Pasta carbonara is a very simple Italian dish from Rome with many variations. In its simplest form, it can transform dry pasta from a box into a steaming, tasty dish in less than 15 minutes. Even when making basic carbonara, you have choices to make.
Pork Guanciale (Italian cured pork cheek), sometimes hard to come by in the United States, is the pork product of preference in Italy. It is delicious, fatty with a punch of thyme.
Pancetta (Italian cured pork belly) is another common Italian pork product. It has a slightly more acidic bite and much more herbaceous tone than American bacon, without the smoke.
Substitute bacon or ham if you find it difficult to procure the Italian meats.
I cut different-sized lardons (rectangle-shaped chunks of meat) for my dishes, depending upon the seasons. In spring and summer, I make them fairly small and use fewer lardons in my dishes. In fall and winter, I like a heartier lardon so I cut them in larger pieces.
After rendering (crisping the meat by cooking on low to medium heat to remove moisture and fat), I remove the lardons from the pan and set aside. Later, mix half into the pasta and top with the rest.
The traditional Italian recipe uses only whole eggs or egg yolks for the sauce. The eggs — with the addition of Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romana or Grana Padano (a domestic Parmesan will also work) — make creamy base sauce. This is where the recipe gets slightly tricky. Most people add the eggs too soon or put the pasta and eggs back on the heat and end up with pasta and scrambled eggs. Remember, the pasta comes out of the water piping hot and will cook the egg. So first toss the pasta with fat and guanciale, then add the egg. Move constantly for a minute or so until the egg has warmed and thickened. If it doesn’t thicken, turn the heat to low and stir to gently cook the egg.
Have your platter or bowl ready; don’t let the pasta sit in the pan and overcook. I put a little cheese in the pan and then more as I add the mixture to the platter. This keeps the carbonara from getting gummy.
Fresh pasta is too tender for a true carbonara. Start with dry spaghetti or something thicker, such as spaghettoni, vermicelli or bucatini. Shells hold up well, as do orecchiette, penne, ziti and other tubular pastas. When cooking the pasta, follow the minimum ratio of one gallon of water per pound of pasta. The more water you use, the quicker it returns to a boil after adding the pasta, which keeps it from sticking. Salting the water is key. You want to make sure the reconstituting pasta is absorbing seasoned liquid. The water should taste like the ocean, equivalent to about 1½ tablespoons of kosher salt per gallon of water.
(Serves 2 to 3 as main dish, 3 to 4 as a side)
8 ounces thick spaghetti or similar dry pasta
Salt, as needed, for cooking water
4 to 5 ounces of guanciale, pancetta or bacon, cut into lardons
3 eggs, beaten
½ cup shredded or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano or similar cheese
Black pepper and salt, as needed
Grated Parmesan cheese
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Cook pasta according to package directions (minimum 1 gallon of salted water per pound of pasta) to al dente. Drain and reserve.
Render guanciale lardons, or other pork product, in a sauté pan. When guanciale is crisp, remove half to drain on paper towels and reserve. Add drained pasta to sauté pan and toss with remaining guanciale and drippings. Mix beaten eggs and cheese in a separate bowl, then stir into pasta. Stir constantly to keep pasta moving until egg mixture thickens slightly.
Serve in a bowl or platter. Top generously with Parmesan, reserved guanciale, black pepper, salt to taste and chopped parsley.
Use only egg yolks (replace at 2 yolks for 1 whole egg) for a much richer sauce.
Mix ½ cup of warmed cream into the eggs before adding to the pasta.
Add sautéed onions, garlic and mushrooms.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.