Pasta Carbonara

This is not diet food.  No way, no how.

It is, however, one of my family’s favorite pasta dinners, which happens to be quick and easy to make.  A win-win situation.

In the little town where I grew up in South America, there was a restaurant at the airport.  It was a family-run business, Mom and Dad in the kitchen, and the daughters waiting tables.  The menu was handwritten every day by the daughters, using multiple sheets of carbon paper and a heavy hand, 10 to 15 pastas which could be quickly put together, a few soups, salads, and everyday one or two beef, chicken and fish offerings.   Sometimes, there was Steak Pizziaolo (delicious!), and my other favorite thing he did was preserved Eggplant with oil and vinegar, one of his “salads”.  He gave me directions on how he prepared the eggplant, so, which is available here http://wp.me/p2cbJU-cT

And, my absolute most favorite pasta was his Pasta Carbonara. That was the first dish I learned to recreate very soon after I moved back to the states and learned that this was not a dish that I would be able to get in a restaurant (at that time), and would have to figure it out.  My roommates certainly enjoyed it!

The father was from southern Italy, I’m not sure if it was Sicily or Sardinia.  But, anyway, there was one thing that he added to his Carbonara that I have never seen anywhere, not in a restaurant, not in a cookbook, and not online either.  The one ingredient he added that gave it a bite by adding a crisp green bite to an otherwise very rich and heavy dish: green bell pepper.  All I’m saying is: Don’t knock it till you try it!

This is one of my favorite dishes to make because there is a element of timing in getting the bacon and bell pepper ready at the same time as the pasta is done cooking, and then mixing the two sets of hot ingredients with the eggs and cheese to make a deliciously silky sauce, without having scrambled eggs on your pasta.

Also, this is one of those dishes where I would reccommend Pecorino Romano over Parmesan.  If you have a cheese shop or a good Whole Foods, you might be able to find Pecorino Pepato, which is Pecorino studded with whole black peppercorns.  Perfect for Carbonara.  Pecorino has a distinctively different flavor that to me, is what makes the dish.

Use the freshest eggs possible, yard eggs if you know someone who has chickens. Since the eggs are not completely cooked, you might want to used pastuerized eggs.  Bacon, pancetta, or guanciale: use the best of what you can afford.  However, this is not the time to use thin bacon or maple bacon.

One other note: use pasta of your choice.  I like to use whole wheat pasta, but only the angel hair whole wheat pasta as it has the closest texture and bite of regular pasta.

Buen Provecho!

To serve 2 hungry people (or 2 adults and one child):

  • water
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 pound long pasta of your choice, angel hair, spaghetti, linguine, fettucine
  • 4 to 6 strips of bacon, cut into 1 inch pieces; or 4 to 6 ounces of pancetta or guanciale, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 of a large green bell pepper, cut into slices (like for fajitas)
  • 1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  •  1 whole egg and 3 large egg yolks (save egg whites for another use)
  • (1/4 cup heavy cream, optional)
  • freshly grated black pepper
  • additional Pecorino Romano cheese for table

*The hardest part of making this dish is timing.  You want the cooked pasta to still be steaming hot, and you don’t want the bacon and bell pepper to get soggy in the rendered fat while waiting for the pasta to cook.  Usually, by having everything in place and starting the bacon just before putting the pasta on to cook will yield good results.  Remember, the steaming hot pasta is what will actually “cook” the rich egg sauce.  I’ve tried to put everything in the order in which I prepare this dish.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Separate the egg yolks and put them into a small bowl with the whole egg.   Add the 1/3 cup of grated cheese, and top with some grated pepper.  If you want, you can add a little bit of heavy cream here.  Another way to thin out the sauce, the traditional way, is to save some of the pasta water before draining (about one cup is usually enough), and add that to the dish, a little at a time, to make the sauce thinner and glossier.  Mix the egg yolks, cheese and pepper well with a fork.

Cook pasta till al dente.

While water is heating, cook bacon, pancetta or guanciale over low heat to render fat.  How crispy to get it is a personal choice.  I like mine still soft, as the resulting sauce will make any crispy bacon soggy anyway.  If your bacon renders a LOT of fat, remove some, but leave one to two tablespoons in the skillet to stir fry the bell pepper.  Remove bacon to plate, and cook the bell pepper for a few minutes in a few tablespoons of the rendered fat (preferably, in the same pan that the bacon was cooked in).  The pasta should be almost done.  Turn the burner off the skillet with the bell peppers.

Test pasta for doneness, it should be cooked al dente (to the tooth), and save one cup of the pasta water, and then drain.   Add the bacon back to the skillet, top with the pasta, and then pour the egg/cheese mixture on top.  With a pair of tongs, or large fork and spoon, gently lift pasta strands to coat them with the sauce. (Remember the burners should be off, otherwise, you will get scrambled eggs.  Sometimes I have to remove the skillet from the burner because it is still too hot.)   Add a little bit of the pasta water to thin things out, and continue to toss the pasta.  You should see that the cheesy egg mixture is becoming a glossy glaze over the pasta.  When all is well distributed, serve, quickly!

Toss with more cheese and freshly ground black pepper.

It is probably recommended that Pasta Carbonara be served with a salad, but, in my house, this is so good that we scarf it down, and all of a sudden realize we are full.  The salad would be totally wasted.   So, have your salad at lunch instead, or have one the next day.  It’s all about balance in life, not necessarily every single meal.

Yum!

Buen Provecho!

Note: I have seen some photos online of pasta carbonara where the person has said that their cheese “seizes up”.  That is not the case.  That is the egg getting cooked.  While it is a very simple dish, it is definitely which you must pay attention to what you are doing.  It took me many tries (before I got it right and felt comfortable cooking it for friends.  Years! actually, as it is not something that is cooked very often.  Plus, every pan and every stove are different.  So, what you do on one stove with one pan, may not be the same as what you would do on a different stove with a different pan.  Have patience and you will be rewarded.

 

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