Phyllis Belanger Mata is an awesome cook who seems always to be feeding family and friends wonderful food. The Daily Iberian caught up with Mata, who contributes a weekly column to the newspaper, with a few questions:
DI: Tell me your cooking story. How did you learn to cook like you do? Do you like it?
PM: From as far back as I can remember it was a huge part of my life beginning with my grandmothers and mother. The aroma of a pot of spaghetti or chili waiting on the stove for us after school, or homemade bread cooling off on a window sill, and the smell of white beans simmering are memories that’ll last a lifetime. Cooking is love.
DI: What's your favorite dish to serve?
PM: That’s a hard question. There are so many from rice and gravy to something more involved like a spaghetti carbonara or a cheese souffle’. But I think I’d have to go with my Mama’s spaghetti and meatballs. It’s a basic sauce and meatballs that fills the house with the most fantastic aroma. My children say, “Smells like home.”
DI: What does your family like best?
PM: They have several requests when they come to visit but the most requested is anything that calls for a gravy, such as smothered pork or chicken, rice and gravy, and our very old recipe for macaroni & cheese before mac and cheese was a thing.
DI: Hardest recipe/skill to master?
PM: Without a doubt anything with a dough. But just recently when my children and I had our monthly digital family supper, part of the meal was homemade Naan and mine came out perfect. I was stunned and it encouraged me to keep at it.
DI: Have you taught others in your family to cook?
PM: My children were interested in food from the very beginning. They’ve surpassed me and nothing makes me happier. We’re on our second year of family meals prepared in Emily’s kitchen in Chicago, Jacques’ kitchen in Lafayette, and mine in New Iberia. Last month was Chicken Tikka Masala with Naan chosen by Jacques and next month’s dessert will be Baked Alaska chosen by Emily. We’ve also raised the bar lately with homemade pastas and breads, and a favorite of ours, homemade ricotta cheese.
DI: Is there something you will NEVER cook again? A supposed surefire recipe that just was a dud?
PM: When I was just beginning to get my feet wet in the kitchen I made a crawfish bisque. “That was the worst thing you ever made,” my brother Bo told me. I think I could’ve used that bisque to pour a driveway. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Cheese Straw Food Fight in Home-Ec at Mt. Carmel.
DI: I understand you make legendary chicken salad. Would it be possible to share the recipe with our readers, or would you have to kill me?
PM: It’s been dubbed Dr. Mata’s Wife’s Chicken Salad because when I moved back to New Iberia I was suddenly known as Dr. Mata’s Wife. It was so funny because everywhere I went people were introducing me that way until I reminded them I’m the New Iberia native so he’s Phyllis Belanger’s husband, but the name stuck and I like it. Chicken salad was one of my mother’s specialties, along with her stuffed crabs, that’s been in our family forever. I can’t give the recipe away because I have a dream that I’ll open up a little sandwich shop in Church Alley specializing in chicken salad. So yes, I’d have to kill you.
DI: Well, dern. I may pitch a tent in Church Alley and wait. Phyllis did send us her recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara, which I’ll bet will be just as good as Dr. Mata’s Wife’s Chicken Salad, especially for us pasta lovers.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4-6 ounces bacon, diced
Pinch of minced parsley and more for serving
6 egg yolks
2 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese or to your liking and more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
Onion tops for serving
1-1/4 pound spaghetti
Reserved pasta water
Heat oil and butter in a saucepan then add the pancetta and parsley; saute over medium heat to brown the pancetta well. In a bowl beat together the egg yolks, cream, and cheese. Boil your pasta in salted water. Drain the pasta well, saving some of your pasta water (See Note) Working quickly, pour the pancetta mixture, then the beaten egg yolk mixture over the pasta. Toss quickly to coat and serve immediately while still hot. Sprinkle with more grated cheese, chopped parsley, onion tops and black pepper.
Don’t over-brown your bacon.
You can also use pancetta. I prefer bacon.
The eggs will cook from the heat of the pasta. Work quickly so the eggs don’t curdle.
As for pasta, you can use bucatini or a thick pasta or penne. For me, bucatini is a bit unruly and doesn’t coat the pasta as well. My go-to is spaghetti, but not thin spaghetti.
Taste before salting.
If the mixture seems too thick add a bit of reserved pasta water to your dish until it’s the consistency you like. Remember to reserve pasta water when draining.
Serve with a crusty baguette