Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Perfect pasta with a Perpignan twist

If you Google ‘spaghetti’, the third result that you get, after ‘spaghetti bolognese’ and straightforward ‘spaghetti’, is for spaghetti carbonara.

It’s one of the most popular pasta dishes there is, but like so many other things in the world of food, there are plenty of different ways in which this dish with bacon and eggs is made.

A 20th-century arrival amongst the pantheon of great pasta dishes, according to Wikipedia, it’s traditionally made with Guanciale, an unsmoked Italian bacon that’s made with pig's jowl or cheeks. But if your local butcher or deli don’t happen to have any in stock, then worry not: pancetta or some generic lardons or some decent streaky bacon will do just fine.

Last night, I settled for some of the pancetta I'd bought at Lina Stores – opening it was a thrill, seeing such a beautiful piece of bacon was yet another cause to celebrate that trek to Soho for food shopping.

It isn’t common to find cream in the Italian version, although that does feature in versions in France, the UK, the US and Spain, amongst the other countries where it’s popular.

Another matter is that of cheese. As regular readers may recall, The Other Half does not like cheese, but he does like a carbonara as long as it is a cheese free zone.

Many recipes suggest adding cheese, not simply grated, as a garnish on top, but as an integral part of the ‘sauce’. In other words, you whisk the eggs and cream together and pop your grated cheese into that.

Which is interesting, since I’ve known The Other Half order a carbonara in a number of places over the years and I don’t recall him having to request that it have no cheese. I suspect that the restaurant norm is to offer cheese as a garnish.

As it happens, Felicity Cloake, writing recently for the Guardian, was exploring the question of just what makes a perfect quiche lorraine.

It shouldn’t have cheese in, which as Cloake muses: “makes the custard rather salty, which in turn detracts from the bacon, and distracts from the more delicate flavour of the egg.”

So presumably, you could apply much the same theory to a carbonara.

But once we get beyond the cheese question, the main technical issue is that of avoiding scrambling the eggs over the pasta.

There’s nowt wrong with scrambled eggs and pasta – it makes great pre-football brunch fodder – but it isn’t a carbonara.

The usual approach is to take that beaten egg and cream and, at the last minute, add to the pasta and meat after they’ve been removed from direct heat.

But there’s another way – one that we experienced at Le Grand Café de la Bourse in Perpignan a few years ago and have raved about ever since.

Take your pancetta and cut into strips or dice. (If you’re using ready-made lardons you have nothing to do; if you’re using streaky bacon, simply cut it into smallish pieces)

Heat a frying pan and pop the meat in. Don’t move it around too soon or you’ll prevent it from caramelising.

And don’t put it on a very high heat, because you want this to take a little time. You shouldn't need to add any fat if the bacon itself has plenty.

Once you know that that’s well on the way, cook your spaghetti.

When the pasta is cooked, drain and return to the pan. Add some cream. Stir.

Toss in the pancetta.

Put onto serving dishes.

Take one egg per person, crack carefully and divide the egg. Put the yolk back into half the shell and serve on top of the pasta.

To eat, simply take the egg yolk and pour onto the past. Stir.

It will be warm enough to stop the egg being raw, but without any risk of scrambling. And it gives the dish a fabulously silky texture.

And that is that.

The best spaghetti carbonara going – and almost ridiculously easy. The only thing that is vital with anything so simple is to keep the ingredients as good as possible – and it’s particularly the case here with the eggs.

And you certainly won’t want to play fusion games, as Delia has with her oven-baked risotto carbonara.

1 comment:

  1. DavidN wrote
    Not very good for your other half but hey life’s not fair
    On a visit to friends in Sicily the grandmother made a very simple, quick and very moreish carbonara

    Mixture of freshly grated pecorino and parmesan cheese
    4 egg yolks
    Four garlic cloves

    Cube the pancetta slightly crush each garlic clove,
    Fry the pancetta and garlic, remove the garlic once fried.
    Mix egg yolks and the cheese
    Boil the linguine until al dente
    Put the boiled pasta in a large frying pan with a splash of oil, include some of the pasta water (about 4 tablespoons) add the pancetta (including the tasty fat juice) egg and cheese mixture, take of the heat and stir through perhaps a little more water. The cheese and egg yolk provide a glossy smooth sauce. There is no need for cream.