My girlfriend tagged along with me to the store to buy carbonara ingredients—by “tagged along” I mean she drove me because I’m useless and don’t have a car—and when we were passing through the produce section, she threw a box of button mushrooms in the cart. I didn’t say anything, but I started to get suspicious. Then, while I was scanning the novelty ice cream selection in the freezer aisle, she grabbed a bag of frozen peas.
Slowly understanding the situation, with a box of Choco Tacos in hand, I asked her, “What exactly do you think carbonara is?”
She said, “Yeah, carbonara, the thing with the cream sauce, and the chicken, and the bacon, and the peas. I’m all about it.”
“That’s not fucking carbonara. That’s Italian-American chain restaurant garbage that panders to the same people who make servers come back to their table every 5 minutes to re-parmesan their food.” I screamed in my head, because that would have been inappropriate to say to another person, especially in a crowded grocery store.
There are no mushrooms in carbonara—or peas, or onions, or chicken—just pasta, some sort of cured pork product, eggs, and parmesan. I am by no means a food purist, nor am I trying to police your dinner’s authenticity, but, adding nonessentials actively takes away from how good your carbonara tastes. Why would you want to dilute the flavor of eggs, pork fat, and cheese with vegetables? I’m looking out for your best interests here. You’re welcome.
First: lock down your pork product. For best results, try to find guanciale—Italian cured pork jowl—from a local butcher or speciality meats store. The fat on guanciale seems to render differently than either pancetta or slab bacon and almost aerates as it crisps up. It’s one of the most beautiful pig parts to work with.
Take about a half pound of guanciale, or whatever salty pork bits you have in your fridge, cut them into tiny cubes, and sauté in a pan until the meat is crispy and the fat is rendered. Remove the pan from the stove and let it hang out somewhere.
Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil and a half pound of dried spaghetti. While the pasta is boiling for its obligatory 10 minutes, crack two eggs in a large mixing bowl then add ¼ cup of parmesan—the good stuff, you don’t want the sawdust-y kind here—and a teaspoon of cracked black pepper. Whisk all that goodness together.
Return your crispy pork bits to the fire on medium heat and add ¼ cup of pasta water. The starch in the pasta water is actually going to help bind the pork fat into a cohesive sauce in the end. Continue to cook the guanciale on medium, until half the water is dissolved, then drain your spaghetti in a colander. After the water has dripped off your noodles, toss them in the guanciale pan and sauté for 30 seconds.
Now, for the step that fucks up 95% of all carbonaras: You need to incorporate the eggs into the hot pasta without the mixture getting too hot and scrambling, and without it being too cold and giving you salmonella.
Take the spaghetti off the heat, immediately add it to the mixing bowl with the eggs, then toss violently with tongs until everything is incorporated. If you keep the pasta moving you don’t run the risk of anything scrambling, but the residual heat of the pork fat will help bring the eggs up to temperature. Serve in a bowl. Eat with your hands.
The good news is, even if you screw it up, the worst you’re left with is a spaghetti and bacon omelet. Not a bad consolation prize.
Still hungry? Check out the other installments of Bite Club here.