a drink), they are still alive.
Last week I had made Spaghetti Carbonara, and my mind kept coming back to the creamy eggy sauce and wondering how I could replace the full flavour of bacon with something lighter. Herbs to the rescue.
We didn’t even miss the bacon. Fresh green herbs and bright lemon zest add lots of flavour and the creamy egg with a touch of zesty asiago cheese makes a rich sauce.
In 15 minutes you have a wonderful pasta dinner on the table. All it would need is a crowning garnish of bright microgreens to finish it off, but since it’s winter and I don’t have my own indoor growing system, I’ll have to settle for whatever greens I can forage from the grocery store and my bravely surviving pot of summer herbs.
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Kitchen Frau Notes: Any long pasta would work for this dish. I used gluten free spaghetti. Cook it in lightly salted water (about ½ to 1 teaspoon salt). Some sources say to cook it in water as salty as the sea, but I think that’s way too much salt.
Use whatever combination of herbs you have. I used a mixture of fresh thyme, garlic chives, oregano, rosemary and dill for the batch in the photos. It’s best to go easy on the stronger herbs like oregano and rosemary – use just a few sprigs of each. Even if you just use fresh parsley and chives or green onion tops, it still tastes wonderful. A sprinkle of dried (or fresh) tarragon mixed in, is tasty, because tarragon goes well with eggs, but it is also a strong herb that can overpower a dish if you use too much of it.
The trick with carbonara is to work quickly once you add the eggs, so that the pasta doesn’t have time to cool down, and its heat cooks the eggs enough to just ‘set’ them into a creamy sauce (but not scramble them).
I like asiago cheese here, but Parmesan or pecorino would be fine, too.
- 1 lb. (450gms) spaghetti (gluten-free if necessary)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 – 3 cloves garlic
- zest of 1 lemon (preferrably organic)
- ½ cup (120ml) chopped fresh herbs (see notes above)
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- good grinding of pepper
- 3 eggs
- ¾ cup (180ml) finely shredded asiago cheese (or parmesan), plus more for garnish
In a large pot, set the salted water over high heat, to boil for the spaghetti.
While it is heating up, prepare the ingredients: mince the garlic, zest the lemon, chop the herbs, shred the cheese, and beat the eggs in a small bowl.
Cook the pasta in the boiling water, stirring occasionally, according to the package directions, until it is just ‘al dente’, or still slightly firm in the middle. This usually takes about 7 or 8 minutes.
While the pasta is cooking, in a large heavy bottomed skillet set over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in the minced garlic and lemon zest. Cook for a couple minutes until the garlic is just starting to get golden. Don’t let it start to brown or it will get bitter.
Add the chopped fresh herbs and cook for about 1 minute, or until the herbs turn bright green. Remove the pan from the heat until the pasta is done and then set it back onto the burner for the short time you are draining the pasta, so that the skillet is hot when the pasta is added.
Remove about 1 cup of the pasta water and set it aside. Drain the pasta in a colander then dump it into the herb skillet (or just remove it from the cooking water with tongs and plunk it right into the pan with the herbs).
Take the skillet with the pasta off the burner. Pour about half of the reserved cup of hot pasta water into the beaten eggs, stirring briskly with a fork or a whisk as you pour it in, so that it warms up the eggs a bit. This is called ‘tempering’ the eggs and helps keep them from curdling as they hit the hot spaghetti.
Pour the tempered eggs over the hot spaghetti, and toss it quickly with tongs or two wooden spoons, so that each strand is coated with the glistening eggs. Add a bit more of the reserved pasta water to loosen the mixture. I find I usually have to add about another quarter cup.
Garnish with a few sprigs of herbs, and serve with extra cheese to sprinkle on top.
(In the photos above, I forgot to take my skillet off the burner for the first few seconds, so some of the eggs partially cooked and I was too lazy to make another batch for pictures. But no worries if you do the same thing – it still tastes great.)
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