After last month’s recipe for pasta con ricci – which I described as a seafood cousin of pasta alla carbonara – I got a number of requests for an easy pasta alla carbonara recipe.
A few readers told me they feared using raw eggs due to the possibility of salmonella poisoning. In reality salmonella is very rare; however I do suggest using only pastured or farm-fresh eggs, and they must be properly refrigerated. Recent outbreaks of salmonella have been linked to factory farming, which is not only a very inhumane way to raise chickens, it is also where you are most likely to find a salmonella outbreak. (There is a direct connection between factory farming and other illnesses, too, such as E. coli.) The 2010 outbreak, one of the worst in years, was traced to Wright Country Egg, a factory farm in Galt, Iowa, whose owner had numerous health violations. And why is the risk of salmonella higher at such places? Envision a humongous warehouse the size of three city blocks packed with hundreds of thousands of chickens, floor to ceiling, with six or more per cage. Combine sick chickens in a dirty environment with workers who just want to produce as many eggs as possible as cheaply as possible, and you have a potential disaster. So if you’re going to make recipes with raw eggs, I’d stay away from the “buy one dozen, get a second dozen free” type of eggs at the big supermarkets.
Buying farm-fresh or pastured eggs from reputable farmers, though it costs a little more, is not only a way to get better tasting eggs from clean, healthy, happy chickens, it is also a way of supporting small-production farmers who practice responsible, humane animal husbandry.
How pasta alla carbonara originated depends upon the person you’re talking to. If you talk to Sicilians like my grandfather, they will tell you it’s a recipe from ancient times attributed to the Sicilian coal mines (the name translates loosely to “coal miner’s spaghetti”), but others believe it is a fairly recent dish that originated in Rome after World War II.
The key to good carbonara is making sure the eggs don’t scramble. Most recipes call for the egg whites and yolks to be combined, but I separate them and mix milk or cream into the whites – I’ve found this reduces the chance of scrambling. Like with my pasta con ricci, I top the spaghetti with the raw egg yolk and allow my guests to mix it in themselves.
Though traditional carbonara calls for pancetta (pork belly cured in salt, available at Italian delis and well-stocked markets) or bacon, I prefer it vegetarian – I’m not a fan of the extra salt from the pancetta or the smokiness from the bacon. If you love smoky flavor but want to skip the bacon, eggplant or portabella mushrooms cut into small cubes and char-grilled will do the trick. If you miss the saltiness from the pancetta, capers work quite well, and if you eat fish, try sardines or anchovies.
Easy Pasta Carbonara
1 pound dry spaghetti
1 cup cream (you can use milk, but the sauce won’t thicken as nicely)
1/2 cup finely grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons extra-virgin
2 cloves garlic, slightly crushed
4-5 ounces cubed pancetta or thick-cut bacon
Place the pasta in a pot of boiling salted water and stir immediately to prevent it from sticking together.
In a bowl, whisk together cream, grated cheese and black pepper. Separate eggs and set yolks aside in a separate bowl. Add whites to the cream mixture and whisk well.
In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes (until golden), stirring around in the oil. Remove garlic and discard. Add pancetta or bacon and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Drain al dente pasta (firm but not hard), leaving some of the starchy water to aid in thickening the sauce. Add pasta to pan and mix with oil and pancetta. Working quickly, add cream, cheese and egg white mixture and stir vigorously for about a minute, until pasta is well coated and sauce begins to thicken. Split between four large pasta bowls. Top each portion with one egg yolk and more freshly grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.