Posting classic recipes on the blog is always a tricky thing as someone is bound to come back to you and say it’s wrong in some way. So I’d like to say here and now – there was an Italian cooking in my kitchen! I have a lot of Italian friends and their passion for food – whether they cook or merely eat – is far beyond even this food blogger’s devotion to a good recipe. I think of myself as someone who is serious about food; in fact, I’d go as far as saying it to some extent defines my life. I wouldn’t, for instance, want to holiday anywhere that didn’t have good, even great, food on offer. I think about food a lot of the time. I feel I can say this now that Jay Rayner has written in his excellent book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, about food dominating ‘my every waking moment’. However, really, there is nothing like an Italian and his/her food. In discussions about food you see those rivalries of the different areas of Italy rise and erupt like Vesuvius over the best or correct way to cook a pasta dish; the filling of a cannoli; the best type of pizza base. And of course there’s coffee. Try watching an Italian make coffee in a moka pot. Try telling an Italian that you don’t want sugar in your espresso (yes, the lovely Marco, in Ruben’s Bakehouse, I mean you!). But such passion is what I love and I’m a willing listener. Not to mention a willing eater of food cooked by an Italian.
Marcello had offered to cook Spaghetti alla Carbonara – a Roman dish. Not only had I bought the ingredients but a new very large, tall pot for cooking the spaghetti as apparently the one I had wasn’t big enough. I was first taught to cook pasta by the cookery writer, Robin Howe, very many years ago, in the kitchen of her apartment in Liguria with glorious views over the Mediterranean. You need lots of lots of water and you need to cook the pasta at a fast roiling boil so it doesn’t stick together. I was editing a book of hers at the time and the stay with her and her husband, Ted, was the highlight of an Italian holiday.
Like so many great Italian pasta dishes, Carbonara is put together very quickly. It makes the idea of having a ‘quick’ ready-made meal laughable. Get a very large pot of water on the go, adding salt and getting it up to a fast boil.
Meanwhile, start cooking the pancetta or streaky bacon by cutting a few strips into small pieces and frying gently in a dry pan. The fat from the bacon will be enough. Traditionally, guanciale is used. Guanciale is cured meat that comes from the pig’s cheeks. It wasn’t an option in my local Waitrose so streaky bacon had to do. Fry the pieces until nicely browned.
At this point, Marcello added some cream. This is one of the controversial things: many purists would say no to cream, but some people do add it and I happen to think some cream is a nice thing (I added this to my own Asparagus & Baby Broad Bean Carbonara). While the bacon is frying, break 2 eggs into a bowl (some people use only egg yolks but we used whole eggs), add a good amount of grated Parmigiano Reggiano (Italians consider this the only proper ‘Parmesan’ as it is allowed to be made only in the Po Valley of Emilia-Romagna – and basically, is the real thing!). Sometimes Pecorino cheese is used in ‘carbonara’ instead.
Now grate in a good amount of black pepper. Here we have a connection to the name – carbonara. The ‘carbon’ is a clue: the dish was said to have first been made by woodcutters working in the Abruzzo mountains who used charcoal for fuel and the black of the pepper reflects the charcoal. Well, that’s one story of the dish’s origin but there are plenty more, of course, as usually happens with classic dishes of this kind. Now you are ready to go with the spaghetti. Measure your spaghetti out (a guide is 75-100g each, depending on your appetite). Italians have way of holding the spaghetti round the middle, then dropping it into the pan of water so it fans out. I’ve seen Giorgio Locatelli do this on TV; Marcello did it in my kitchen. Last time I tried it didn’t really work well so I obviously need more practice.
Cook the pasta until al dente – using instructions of the packet as a guide but not a fail-safe rule. Check it’s done after a few minutes, then drain. Put the spaghetti back in the pan, add the bacon and cream and then the egg mixture. The heat will cook the eggs. Stir round to mix in well.
Now transfer the spaghetti alla carbonara to serving dishes.
I think it’s taken more time to explain it than it took to cook it!
It really is quick and easy. But despite its simplicity, it tastes wonderful. Here are such classic but gorgeous combinations: bacon, Parmigiano, eggs, and cream if you wish. With lots of hot spicy black pepper. There’s very little to beat it.