[46] Pasta Carbonara

How to Cook Everything, Revised Edition by Mark Bittman

You’ll notice this recipe looks a touch out of order. Specifically, you might be wondering, “Where is recipe #45?” Well, I didn’t get any response on whether “Everyday Pancakes” out of “How to Cook Everything” and “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” were multiple recipes or a single recipe. So, for the moment, I’m counting them as separate recipes, but not giving a post to something you’ve already heard about unless something truly interesting happens, or I figure out a very good new technique or something. That’s boring. So, let’s move on to more interesting topics.

I picked last night’s dinner idea mostly out of my brain, assuming one of my cookbooks would have a recipe. Actually, to be honest, I assumed more than one would. I was wrong, and so we ended up with yet another Bittman recipe. At this rate, I’m going to learn what Bittman has to teach via books almost by default!

We had dinner guests last night, Tony and Krysti. I’d asked them for likes, dislikes and allergies, and from that information came to the realization that both really enjoy pasta. I considered making the bolognase sauce again, but I wanted something new (for all of: my taste buds, this blog, and my dreams of someday buying another cookbook). I don’t know when or how the idea of Carbonara floated into my brain, but once it was there, I couldn’t dislodge it. I’m glad, though, because it was very simple. Furthermore, it was thoroughly enjoyed. At one point, Tony looked at Krysti and said, “Can we make bacon pasta soon?”

h2. Ingredients

Salt (For the pasta water. I never salt my pasta water, so I consider this optional.)
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 c chopped pancetta, guanciale or bacon (We used pancetta.)

1 lb linguine or other long pasta (Or, you know, mini-farfalle.)

1/2 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese (We used 12 month aged Manchego instead)

Lots of freshly ground black pepper (Which you can apparently forget and still have Tony love your dish.)

h2. Instructions

Make your pasta according to the package directions. While waiting on the water, start cooking the pancetta. Put the oil over medium heat and cook the pancetta until deliciously crispy (he says ~10 minutes, I say it might take longer), stirring on occasion. Once the pancetta is done, turn off the heat.

While the pasta is cooking, warm a large bowl and then beat 3 eggs in it. Mix in the cheese and pancetta and all “juices” from the pancetta. This will get much thicker than you expect, and look super tasty. Once the pasta is done, reserve a small amount of the pasta water and drain the rest. Immediately toss the pancetta/cheese/egg mixture with the pasta. If this mix is dry, add a little of the reserved pasta water. Toss with a bunch of freshly ground black pepper (unless you forget that step) and serve. Add more cheese, if you’d like, or pass it around for everyone to add as needed. Or don’t. Whichever.

h2. Cooking and Consumption Notes

h3. Cooking

I love simple dishes when entertaining guests. Admittedly, I love complicated dishes when entertaining too, because there’s the “wow” factor. But simple dishes allow plenty of socialization time, and some serious flexibility for when dinner will be on the table. In this case, that flexibility was good; our guests weren’t sure exactly when they’d be over, because Krysti had a few early-evening meetings.

All in all, this is a pretty fabulous thing to cook if you have a good sense of how long it will take your pasta water to cook. We ate a little later than I’d intended (though no one felt unduly hungry in the socializing before the meal) because I started the pancetta before the pasta water.

You know what? I have a lot of scientific training. You’d think I’d remember that one of the awesome properties of water is its impressive heat capacity, but I never do. So I always think that, for some mysterious reason, the pasta water won’t take too long to boil. Guess what? It always takes longer than I think to boil water on the stove.

So, don’t be like me. Put the water on to boil, and then start cooking the pancetta. I think they’ll be done each at about the right time that way.

I don’t know how “warm” a “warm bowl” is. I used some 195°F water from my kettle, then poured it out and gave the bowl a quick (and probably unnecessary) dry. Also, because I spaced out warming the bowl before beating the eggs in, I beat them, then poured them into my warmed bowl. I used room temperature eggs, which probably helped and probably buffered the need for a truly warm bowl. This wasn’t intentional. I just pulled out the eggs earlier in the evening, and then kept not getting to the making of the sauce. Still, I suggest bringing the eggs to room temperature if you remember it.

Once you mix the cheese and pancetta into the eggs, the mix will be very think and almost crumb-like. It’s pretty tasty looking, because it suddenly stops looking like raw, beaten egg. I didn’t lick the whisk, but if you want to, I won’t judge. I did, however, give it a fairly solid whisking to make sure I was breaking up any cheese lumps that happened to be in there. Whether this resulted in a more even amount of cheese/pasta piece than a quick whisking is for someone else to determine. I just don’t like lumps in my mixed foods (even though I restrain myself when making pancakes).

h3. Consumption

We served this with a nice salad (CSA mixed greens, red & yellow bell peppers and some carrots), a crusty loaf of bread and a roasted garlic/butter mix. I’d recommend this.

As I said previously, everyone else liked this a great deal. I did forget to put in the black pepper, because I am a cooking dork, and everyone liked it even like that. Since I am not a fan of black pepper, I did not add any to my pasta, but they all did when I mentioned I forgot it. Frankly, I’m unclear if that addition improved Tony or Krysti’s liking of the dish. Bill tossed on both salt & pepper and liked it more with those additions.

However, despite my lack of love for the black pepper, this dish clearly needs something like that. If you, like most folks, enjoy black pepper, toss a bunch on. Otherwise, try to find some other light flavoring agent. This dish is pretty good without anything of that nature, but it lacks a certain “oomph” that I’ll bet the black pepper gives. I wish I’d realized that while at the table last night, as I’d have been brave and added some to my second helping (yes, even without, it was still that good), just to see if it punched it up some.

I wouldn’t hesitate to make this again, and I wouldn’t hesitate to make it with bacon instead of pancetta. The pancetta has a very distinct flavor that is akin to bacon, but not quite the same. There’s some sort of spice or something in there that’s different. However, I suspect most folks have some bacon on hand and do not regularly keep pancetta on hand (I had to buy it special for this dish). I don’t think the pancetta adds so much more over what bacon would be like that it’s worth a special trip. Buy it if you have this on the menu when you do your regularly scheduled grocery shopping, but if this is a spur-of-the-moment idea (or you decide at breakfast to have this for dinner), don’t make a special trip.