Pasta Carbonara could be may favorite recipe of all time. I call it my ‘back pocket’ recipe because I almost always have the ingredients on hand, and I really don’t even need a recipe to make it. If you can remember ‘one egg to a person’, then you can master this dish.
It is beautiful in its simplicity: fry up some pancetta, toss in some pasta, pour in a blend of eggs and cream, then load on the freshly ground black pepper (alla carbon) and finish with lots of parmigiano reggiano and/or pecorino cheese. The hardest part to this recipe is the time spent grating the parmigiano reggiano. Just ask Mark who took time out from setting up cameras to grind my cheese. I think he sprained a wrist.
While I typically try to be a purist when making a dish, I modified this recipe slightly because I prefer the leaner prosciutto over pancetta. And it’s not a crime to add peas. I like them. I always try to keep a bag of peas in my freezer as they cook quickly and add a splash of color.
I did a little research on the history of carbonara and my head began to swim. I’m not a historian. I’m a chef. I’m choosing the account that pleases me most. I’m happy with thinking that the abundant use of black pepper is a metaphor for coal dust. One legend goes that coal miners carried the humble ingredients to work in their pockets. Lunch was prepared over an open fire. Either coal dust from their clothes or carbon from the open flame settled onto their spaghetti.
You can easily impress friends by pulling this easy, dreamy recipe out of your back pocket.
Chef’s tip: Not only do I keep peas in the freezer, but I also keep a few packages of prosciutto in there, too. I also like to buy the largest wedges of parmigiano reggiano cheese when I’m at Costco. It’s a cheese that lasts a long time in the fridge and tastes great when freshly grated.
1 lb spaghetti
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 oz prosciutto, thinly sliced then chopped (use pancetta to be authentic)
¼ cup cream (or hot pasta water)
lots of freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup frozen peas
2 ounces grated parmigiano reggiano or pecorino cheese
• Prepare the spaghetti according to the package directions.
• In a large sauté pan that will accommodate the cooked pasta, brown the prosciutto over medium heat in the olive oil until crisp. This could take 6-7 minutes.
• In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs and the cream. If you don’t have cream, you can whisk in ¼ cup of the boiling pasta water. Just whisk quickly. This will also help temper the eggs. Add a lot of freshly ground black pepper. The amount is up to your tastes. Just don’t hold back.
• Drain the pasta quickly. You don’t need to shake off all the water. Transfer it to the hot sauté pan. Toss the pasta with the proscuitto to coat then add the egg mixture. Remove the pan from the heat and stir quickly. The residual heat from the pasta will thicken the sauce. Add the peas. The trick is to keep the sauce fluid. If it is kept on the heat, you can easily scramble the eggs.
• Don’t delay! Serve right away while the pasta is still hot and creamy. Top with cheese and more ground pepper.