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Pasta carbonara was once described to me as the Italian version of eggs and bacon. It is the ultimate comfort food, the only food that has every really been able to compete with macaroni and cheese in my heart. True life: my favorite thing in the entire world is macaroni and cheese.
When I'm in the united states, I have a lot of trouble not ordering mac and cheese if its on the menu. When I was in Rome, I had a lot of trouble not ordering pasta carbonara if it was on the menu. I remember feeling a lot of regret, actually, pretty much every time I didn't order it.
One of my favorite things to do after coming home from a trip is to try to learn to cook something that i ate a lot of when I was wherever I was. As it turns out, no one really wants to listen to you blabber on about how beautiful Rome is/was and why you felt like it was your spirit city. See? Your eyes just glazed over. I saw it.
The best way to share memories of a trip is by cooking a travel-inspired dinner for someone. Then, you'll be allowed 5 minutes of reminiscing about your trip while they gobble down the food you made them and politely nod as they ignore what you're saying. And so obviously, when I left the land of carbonara, I needed to figure out how to recreate it.
There's a lot of argument about carbonara if you google a recipe for it. My understanding is that even among Romans, people kind of cook it the way their mothers cooked it. I have experimented a bit and have found a general formula that works. The recipe I'm including below is for 2 people, but these are the amounts that I've found work, per person:
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup of diced meat, uncooked. (we'll come back to what kind of meat.)
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 3/4 cup cheese
Ideally, you want to use guanciale for this recipe. Guanciale is cured pork jowl, and is similar to bacon or pancetta except that it is way better. For Chapel Hill and Durham folks, here are the sources that I've found: Weaver Street market, the trailer (not sure what it's actually called) that sells pork products at the Carrboro Farmer's Market, and Rose's Meats and Sweets in downtown Durham. Otherwise, use the absolute best, most thickly cut bacon you can find, or pancetta.
I like the addition of the lemons in this because the bit of acidity cuts through the richness really beautifully. Blanching and frying the lemons takes a little extra time, but it's so, so worth it to make this dish feel a little more special. Plus, they look so beautiful.
FRIED LEMON PASTA CARBONARA
35 minutes, serves 2.
- 1 lemon
- 1/2 pound pasta (I prefer linguine or rigatoni)
- 3/4 cup freshly grated pecorino romano cheese (finely grated)
- 3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (finely grated)
- 2 eggs, whisked until smooth
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper + more to taste
- 1/2 cup guanciale, cut into 1/4 inch chunks
Bring a small pot of water to a simmer. Slice lemons as thinly as possible, making sure to remove the seeds. Place the lemons in the pot of water and simmer until the pith is translucent, about 10 minutes. Remove them from water and dry them gently on a paper towel.
Add guanciale to a cold dry pan, then heat to medium-high heat. Cook guanciale until crispy, about 10 minutes, stirring often to make sure it browns evenly. It will quickly release a lot of oil, so don't worry. Once cooked, reduce heat to low and remove the pieces with a slotted spoon. Then, gently add your lemon slices to the hot grease and cook slowly, flipping them often, until they're golden brown and crispy. Retain the oil.
Cook pasta according to the directions on the package. While this is happening, stir together eggs, pepper, and cheese until you have a pasty mixture. When pasta is just shy of being al dente, remove from heat and drain, retaining about 1/2 cup of the hot cooking water.
Place the pasta back in the pot and add enough of the guanciale grease to generously coat the pasta. Stir enthusiastically. Add about 2 tbsp of the hot water to the egg mixture and stir. Then, slowly add the egg mixture to the hot pasta, stirring quickly. Place the pot back on the burner, lowering the heat to a 1 or 2. Now you stir. Initially, the sauce will be runny and won't stick to the pasta very well. Keep stirring. At this point, you're basically cooking the eggs, but you want to do so at a speed that lets them get thick, shiny and smooth. You don't want them to scramble, so don't raise the heat. Keep stirring until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of your spoon, or until there isn't much liquid in the bottom of the pot as you stir. Keep tasting, and add more salt and pepper to your preferences. I like a lot of pepper in mine, but not everyone is as addicted to pepper as I am.
Divide the pasta into two bowls and sprinkle the bacon on top. Place the lemons on top of that and serve.
Let's go to Rome.