Continuing on my everything and anything writing kick, today I will share with you the best way to prepare one of my favorite Roman pasta dishes: Pasta alla Carbonara.
I do have to thank Jo-Lynne over at Musings Of A House Wife for her tweet looking for ground beef fueled dinner inspiration and it got me hungry and thinking of pasta plates (because I suggested a ragù alla Bolognese sauce) and how (I’m going to get a lot of hate mail about the following comment) no one in the U.S. has a clue how to make pasta properly, not even Giada De Laurentiis who has lost her inner contemporary Italian chef somewhere in the Pacific Ocean (a few years ago she still had it) and now uses an “entire clove of minced garlic” even in her dessert recipes. As I would tell her in Italian (probably with a thick Roman accent) if we met, “Giada! Ma che cazzo fai?!”. Let me say this once and please do not make me repeat it again: pick up any serious Italian cookbook (written by Italians) like Il Cucchiao D’Argento (The Silver Spoon) or Il Talismano Della Felicita’ (The Talisman of Happiness) and you will see that minced garlic is rarely used in Italian cuisine and is limited, when used, mainly to Southern recipes. Most recipes that call for garlic tell you to add it whole for flavoring and then to remove it! So know, after your romantic meal with the significant other, you don’t have to chug an entire bottle of mouthwash to kiss them. I know, I know: You’re welcome!
OK, back to the recipe. There are many stories about where it originated: Umbrian miners and American WWII G.I.’s and their “American Breakfast” among others (I will leave it to your curiosity and the foodie blogs and wikis to enlighten you), but what is most interesting is the many variations that Romans will argue for entire meals about how to make the perfect plate of Carbonara. Lucky for me, I am writing this by myself so I get to tell you how I think, or rather, how I know for a fact it should be prepared.
Ingredients for 4 people:
½ yellow onion (chopped)
2 oz grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (better than Grana Padano because sharper – pretty please splurge on the good stuff and not the Kraft kind – it’s just a completely different ball game)
2 oz grated Pecorino Romano (see above)
5 oz Guanciale (although you will probably have to settle for Pancetta or Bacon)
1 tblsp Olive Oil
1 lb De Cecco Spaghetti (it is one of the few affordable imported pasta brands – no, Barilla is no longer imported from Italy, they make it near Chicago – oops, sorry, did I just kill that Pastoral scene you had from their commercials?! All right, settle down, Barilla is fine!)
Start by putting a good amount of water to boil (preferably in a tall pot). When it boils salt, stir and add the spaghetti. Make sure that you check back with it often during the 11-12 minutes it takes to cook and stir to keep the spaghetti separated. If you want it Roman style “al dente” then taste it at minute 10 or 11 and see if the center is still a bit hard. If you like it mushy like your Lo Mein then please stop reading this while I shake my head in disgust.
For the sauce, start by cubing your Guanciale (or Pancetta/Bacon) and letting it brown in a skillet with the chopped onion and a tablespoon of olive oil. Then set it aside.
Crack the eggs into a mixing bowl and add some pepper (adjust the quantity depending how much you like pepper – in Rome they go heavier on the pepper). Give them a whisk to break them up and mix in the pepper.
Once you have drained the spaghetti, put them back in the same (still warm) pot. Add the eggs and the Guanciale and start to mix the spaghetti so that the egg starts to cook or “scramble”. Now add the Pecorino and Parmigiano and give the spaghetti a couple of more tosses.
Transfer to your plates. If you like more Parmigiano or Pecorino feel free to sprinkle some more on top and then dig in!
This is the way I make it and I often have very lively debates with my Roman friends and relatives on the final steps needed to pull the ingredients together as well as on what ingredients should be used. Some say only Pecorino, some say only Parmigiano. I like both. Some say onions, some say none (please note, though, that NO ONE says to put in an entire clove of minced garlic!), I think the onion is a tasty touch. And finally, the point of greatest contention: some say to leave the eggs raw so the Carbonara is creamier (so instead of placing it back in the pot to “scramble”, you just place the spaghetti into the bowl with the eggs and mix), I’m not a fan. That is the beauty of how Italians eat. They will sit at the table in front of a delicious meal and argue about it while eating.
I am sure this is not the last of my food posts because my Italian half makes the traditions that revolve around food such an important part of my and my family’s life that it is unavoidable. As you may already know from the many stereotypes, food has been the fulcrum of Italian family gatherings forever (and not in the once a year Thanksgiving-sense, I am talking daily ritual).
Sadly, today, even in Italy, this tradition is under attack by quick fix ready-to-eat meals and the microwave (not nearly to the extent that it is in the U.S. home) and it is such a shame because although the health benefits of eating a “from scratch” home cooked meal is incredibly important, the ritual of sitting down around a table as a family and sharing thoughts, angst, funny anecdotes and whatever you did today is what helps keep you in touch and in sync with what is going on with yourself, your wife and your kids.
There are so many Italian traditions (and I know this is certainly true for many other cultures that have brought traditions with them to the U.S.) that are misrepresented and stereotyped in the U.S. and I laugh just as much as the next guy because they are often such true representations (albeit exaggerated) of the reality “back home”. Food is one of those traditions that I just can’t laugh at when I see it destroyed by a celebrity chef or completely misunderstood by a self-proclaimed food expert. I just cringe. I can grudgingly accept a division of Italian cuisine, here in the U.S., into Italian-American recipes that were created a century ago by immigrants to adapt to local ingredients and to cater to the local tastes (you will never find spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, garlic bread etc. over in Italy) and Italian recipes that are still followed today in the typical Trattoria as well as in the more contemporary restaurants in Italy. But please do not lump those very different styles of cooking together and please do not say that Chef Boyardee is Italian. Pretty please and hold the minced garlic!