Thursday, February 19, 2015

Spicy Pasta Carbonara

I know it's only February, but I am incredibly excited to plant this year's garden. We always plant a few new vegetables (last year it was brussels sprouts and snap peas) but without fail, we always plant hot peppers. They're incredibly easy to grow and we love spice in our house so they're basically a necessity.

Take today's recipe, for example. I took a perfectly delicious carbonara and polluted the recipe with jalapenos. I couldn't help it. I love carbonara but I find it just so heavy and unctuous, which can sometimes be a good thing. But it can also be a little overwhelming and prevents you from stuffing your face, which ends up being a good thing in hindsight but leaves you feeling a little dissatisfied at the dinner table. I think that adding a little heat breaks up the heaviness. Plus, I read that spicy foods up your metabolism so you can feel a little less guilty about all that pasta and cheese.

I previously shared a carbonara recipe that I still love, but I thought it was time for a little update. You can take the recipe I'm sharing today and omit the jalapeno and you'll be left with a classic carbonara and I think it's a little more luxe and delicious than my old post. No offense, past Rach, but this version's better (and prettier).
Ingredients [serves 4 to 6]:
1 lb. pasta
salt (for the pasta water)
4 oz. pancetta, diced
2 shallots, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, sliced
1 cup grated parmesan (you can also use asiago, pecorino, romano, basically, any hard Italian cheese that is nutty and salty)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
+ extra cheese
+ parsley
A coarse setting on the pepper grinder is okay but I love chunky coarse black pepper for my carbonara so I break out the ol' mortar and pestle and grind the peppercorns myself. This is by no means a requirement; it's just my personal preference. But please, oh please, do not buy pre-ground pepper. Invest in a pepper mill. Freshly ground pepper has so much more flavor. The pre-ground stuff might as well be dust for all the flavor it offers.
Okay, let's get to the recipe now. Start by bringing a big pot of water to a rolling boil. Salt it generously (I usually throw 2 tablespoons into my 5 quart pot) and then dump in the pasta. Stir it around to make sure the noodles don't clump up and then let them cook for about 7 minutes, or until al dente. The cooking time will certainly vary depending on the type of pasta you decide to use. I used a thin linguine so 7 minutes was perfect. Thicker noodles, like fettuccine, will take longer.
While the pasta is going, dice up some lovely thick pancetta slices and toss the cubes into a cold pan.
Starting the pork in a cold pan will help render the fat. If it goes into a hot pan, it'll sear immediately and there will be less chance for the fat to melt out of the meat. Turn the heat to medium and let the pancetta sizzle until it's golden. Give the pan a shake every once in a while so it will cook evenly.
While the pancetta is browning, slice up the shallots, mince the garlic, and slice the jalapenos. If you're not into spice, the peppers can be omitted and my feelings will not be hurt.
When the pancetta is golden and there's a good amount of fat in the pan, add in the vegetables and cook until the shallots are softened and lightly browned.
In a separate bowl, combine the grated cheese with two eggs plus the white from the third egg. Reserve the yolk.
Grab about 1 to 1-1/2 cups of pasta water.
Whisk up the eggs and cheese and carefully pour in some of the hot pasta water, about 1/4 cup, and stir as you pour so the eggs don't scramble. Lastly, whisk in some coarse black pepper.
Dump the pancetta mixture into a big bowl.
Drain the pasta and dump it right on top of the pancetta.
Give the pasta a good toss to get the ingredients mixed together and to get the noodles coated in some of the fat from the pancetta.
Pour in the egg mixture and then rapidly toss the pasta. The heat of the pasta will cook the eggs (so you don't have to worry about raw eggs in this dish) but it will also scramble the eggs if you don't work quickly. The goal is to keep the pasta moving until the egg mixture is distributed well and the noodles look lovely and shiny.
The pasta will look really delicious right then and there, but since the noodles are still warm, they're going to want to absorb all of the moisture in the bowl. To prevent the pasta from congealing into a big brain-like mass, pour in some pasta water to loosen up the sauce. I start with about 1/2 cup, toss the noodles, and then make a judgment call. You don't want the pasta to be a sloppy wet mess. You just want there to be enough sauce to lubricate the pasta.
Garnish the pasta with some grated cheese, bits of parsley, and the reserved egg yolk and then present the dish to your guests.
Before serving, toss the pasta one last time to incorporate the yolk and cheese.
I love tongs for serving pasta. I think they make it super easy. My technique is to grab a big serving of pasta with the tongs and lift my hand high into the air. I lower the noodles into my serving bowls, twirling the noodles as my hand descends to create a lovely, aesthetically-pleasing mound of pasta.
Garnish with a little more cheese and parsley and dig in!
I love the nuttiness of the cheese, the saltiness of the pancetta, the creaminess created by the eggs, and of course, that lovely bite from the jalapenos.
We had our carbonara with some roasted tomato bruschetta and a baby kale salad. Carbonara is heavy enough that you don't really need a protein to accompany it (at least I don't). But, because it is a heavier dish, I love to serve it with greenery and bright vegetables.
Here's the recipe page:

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