One of my criteria when I go out to eat is to order a dish that I can’t, or won’t, make at home. Why spend the money on a dish that I can likely make for less money with a higher degree of ingredient control in my own home? Do any of you all have this rule, also? Every so often, I will take a dish that has previously been deemed “out of my league” and tackle it at home in the hopes that I don’t have to wait to go out to eat in order to enjoy its deliciousness. Spaghetti carbonara was one of those dishes that was always deemed out of my league. Cooking eggs with carryover heat to create a sauce? I was skeptical, at best. I’d seen some shows on Food Network on how to make it, and I’d eaten plenty of plates of carbonara from local Italian restaurants. I was content to let the professionals tackle such a complicated dish. But then, one day, I just decided I would not be bested by eggs, cheese, pasta, and heat. Y’all, I’m here to tell you a secret. Listen closely. It isn’t all that complicated. Not.at.all. Here we go!
4 ounces pasta – I like linguine, personally
4 eggs: 2 whole and 2 yolks
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
8 Kalamata olives
1/3 cup diced onion
2 – 4 cups chopped spinach (I only had 2 cups this time, but I wish I’d had more.)
1 tablespoon of oil or butter (for cooking the onions – your preference)
Basil or parsley leaves for garnish if desired
1. Put a large pot of water on to boil for your pasta. Salt the water liberally as this is your only chance to season your pasta. A Food Network chef once said, “The water should taste like the ocean.”
2. While the water is boiling (and doesn’t it always seem to take forever??), dice your onion, drain, blot, and chop your olives, and grate your cheese.
3. Heat a skillet over medium heat. I typically use 5 out of 10 on the dial on my stove. Add your butter or oil, and let it heat up for a minute or two. Add in your onions, turn the dial down to 3 or 4, and let them sauté until they reach your preferred level of softness.
4. Usually while my onions are cooking, my pasta water is ready. Add your pasta and cook it for the time given on the box. This is semi-critical for the remainder of the recipe. I suggest you set a timer to keep you on track.
5. Crack your whole eggs into a bowl. Carefully crack the eggs you need to separate over the sink and separate using your preferred method, adding only the yolks to the bowl. Add the cheese and beat well. It will be thick, and this is okay.
6. Chop the spinach, and check on your onions to make sure they aren’t burning – just sautéing and even caramelizing just a bit.
7. With about 2 minutes to go on your timer, turn your heat down to low (I go with 1 or 2 on my dial), add your spinach to the onions and mix them together. The spinach will cook and wilt a little bit. You can cook it higher or longer if you prefer your spinach to be more wilted or cooked. I do not. Add your olives just at the last minute, and toss them around.
8. When the timer goes off, drain your pasta, and then add it to the pan of veggies. Gently stir to mix it all up. Now you can choose your level of bravery and comfort. Officially you can turn the heat off and proceed, or you can leave it just barely on low. It’s up to you.
9. Once your pasta is all mixed up with the veggies, add your cheese-egg mixture, stir like crazy, and don’t stop for a good 90 seconds – 2 minutes. Keep stirring! For a split second, you may think it resembles something that might want to be a scrambled-egg pasta. Keep stirring, and something magical will happen as it transforms into a creamy, cheesy egg sauce for your pasta. It will be pale yellow/light white and well combined when all is said and done.
10. Transfer to a plate, top with your desired garnish, and enjoy your impressive feat.
A few recipe notes: This is certainly not a traditional carbonara. Traditional carbonara is simply the pasta (which ought to be spaghetti to stay within tradition), the egg/cheese sauce and a crispy pork product like pancetta or bacon. The cheese should be Parmesan if at all possible. However, I first made this recipe for Meatless Monday, and I wanted to balance out what I assumed to be a high calorie/fat content with some vegetables and to add some additional flavors while removing the bacon. In my carbonara research, the “experts” and purists were emphatic that cream did not belong in a carbonara recipe. Nonetheless, there are many recipes out there with cream in them. My thought, however, is that there is already a CUP of cheese and FOUR egg yolks in this recipe. Do we really need cream? I think not, friends. Let us show some restraint somewhere. 🙂 Last note, I’ve mixed my sauce and pasta both over heat and off heat. For my current, personal comfort level, I prefer to mix it over the barest level of heat, but I’m also sure that the one time I did it off heat, my boyfriend and I survived without contracting food-borne illness. So maybe one day soon, I’ll graduate to full off-heat mixing.
Since I’ve clearly made my peace with a non-traditional carbonara dish, I do encourage you to experiment with variations of your own pasta carbonara. To me, this dish is simply begging to be experimented with, be it with pasta type, different kinds of veggies, or various kinds of crispy pork bits. So far, I’ve made my carbonara with combinations of kale, spinach, onions, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, green onions, bacon bits, and broccoli. The combination I gave you above is my preferred Meatless Monday combination. I did really enjoy the crispy bacon bits the one time I had them, but they aren’t a deal maker for me. The green onions are also really nice on top. A word of caution about the tomatoes, if you choose to try them: they will make your sauce much looser than you might anticipate. As they are made up of so much water, it’s hard to get it all out before you cook them; they will release their liquid into your skillet, and thus, it will end up in your sauce which will be a little thinner and a little pinker than you were ready for. Just a heads up. I’d love to know what combination of vegetables you use in your pasta carbonara!
If you are unused to separating eggs, let me offer you a few tips. First of all, you do not need any special kitchen gadgets to separate eggs! And this is serious business coming from a lover of all kitchen gadgets. Your clean hands or the egg shells will work just fine. Some folks prefer to use their hands to separate the egg, cracking it and pouring it into their hand over the bowl or sink, depending on which part you need. You can let the whites run out between your fingers, leaving the yolk behind. Alternatively, you can carefully crack the egg in as close to half as you can get and then, leaving the yolk in one half of the eggshell, let the whites run out over the edges. Gently shift the yolk to the other half of the yolk, and the rest of the white will run out; if you do this maybe 3 or 4 times, you will get a white-less yolk.
If you are cooking for one, this is a great dish for that as it scales easily. Just adjust your eggs at one egg and one yolk per person and a half cup of cheese per set of eggs for the sauce. Past that, it really is all about your vegetable preference. When I’m making it just for me and not for my blog, I’m less likely to measure and just to eyeball instead. Maybe it’s a little extra onion-y and garlicky that night, but if it’s just me, who cares? I encourage you not to care either. Throw caution to the wind, and go with what your taste buds tell you sounds good!
Leave me a comment, and share what veggie combinations you have tried or are planning to try. I’d love some inspiration myself, and it is always good to share the foodie love with others. Good luck and don’t be intimidated; you can do it! Happy eating!