Spaghetti alla carbonara, essentially

I found a great recipe for carbonara on a delicious food blog called The Epicurean. He’s most definitely an epicure, having researched the history of carbonara and gone into serious detail on the perfect ingredients to use in the perfect carbonara. It’s a good read.

But it ain’t me at all.

In fact, I’m developing a theory that any recipe has a handful of essential rules and key ingredients, around which you can substitute and adulterate to your heart’s content without spoiling the fundamental dish. Here’s one: guacamole. As long as you (a) have avocado, garlic and lemon/lime in it, (b) don’t add mayonnaise, (c) mash with a fork (don’t blend), then you’re going to have a good guacamole. Pep it with chilli, include coriander, add tomato, sweetcorn, whatever you fancy but stick to the (a), (b), (c) and it’ll still be a guacamole. Or we could look at Som Tam, the staple Thai salad: (a) some raw shredded veg that has crunch, (b) lime + sugar + fish sauce + chilli + garlic + peanuts, (c) mash (ideally in a pestle), don’t just mix and certainly don’t food-processorise (is that a valid verb?). If you have those essentials then it doesn’t matter an awful lot if you are missing the beans, the tomato, or the dried shrimps, or indeed if you can find no green papaya and only have a celeriac in the fridge. The results will still be recognisably Som Tam.

So it is with most recipes, I think.

And so it is with a spaghetti alla carbonara. Purists will insist that it must use guanciale pancetta and that any addition of chicken or vegetable is no longer a carbonara dammit. But from my experimentation I would say that the essentials of a carbonara are as follows: (a) no cream goes anywhere near it, (b) the sauce is made by emulsifying egg yolks and pecorino with a splash of the starchy water from the pasta, (c) the meaty flavours of cured pork are vital, (d) toast and crush your peppercorns. This last one is important. If you want black pepper to sing out as one of the main flavours of a dish, rather than just a seasoning, you need to toast whole peppercorns for a minute in a dry pan and crush them. Pork fat + pepper + emulsified egg = carbonara. Frankly I have trouble getting pancetta of any kind in Ludlow, so it’s superb home-cured streaky bacon from the local butcher for me and spaghetti from the supermarket. Tonight I threw in par-boiled fine beans, the other night it was a fine dice of mushrooms fried in garlic.

Anyway, the essential recipe is down to The Epicurean and you can find it here. I’ve replicated it below with my own notes.

Spaghetti alla carbonara (serves 2)

200g spaghetti
50g pancetta
2 egg yolks
40g finely grated pecorino
1 tsp black peppercorns
  1. Get the spaghetti boiling in a big pan of well salted water.
  2. At the same time chop the pancetta (or streaky bacon) into small bits and fry them until the fat is golden and crispy in a pan. Let the pork and its fat cool a little. If very little melted fat has been generated, add a glug of olive oil to the cooling pan.
  3. Beat the egg yolks with a third of the pecorino and half the pork fat
  4. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the water, then dump the pasta into a large bowl
  5. Add the pancetta/bacon and fat to the pasta and stir, then add a good splash of pasta water and stir again. Now add the egg mixture and stir some more, then add the pepper and most of the pecorino and stir until you’ve got a sticky emulsified sauce all over the spaghetti.
  6. Job done. Serve and then sprinkle the rest of the pecorino over the top

It goes without saying that you can add any vegetables you like to the pasta at the same time as the pancetta. I think you could probably do the dish with parmesan instead of pecorino if that’s all you have. Probably not with edam though. You don’t need much of the pasta water, perhaps a couple of tbsp. Streaky bacon is a good substitute for pancetta, but back bacon doesn’t really have enough fat. I’m betting that a handful of chopped fresh herbs would add something special to this dish.

Now, does anyone want to add any “essential” recipes of their own in the comments? Or point me to any links?

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