Spaghetti alla Carbonara

This recipe began in the pages of Giuliano Hazan's The Classic Pasta Cookbook (Dorling Kindersley, 1993), one of those super DK cookbooks with oodles of helpful photographs. (You can still get it from Amazon's Marketplace.) Spaghetti alla carbonara is one of the Classic Sauces, which puts it in a special chapter where every ingredient is pictured in an arc around a bowl containing the finished product. (Other classics are Pasta puttanesca, Pasta primavera, Fettuccine all'Alfredo, and, most important, a recipe for the Bolognese sauce known as rag¨.) You don't really have to know how to read to use this cookbook.

That cookbook. This is my cookbook. I strongly advise you to read what follows all the way through before even thinking of making the dish. It's not that carbonara is in any way difficult. It's simply that I want you to savor my prose in tranquility.

So who am I to fiddle with the orthodox Hazan dynasty recipe for, gee, a dish that was popularized among GIs by Roman working girls who knew that Americans brought home the bacon? If you're asking, you must be new here. And I certainly don't use bacon. Get this: the note in the recipe says, "If pancetta is unavailable you can substitute good quality, lean bacon. It should be unsmoked." Isn't that what pancetta is? If, in the United States, you can put your hands on some good quality, lean bacon that has not been smoked and that is not labeled "pancetta" - well, let me know! Northern Italians who want to teach us la bella cucina can be awfully clueless. I'm reminded of a story that appeared in the Times ten or so years ago. Lorenza de' Medici (no relation, apparently - but how could that be?) was showing a clutch of fine New York ladies how to make a dessert of pears. Lauren Bacall, who was one of the ladies, posed the question that we New Yorkers never stop asking. "Where," she inquired, in a voice right out of Murder on the Orient Express I don't doubt, "do you get good pears?" After a moment's incomprehension, Sra de' Medici stated the obvious: "Why, from your orchard!"

I buy a chunk of pancetta about four inches thick every so often, just to keep in the freezer. (Someday I shall sing the praises of pancetta.) When I need a few slices, I pull out the Chef's Choice slicer, which has no trouble at all with a little roll of frozen meat. (Expensive, yes, but so worth it in the long run that I think you ought to throw yourself a kitchen shower right now, regardless of your marital intentions. If you can cook at all well, self-interest will motivate your friends.) Perhaps you will find it more convenient to ask for a couple of thick slices at the deli counter. By "thick," I mean just a little too thick for a sandwich. Let's say (does anybody have a ruler?) a little less than half a centimetre thick. Stack the three round pieces and cut them in half. Cut each half in two pieces parallel to the diameter, and then turn the stack to the perpendicular and cut stubby little matchsticks. Melt a knob of butter over medium-low heat in a sautÚ pan, and throw in the pancetta. It should be browned slowly, and you may want to turn the pieces with a pair of tongs. When the meat is about done, pour in some good white wine, anywhere between a quarter and half of a cup. Let the wine reduce, perhaps over slightly greater heat, and when it's very viscous, with perhaps a few tarry blobs, turn the heat down to pilot-light strength, or, if your stove doesn't do that, put the pan on a flame-tamer over the lowest setting.

But I ought to have told you to bring a vat of water to the boil. True, this is just a test, to see if you read recipes all the way through before embarking. No matter if I took you by surprise: the pancetta can sit and wait for - well, for long enough to bring a vat of water to the boil. And I do mean a vat. At least a gallon of water! Don't think about cooking pasta in saucepans and casseroles. Get out your lobster pot if you have to, and fill it. When it comes to the boil, Add a tablespoon or two of salt, and then half a pound of spaghetti. (That's easy - it's half the box.) Break the pasta in half and add it gently to the boiling water. Stir it carefully to prevent clumping. When the boil resumes, and the pasta does its snake dance, turn your attention to the sauce.

I hope that you don't think that this is a lot of work.

Into a small food processor - the little unit that comes with the KitchenAid three-in-one immersion blender/egg beater/food processor is just right - crack the yolks of two eggs, reserving the whites for something else. (I have written about separating eggs elsewhere.) I used to slack, and use one whole egg, but, trust me: the difference is huge. You do not want a lot of egg white cutting the flavors of this dish! So: egg yolks. Add a handful of parsley leaves. How much? Don't ask me! Parsley is incredibly personal, and one of the jobs facing any serious cook is just how far to go with parsley, while accepting the fact that some people don't even like to see it on their plates as garnish. But you must put in a little, at least, and it must be fresh. Finally, add some already grated parmesan. Just a tablespoon or two; you'll add more cheese at the table. Whir these ingredients until the parley pieces are very small, but don't let the entire mixture turn green. Yellow with pieces of green is what we're looking for here. 

I might as well tell you now that the eggs yolks will be poached by the hot spaghetti, and the warm pancetta. You will not actually cook the eggs yourself, so to speak. Unless you let the pasta get unappetizingly cold, it will do the job, and you needn't fear that you'll be eating raw eggs. If, on the other hand, you have good reason to fear salmonella, don't make this dish. If you buy the most expensive, organic eggs available, you're almost certain - 99.99% sure - to avoid the bacterium. That's safer than driving.

By now, the pasta will be just about ready. Get out two pasta bowls (see a Williams-Sonoma catalogue if you don't know what I mean), and set up the wine/wine glasses/napkins/fork/extra parmesan in an attractive manner. Perhaps a small tossed green salad would be a good idea, too, especially if you've been sparing with the spaghetti. (I, unfortunately, consider this a dish for one.) When all is in readiness, drain the pasta and coat it with a tablespoon of butter. With a slotted spoon, transfer as much of the pancetta and as little of everything else in the sautÚ pan into a large-enough salad bowl (but you could always use the empty lobster pot). Dump the spaghetti on top of that, and pour the egg-parlsey mixture on top of it all. Toss very well. Divide among plates if you must.

The anthropologist Claude LÚvi-Strauss divided food into three categories: the cooked, the raw, and the rotten. (Rotten, you say? Think wine and cheese.) For the cook, a more helpful division would be between the precisely measured and the improvised. Almost everything baked requires carefully-measured ingredients; baking cakes is nothing less than applied chemistry. Spaghetti alla carbonara, on the other hand, is an improvised dish, which is why I haven't laid out all the ingredients in the usual way. I can't think of an element in this dish that must be added just-so. The just-so part is up to you, and when you find it, then you can write it down, although I'll wager that by that point you won't need to refer to a recipe. You may be very tempted to use bacon; it's so much easier to find. (But if you do, be sure parboil it first for a a few minutes, to extract some of the salt - a trick I learned from Julia Child's Mastering.) Or you may prefer some other pasta shape. But if parsley or eggs are a problem, then find another recipe.

If you've followed my advice, and read all of this before you've even gone to the store, then perhaps you'll have made some penciled notes, at least as to quantities. Go over them now, and take care to arrange them in the three parts of this dish's manufacture: pancetta, pasta, sauce. C'mon, it's cake. No! It's anything but cake! It's easy.

My God! This book has been signed by the author. What the *!%&* is it doing in the kitchen? (February 2005)

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