Sometimes you get an urge for a dish and you have to get up, go to the refrigerator and start grabbing the ingredients. Spaghetti Carbonara is just such a dish. Luckily, it is easy to make and you usually have everything at hand – eggs, bacon, cheese and spaghetti.
This dish is so Bravado because it can be used on so many occasions – e.g. you and your loved one have been out all day shopping, visiting friends and rels – whatever – and you both arrive home tired wondering what is for dinner. Now you spring into action as a true Bravado chef. Tell her to slip into something comfortable – high heels would do – while you open a bottle of wine and prepare a surprise for dinner.
Okay, if that’s a little racy, try a small dinner party built around this great pasta dish. You can romance the crowd with the great story about how Spaghetti Carbonara was invented at the end of WWII. It is not a traditional Italian dish – no mention of it anywhere until the late 40’s. Food – especially meat and dairy products – was incredibly scarce at the end of the war. But, the GI’s in Italy had access to bacon and eggs and they asked the locals about how to marry these ingredients with pasta. I have visions of a group of young American boys talking to some pretty young Italian girls, saying, “We’ve got some bacon and eggs, but we don’t know how to cook it. Maybe you can show us how.” The happy result, aside from the social interaction, is this wonderful dish. “Carbonara” literally means “wife of a coal miner”, so we can only assume that she was one of the early participants in this Italo-American adventure.
You can also try making this dish with children or grandchildren. Kids absolutely love this dish and are happy to get involved in the preparation. Some of my nieces have adapted it as the standard fare for sleepovers or pajama parties (yes, kids still do that). It makes a surprisingly good late night snack.
Pancetta vs. Bacon: Even though this dish got off the ground with American smoked bacon, it is commonly prepared today with pancetta, which is an Italian unsmoked bacon. Either one works fine, but I prefer bacon.
Both pancetta and bacon are cured in salt brine. The meat is then dried in a warm chamber of some type for a number of days. In the early days in America, the bacon was dried in a “smokehouse” where smoldering wood would provide not only the needed heat but also the smoky flavor. Commercial processors in the U.S. have continued to use wood smoke for flavoring.
“The salt will act to pull the moisture from the (pork) belly, which is all the “curing” process really is. Since desiccated or dried meat lacks the moisture necessary for the bacteria that make things rancid to thrive, the meat will “keep” much, much longer.” (imafoodblog.com).
There are a thousand variations on this recipe. The one below is very simple and very traditional.
Bravado Level of Difficulty: 3.0
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 6 as an entrée, 8 as a appetizer, leftovers are wonderful heated in the microwave.
- 1 lb. spaghetti
- 1 lb. bacon (try any type you want – I like bacon smoked in applewood)
- 1 cup of grated Parmesano Reggiano
- 2 eggs
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- salt and pepper
- Take the pound of bacon out of the package, but do not separate the slices. Cut crosswise with a sharp knife so you end up with little strips about ¼ inch wide. Set aside.
- Put two eggs and the grated cheese in the bottom of a large serving bowl. Whisk lightly.
- Start heating about 4 quarts of water in a stockpot, add 1 tbsp. of salt and 2 tbsp. of olive oil and bring to a boil.
- While the water is heating, cook the bacon in a skillet until it is quite crispy. Midway through the process, add the garlic. If you add the garlic too early, it will burn. When finished, discard about half of the bacon grease, but not all. Set back on the warm stove – no heat.
- Cook the spaghetti until “al dente”, about 6-7 minutes.
- Drain the pasta (do not rinse) and immediately put it in the serving bowl with the cheese and egg. Vigorously toss with two forks. The hot pasta will melt the cheese and cook the eggs creating a nice creamy coating.
- Add the bacon and remaining grease and toss again.
- Serve immediately and experience Nirvana.
This recipe is a little difficult to double – it’s tough to cook two pounds of bacon unless you use two skillets and it is not easy to toss two pounds of pasta. This is best left as a small group affair.
You will experience a fantastic warm glow after finishing this great dish and your mind will wander back to those GI’s and young Italian girls who invented this classic. I see them after the meal chatting happily with a glass of wine trying to teach each other words from their language. The wife of the coal miner, the “carbonara”, must be the grandmother of one of the young girls and did the cooking. She is smiling and cleaning up.
Some Great Variations:
Peas: This is a common addition to Carbonara. If you have frozen peas, throw them in with the pasta about halfway through cooking. Normally, you will cook the pasta 6-7 minutes, so add the peas for the last three minutes. This gives a great color to the dish and gives the kids their veggies.
Sage: I first saw this suggested by Gordon Ramsay in his great book “Cooking for Friends”. Take a handful of sage leaves and chop coarsely so you have about 2 tablespoons. Mix well with the cheese and egg mixture before adding the pasta. This gives a great aroma and adds a certain softness to the dish.