A Rich, Filling Meal in Minutes
by Maurice Alexander
Image courtesy of Zoran Borojevic on Unsplash
For most students, especially freshers, you will all be missing your mother’s skill in the kitchen. Its been a month since the beginning of term and I am certain that you are all sick of jarred pesto, pot noodles, microwaveable meals and cash-strapped from regular outings to restaurants and fast-food joints to satisfy the desperate need for a substantial, flavoursome meal. You will all be keen for a recipe that is fast, simple and delicious, which is why I present to you this recipe for spaghetti carbonara.
Carbonara is traditionally a pasta dish of spaghetti, pancetta, raw eggs and parmesan. However, there exist innumerable variants of the classic peasant’s recipe with such wide-ranging inclusions such as double cream, torn basil leaves, finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and/or petit-pois. This recipe is heavily based on Nigella Lawson’s version which is very traditional and pure; the only additional ingredients being white wine, nutmeg and black pepper.
This recipe is not only rich and filling with a deep, savoury deliciousness, it is incredibly easy to prepare whilst also demonstrating several key culinary processes used in good cooking, like browning and deglazing. It also makes the perfect amount for two people, so you are able to try out your new favourite recipe to-be on a newfound friend in halls.
Ingredients – Serves 2
Two heaped handfuls of salt
A tablespoon of olive oil
100g-200g pancetta, unsmoked lardons and/or unsmoked bacon finely chopped
6 tablespoons of dry white wine
A whole egg plus the yolk of another
4 to 6 tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan
A single grate of nutmeg or a scant pinch if you are using ground nutmeg
2 gratings of black pepper
A tablespoon of unsalted butter
Trickles of reserved pasta water, if necessary.
Bring a great volume of water to a roaring boil in a very large pan (I use a 5 litre pan). The water should be chaotic and bubbling when you add the salt and the reason why you use so much salt is because the pasta is very inefficient at absorbing flavour as it cooks, so you need to compensate for their lack of ability.
For 200g of spaghetti, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that its quite a surreal volume of water for such a small amount of pasta, but the reasoning is that you want the water volume to overwhelm the pasta upon its addition to the pan so it will immediately restore its boil and cook with peak efficiency. The rapid boiling causes the water to flow around the pan with considerable strength and as the pasta softens, the individual strands will flow with the current in the pan which prevents them from sticking together.
The huge mouth of the pan also allows you to easily add long strands of pasta to the water with minimal effort. If you use a smaller pan, you’ll find yourself holding the pasta down in the water until one half of it softens to allow the other half in. Never break long-stranded pasta as it ruins the pleasure of its eating. You want to wrestle with long knots of pasta on the plate, its part of the table theatrics!
The pasta you use should be spaghetti, for quick cooking, prefaced with ‘bronze die’. This means that the surface of the pasta strands have a rough textured edge, similar to sandpaper, that allows sauces to adhere readily and has an agreeable feel in the mouth, especially in comparison to non-bronze die pastas that feel like smooth plastic. Don’t worry about the brand, just the pasta type and the bronze die attribute.
As the pasta boils, place the tablespoon of olive oil into a large, preferably stainless-steel, frying pan (you need a large one for this, as you will combine everything in the frying pan as the final step) and bring the burner to a medium-high heat. Once the body of the pan is brought to the desired temperature, add the pancetta. Pancetta is the authentic meat of a carbonara recipe, but in all honesty, I much prefer the flavour of unsmoked lardons. I find that they have a much more pronounced flavour than pancetta and brown easier too. Pancetta is taken from the jowl of a pig and lardons are taken from its stomach, so they have very different flavour profiles. Unsmoked bacon can also be used as a substitute if you are without both.
Irrespective of what meat you use, they should sizzle when they hit the pans surface and allow them to fry for around 4 to 5 minutes until they begin to lightly brown, tossing them infrequently to ensure even browning. During their time bubbling away their pork fat will melt to release a divine savoury scent throughout the kitchen which will stir up the appetite of anyone in close proximity. This is why you only use a single tablespoon of olive oil, any more would dilute the flavour of the pancetta/lardons and will make the dish oily when you consider the inclusion of the rendered pork fat. Don’t leave them to sit stationary for the full 4 to 5 minutes as they will burn on their side in contact with the frying pan.
Once lightly browned, add the 6 tablespoons of dry white wine to the frying pan. The liquid will bubble up with great enthusiasm as you add each one, but don’t be put off turning up the heat. You need to raise the heat to maximum and allow the wine to reduce down until the contents of the pan resemble their appearance before the wine’s addition. You see, 6 tablespoons of wine will drown the cubes of the pancetta/lardons but the aim of reducing the alcohol removes the water and alcohol, leaving you will the essence of the wine which lightens the dish, providing a pleasant floral note amongst the crisp pancetta and the richness of the parmesan.
With the spaghetti continuing to boil and the wine reducing, you can focus your attention to creating the emulsifying sauce. In a bowl crack in the contents of a single large egg along with the yolk of a second egg and grate in the parmesan. Don’t bother attempting to grate the cheese into a tablespoon six time and upturn each one into the bowl; it’s incredibly messy and not worth the hassle. Simply grate the parmesan directly into the bowl, stopping momentarily to discern whether or not you’ve grated in what appears to be a tablespoon or not. The gratings should be very fine to allow them to melt instantly upon contact with the heat of the spaghetti, so use a microblade or the finely bladed side of a general-purpose grater. Scrape a nutmeg once along this finely bladed side directly into the bowl or use a scant pinch of ground nutmeg. Any more will poison the dish with a pronounced, ever-present flavour of nutmeg. Grind in the black pepper and mix the contents of the bowl together with a small whisk or a fork until completely amalgamated. It may be quite thick but it will become more liquid when its warmed by the freshly boiled pasta.
At this point, no more than 10 minutes should have passed. Check the texture of spaghetti by fishing a strand out with a fork and biting into it. The pasta should have a strong bite to it but still be enjoyable to eat. This is typically achieved either exactly on or one minute before the minimum recommended cooking time instructed on its packet. Before draining, decant a small cupful of the pasta water into a cup as its much easier to do now when the saucepan is full and allows you to simply tip its contents into a colander placed in the sink.
The wine will have reduced entirely and the contents of the frying pan will appear as cubes of pork sitting in fat. Remove the pan from the heat and swirl in a tablespoon of butter. This cools the oil in the pan to prevent the burning of the pork whilst fortifying the dish and adding richness. Tip the drained spaghetti into the frying pan and mix everything together to coat the pasta in the floral pork fat before adding the egg-parmesan mixture from the bowl. Immediately stir everything together and keep the pasta moving so that the eggs cook gently in motion to form a sauce rather than condense into scrambled eggs. This is why this step is done off of the heat, with the frying pan preferably placed on a trivet.
More often than not, the sauce is noticeably thick and you will need to slacken it with the addition of a trickle or two of the reserved pasta water from the cup. Restrain yourself as to not add any more than a trickle at a time, as it is incredibly easy to add an excessive amount causing the carbonara to become a watery, dull-tasting pasta dish. Mix the contents of the pan until they appear rich and glossy, with the sauce slackened just enough so that the strands of spaghetti easily flow away from one another.
Once the contents of the frying pan have the desired consistency, either bring the pan to the table and present it laid upon a trivet or tip the contents into large pasta bowl and present the carbonara that way, either is fine. You can grate a miniscule amount of parmesan onto the pasta for an optional final flourish.