Shriek – does he know what he’s doing? No.

CarbonaraMany months ago, when I came home from UNC Hospital’s rehab, each evening I was treated to an amazing banquet of meals from family and friends. One of the meals I remember most, and there were two of my friends that would come and cook this for me, was Pasta Carbonara. Farnum Brown would always come with some beautiful guanciale, which he procured at Reliable Cheese and sadly is no longer open. It seemed like Farnum came once a week to make this pasta dish for me … sometimes he made Pasta all’Amatriciana, which also calls for guanciale … and he would usually call and ask what I wanted for dinner – without fail I would always say “Carbonara”.

Chris Hitt, who lived in Italy for a year and is a good friend that I worked with at WFM, would also come and make Pasta Carbonara. He used a special jowl bacon, which is smoked, that he would mail-order for his recipe.

Guanciale and jowl bacon is meat from the same part of the pig but the Italian’s cure bacon, but its not smoked. At some point after both of my friends had cooked Pasta Carbonara for me three or four times I realized they made it very differently, but I loved both of the dishes equally. I decided it would be fun to invite each of them on the night when the other one was cooking so they could see the differences in how each of them approached the dish. I thought they’d be curious and interested, but in fact they were competitive arguing about how to make the dish.

Neither has been to my house to make this dish for months, and the other night I was overwhelmed with a hankerin’ for some and even though I did not have the right pasta shape and I didn’t have guanciale or jowl bacon, I pressed ahead and made something that didn’t approximate either one of their recipes, but at the end of the night I had satisfied my itch for Pasta Carbonara. This post is just to encourage folks that they don’t always have to have exactly what is on the ingredient list or follow some precise procedure. Here’s a kitchen conversation on how I made the dish …

I had a couple of slices of applewood smoked bacon and I cut these up with a chef’s knife, added a tablespoon of olive oil to a cast iron skillet and slowly cooked the bacon. A minute or two into the slow cooking of the bacon I added a couple of cloves of smashed garlic and let them soften in the same pan.

When the bacon had rendered most of its fat I took the bacon out onto a paper towel, discarded the garlic and added a tablespoon of cultured butter to the bacon fat for later use. I find good olive oil, bacon fat, and cultured butter to be a winning trio.

I also added a pinch of crushed red chili – also not called for in Marcella Hazan’s recipe.

Leona diced a quarter cup of flat-leaf parsley and I grated a half cup of parmigiano-reggiano and set it aside. Chris Hitt’s recipe calls for equal parts Romano and parmigiano, which adds an interesting flavor to the dish. I also beat a beautiful farmers market duck egg so it would be ready to pour onto the hot pasta when the time came.

I cooked 300g of Farfalle, a pasta shape that is not the traditional one which is a long cut, either Spaghetti or Bucatini.

While the pasta was cooking I combined the bacon, parmiggiano, parsley and bacon fat from the cast iron skillet, along with a generous amount of fresh cracked black pepper in a large pasta-bowl.

When pasta was done (I used my teeth to test the pasta to see when it is just right … I certainly don’t throw it against the refrigerator), I quickly strained and added the pasta to the bowl and immediately poured the duck egg over it and began to stir. I can hear shrieks coming from all corners … serious chefs, people scared of raw egg, and traditionalists … but this what I did and I was happy with my dish.

For those of you who want to follow an authentic recipe I would highly recommend the following one by the Queen of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Essentials of Italian Cooking 
by Marcella Hazan, 1993, Alfred Knopf 

For 6 servings

  • 1/2 pound pancetta, cut as a single1/2-inch-thick slice, OR its equivalent in good slab bacon
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1 1/4 pounds pasta
  1. Cut the pancetta or slab bacon into strips not quite 1/4 inch wide.
  2. Lightly mash the garlic with a knife handle, enough to split it and loosen the skin, which you will discard. Put the garlic and olive oil into a small sauté pan and turn on the heat to medium high. Sauté until the garlic becomes colored a deep gold, and remove and discard it.
  3. Put the strips of pancetta or bacon into the pan, and cook until they just begin to crisp at the edges. Add the wine, let it bubble away for 1 to 2 minutes, then turn off the heat.
  4. Break the 2 eggs into the serving bowl in which you’ll be subsequently tossing the pasta. Beat them lightly with a fork, then add the two grated cheeses, a liberal grinding of pepper, and the chopped parsley. Mix thoroughly.
  5. Add cooked drained spaghetti to the bowl, and toss rapidly, coating the strands well.
  6. Briefly reheat the pancetta or bacon over high heat, turn out the entire contents of the pan into the bowl, toss thoroughly again, and serve at once.

2 thoughts on “Shriek – does he know what he’s doing? No.

  1. Who’s Leona….haha!
    Lex, I too love pasta carbonara but after sonmany failed attempts I gave up preparing it. I’m going to give it another try! Thanks!

    • Pam,

      If when you’re making your braised chicken thighs, or pasta carbonara, and have a question, sunday morning I’ll be on the golf course, but don’t hesitate to call my cell phone. I’m sure Bob has the number. Don’t give up on Carbonara. It’s too compelling a dish. There’s nothing else really like it.

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