Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pasta alla Carbonara

My good neighbors, you all know how much I love pork. I make my own pancetta, love the taste of slow cooked brined pork, and have been known to make thirty pound batches of sausage.

Carbonara is one of my favorite dishes.  It's simple, tasty, filling, and is a great way to come off looking like a great cook even if you don't think you know what you're doing. (Seriously, it's not that hard!) A quick trip to a local farmer's market and you can probably obtain most of the ingredients from local producers. Even better!

I've often talked about taking chances.  If you're usually a hesitant cook -- sticking to box mixes and two step recipes because you're afraid you'll screw it up -- I challenge you to give this recipe a try. Those of you out there who might be intimidated: I know you can do it and I think deep down inside you know you can, too!

Carbonara has become sort of a generic term for a certain type of pasta dish that includes pancetta (or guanciale, if you can find it), egg, and cheese. If you order this in a restaurant there's a good chance they've added cream to make a sauce, but I think it tastes best when made without cream. It's hard to say what the "true" traditional recipe is; I get the feeling if you asked 50 people how to make carbonara you would end up with 50 different recipes. 

  • 1 lb pasta (spaghetti works best)
  • 4-6 oz. pancetta, diced
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup grated cheese (divided into two 1/2 cup portions)
  • handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
Start boiling your pasta. For my more timid neighbors, this shouldn't be intimidating. Bring about two quarts of water with a generous pinch of salt to a boil. Add in your pasta, mix it up to make sure it doesn't clump, and let it go. We'll come back to the pasta in a moment.

While the water is starting to boil, dice your pancetta.  I strongly, strongly recommend getting a good pancetta tesa. This type of pancetta is sold straight and is coated with herbs before drying.  The coating is called a concia and could be any mixture of herbs.  Typically you'll find black pepper, crushed red pepper, and maybe some bay leaf.  I've been making my own and have tried a variety of different mixtures.  By using a pancetta that has been coated in herbs you essentially have all of your spices in one go: salt (from the curing), pork (deliciousness), and other flavoring herbs and spices. Additionally, rendering it down gives you a good amount of fat. I was lucky enough to have obtained a slab of Mangalitsa pork belly, which is known for having some of the most amazing fat, to make this pancetta. This stuff renders down so well it's almost ridiculous.

Now, if you can't find a good artisan pancetta (check with your local butcher), don't bother with the stuff you can find in the regular grocery store, especially the pre-chopped stuff that looks like diced ham. (I'll give you a hint about how it tastes: it's just like diced ham.) Get a good bacon and just count on adding in some extra spices (black pepper and crushed red pepper would be good for this recipe). Those of you in New Orleans can probably find some at Rare Cuts, Cochon Butcher, or Stein's Deli, although I would guess they are more likely to have pancetta arrotolata (rolled pancetta) than pancetta tesa.

Put the pancetta in a pan and set it over a low heat. Stir it occasionally, but you want to try and render out as much of the fat as possible.  Once you see a little layer in the bottom of the pan, add in the butter. Once melted, add in the minced garlic.  Turn the heat up to medium-high and watch the garlic: as soon as it starts to brown, cut the heat. 

Whisk two eggs in a bowl and set aside. Measure off a cup of grated cheese. I prefer using a Pecorino Romano, but Parmesan or a combination of the two would be fine. 

By this point your pasta should be just about done. Take out a piece and give it a taste: if it's got a little bit of a crunch to it (and I do mean little bit) this is called al dente, which is Italian for "to the tooth". Not everyone likes this, so feel free to cook it for just a minute longer and it should be soft throughout.

Dump the contents of the pot into a colander but do not rinse. Put the hot pasta into a bowl and pour the pancetta, garlic, and rendered fat over the pasta. Give it a quick toss, then add in the whisked eggs and half of the cheese.  Stir it thoroughly.  The heat from the pasta and the oil will cook the eggs which will combine with the cheese to make a nice, saucy texture.  Add in the second half of the cheese and then mix in the parsley.

And that's it! Top it with a little extra cheese after it's been plated and get ready for plenty of compliments from your friends and family. This, like most dishes I like to cook, is one that lends itself well to additions. In the past I've added diced onion, peas, or whatever else I've had on hand. Don't ever feel limited by what's in print; if we all did exactly as we were told the world would be a very boring place indeed.

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