Although this dish is not characterized as strictly seasonal spring, it is a good one to know because it is light, can be assembled quickly, and requires only a few ingredients found in most pantries.
What piqued my interest to revisit the dish was feedback I received from my good friend Jean who wrote me after reading my post about Pasta Primavera. She shared that she had just prepared a meal of Pasta Carbonara.
Nice! I always enjoy it, have not prepared it in a long time, and never need an excuse to make another pasta dish, so why not explore Carbonara?
Although once I began to research the dish, I discovered several approaches and an interesting history where strong opinions exist between the purists and those who have embellished the base recipe. Realizing this, it seems that I reside somewhere in between the two camps!
The foundation of the recipe, no matter what the season and tradition not withstanding, is based on ingredients you can generally find in your pantry: olive oil, eggs, bacon, dried pasta, onions, garlic, and cheese. If tradition matters little, an acceptable Carbonara can be assembled with those ingredients. Heavy cream, butter, and English peas, sometimes found in versions of the dish, are not a consideration here.
When in Rome, the purists use only fresh pasta, guanciale, egg yolks, Pecorino Romano, and black pepper. My approach would be to use pasta (dried or fresh), olive oil, garlic, onion, guanciale or pancetta, egg yolks, Pecorino Romano (and/or other), black pepper, and finely minced parsley.
The story behind the dish dates back to well before the end of World War II. The dish became popular in Rome where the locals adapted “bacon and eggs” with pasta for the GIs who liberated Italy.
One story is that Carbonara is the result of an old shepherd’s recipe based upon eggs and cheese prepared with pasta and eaten cold while attending their herds. Another version is that Carbonara evolved from a recipe prepared by woodcutters who made charcoal (carbone) used for fuel in Abruzzo, Lazio, and Umbria. Still another tale points out that Pasta alla Carbonara (coal-miners’ style) was a dish popular with coal workers—the Carbonari (charcoal men), reputed to be a secret society that contributed to the liberation of Italy. The abundant use of black pepper in the contemporary Carbonara is said to have evolved from the flecks of black coal dust accidentally finding its way onto the dish as eaten by the coal men.
Suffice it to say, the legends of Carbonara are many, with the popular use of the name itself dating back only 60 to 70 years. The exact origins are unknown, leaving openings for many versions from the traditional Roman style to other less traditional preparations.
A few quick perspectives and cooking points:
- It seems those culinary aficionados and experts knowledgable about all things Carbonara agree that the meat of choice is guanciale (nonsmoked, salt-cured pork jowl), with pancetta as a second option (nonsmoked, air-dried, salt-cured pork belly). Bacon, an American introduction, which is smoked, imparts a completely different nontraditional taste.
- The goal in the final dish is creaminess. As such, I use only egg yolks as the whites have a tendency to scramble when introduced to the heat of the pasta and the pan no matter how quickly you mix it all together before serving. This scramble results in a more granular finish to the dish.
- Spaghetti is the traditional pasta shape, but most any pasta works fine with this preparation.
- Olive oil, garlic, onion, all nonpurist ingredients, are ones that I believe add additional depth of flavor to the finished dish. The olive oil enhances the sauté. The garlic infuses flavor into the oil and is then removed prior to adding the other ingredients to the sauté. The onion adds a toasty component to the overall flavor of the finished dish.
- Pecorino Roman is the traditional cheese choice, which I find too salty. Combined with the salt from the rendered guanciale or pancetta, the final dish can be aggressively salty for some. Cutting the Pecorino Romano with Parmigiano-Reggiano (2/3 : 1/3), or simply substituting a longer-aged, drier Pecorino (Pecorino Sardo, for example) from the many imported options available, can reduce the overall salt level of the finished dish.
Pasta alla Carbonara (My Way)
1/4 pound of pasta per person (dried or fresh)
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, lightly crushed
1 medium onion, small dice
4 ounces guanciale or pancetta, small dice
4 large egg yolks, room temperature (per 1/2 pound of pasta)
2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano plus 1/3 cup Pecorino Romano
2 tablespoons minced parsley plus more grated cheese for garnish
Set a large pot of water over medium heat and slowly bring to a boil.
Add the olive oil to a large sauté pan wide enough to assemble the finished dish, and sauté the garlic over medium heat to lightly brown and infuse the oil.
Remove the garlic and add the onion. Sauté the onion until it begins to soften and lightly color. Add the guanciale or pancetta, mixing to combine with the onion and allow the fat to render and lightly crisp but not harden. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
Add the pasta to the heated water and cook al dente but not soft, perhaps a minute less than the package instructions. Set aside a cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta.
Place the sauté pan back on moderate heat, add the cooked pasta and mix to thoroughly combine with the onion and pork sauté. Immediately add the egg yolks, the cheese, and some black pepper and vigorously mix again to thoroughly combine, coating the pasta with a smooth emulsion. If the mix seems too dry, add several tablespoons of the pasta water in an effort to create a smooth, creamy sauce without any residual liquid remaining in the sauté pan.
Serve immediately in warm bowls or plates, and dust the top with additional pepper, cheese, and minced parsley. Buon appetito!
This is not a low-calorie dish, but it is a dish that everyone, even the kids and grandkids, will enjoy. So add it to your go-to recipe list.