Isn’t it amazing how four ingredients and twenty minutes can become one of the most elegant and delicious dinners you’ll ever eat?
I can’t help but notice some of the most highly regarded chefs in the world gained fame with not much more than some salt and pepper and really good searing technique. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but my point is to say even the best chefs insist that simple, minimally prepared food is the best food. It makes sense; if you are using high-quality ingredients, they should be allowed to shine, no?
This knowledge however still doesn’t stop me from attempting some butterflied, stuffed, rolled, pan-seared, oven-finished, carved, pan-sauced, and garnished creation fairly regularly. But every time I try to make one of those recipes, it usually leads to frustration, self-berating thoughts, and a very messy kitchen, which further stresses me out. Then by the time I eat what I’ve halfway screwed up, I’m just grumpy and thinking about all the pots I have to clean.
Surprisingly, I still like these forays into complicated cuisine though, because I always learn from the experience. In all honesty, cooking and baking are more of an artistic (and often scientific!) hobby to me than anything else. I look forward to trying new recipes just for the challenge. Don’t get me wrong, I
like love to eat, but I enjoy the process of preparing food, equally if not more than eating the final product. 75% of the time I make things it’s because I want to learn how, or think it will look pretty, be fun, etc., with little thought to how much I’ll like the food itself. I guess I could just pick up a paintbrush or something, but you can’t eat a canvas… so maybe I like eating my work more than I realize.
Every time I make spaghetti carbonara, which is probably once every four to six weeks or so, I think to myself “why do I not eat this for dinner every single night?!” I still haven’t answered that question. I should at least make it once a week. And once you learn how, you’ll want to too.
Now that I’m writing this post, I realize how many stories I could tell about spaghetti carbonara. I nearly got kicked out of a restaurant in Florence, Italy over spaghetti carbonara (fun fact: I’m a pretty even-tempered individual in all aspects of life. Except when it comes to bad restaurant service. I waitressed for 4 years. Seriously, do not poke this bear in a public eating establishment.) Spaghetti carbonara was also the first dish I made for a dinner party. Ironically, this was not my dinner party, and at the time I was still a vegan. I made spaghetti carbonara for eight guests at my aunt and uncle’s house and didn’t eat it, let alone try it before I served it. Strange vegan life.
The first couple of times I made it for just myself, I was unimpressed. Then I realized, I wasn’t doing it right. The initial attempts turned out a dry, strangely textured pasta dish. I hadn’t been using nearly enough pasta water, and I was making the classic mistake of partially scrambling the eggs in the sauce.
I’ve got it all figured out now though, and have tried to be really clear in the recipe on the exact steps I take. That way you won’t make the same beginner’s mistakes I did. The key is really using enough reserved pasta water to create a luscious sauce, and controlling the temperature so the eggs thicken but do not form any solid bits.
When done right, the result is magical. Crispy pieces of bacon, and the most creamy and delicious sauce that will make you want to lick the bowl clean. Except this sauce contains no cream, and a very minimal amount of cheese. I think it’s safe to say everyone loves fettucini alfredo, but I’ve yet to meet someone who can resist commenting on the “guilt” that comes with the indulgence. Now I don’t think anyone should ever feel guilty about eating a meal under honest means, but I myself rarely eat fettucini alfredo. It’s tasty for sure, but it often leaves me with a stomach ache.
Not this carbonara. The egg-based sauce somehow creates the same richness everyone loves about heavier cream-based pasta dishes. The most recent thought I had when enjoying a bowl of this was “this is like the best macaroni and cheese ever.” Try it for yourself and see if you agree.
I urge you to keep it simple, and follow the directions as written. American chefs have taken to complicating this traditional Roman recipe with onions, extra oils, garlic, peas, and unnecessary cream. I have no idea why, as it’s so perfect as is. The Italian way is simply pasta, guanciale, pecorino romano cheese, and eggs. Guanciale is cured pork cheek, very similar to bacon, but a bit thicker. I’ve never seen it stateside, so either bacon or pancetta are fine replacements. You may also substitute parmesan for some or all of the pecorino if you prefer a milder flavor. Lastly, if you must add one or two cloves of minced garlic to the pan in the final minute of crisping the bacon, fine. I can’t say I haven’t. But otherwise, keep it basic! And for the love of the Roman Gods whatever you do don’t add freaking peas.
This Spaghetti Carbonara is the ideal meal to make for a small dinner party, or a date-night in. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day after all! You can easily double the recipe to serve four people, or half it if you’re dining solo. It’s low maintenance and inexpensive to make, yet is delicious and impressive. What more could you ask of four ingredients served up in a single bowl?
Yields 2 servings
Pasta tossed with salty bits of cured pork, coated in the most delicious and creamy egg based sauce. All the proof you’ll ever need that simple recipes are the best recipes.
- 1/2 lb. spaghetti or linguine
- 2oz. guanciale*
- 2 large eggs
- 2oz. pecorino romano, grated*
- Black pepper & salt
- 1/4 cup reserved pasta water
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and grated cheese. Season with black pepper and a small pinch of salt. Set aside.
About five minutes before the pasta is finished cooking, set a skillet over medium heat. Dice the guanciale (or bacon/pancetta) into fine pieces. Sauté until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Be careful not to burn it. Turn the heat to medium low.
Drain the pasta, and reserve about 1 cup of pasta water. Pour a half cup of the water into the egg/cheese mixture, whisking constantly to melt the cheese and ensure the eggs do not scramble.
Add the pasta to the skillet and stir to coat in the bacon pieces. Add the pasta to the bowl of what will become your sauce, and quickly toss until the noodles are mostly covered. Return to the skillet and stir constantly, but gently, until the sauce begins to thicken and heat through. This should take less than a minute. Add a bit more reserved pasta water if it begins to dry out.
Serve immediately, garnished with parsley and extra grated cheese, if desired.
*I felt obligated to write guanciale in the recipe, because that’s the traditional Italian way. But since I now live in America and you probably do too, bacon or pancetta are equally acceptable.
*Pecorino is the cheese Italians use in this dish. I personally like a mix of pecorino and parmesan. Feel free to use both, or one of either.