Growing up with an Italian background, I’ve developed a passion for the great food my relatives introduced me to throughout my childhood. Generally though, I’m not one who believes that there are rules around Italian food that must be followed at all times… with three exceptions: bruschetta is pronounced “bru-sketta,” sugar doesn’t belong in tomato sauce, and spaghetti carbonara contains no cream. Ever.
While the name carbonara is derived from the Italian for “charcoal burner,” the dish’s origins are a bit murkier. One take is that it was called carbonara simply because the pepper resembled tiny flecks of coal. Another story says carbonara was created by coal miners as a quick meal that was easily prepared at job sites. I personally like this story best – because really, what self-respecting Italian preparing for a long stretch away from home wouldn’t pack some dried pasta and cured pork products?
The beauty of carbonara lies in its simplicity. Ultimately, it’s just pasta, pancetta, eggs and pepper. Beyond that, variations are hotly debated among carbonara purists. Some insist that only spaghetti be used, while others (myself included) say any noodle is fine. Some add onions, some garlic, and others use both. While pancetta is most common, some use guanciale instead. The thing everyone seems to agree on is that if it contains cream (relatively common in restaurants), it’s not carbonara.
I usually stick to the basics when I make my carbonara, while adding onions most of the time for a bit of extra flavour. Of course, I also don’t get to make it for dinner very often – its simplicity means carbonara lacks the protein, vegetables and nutrients that Jenny hopes for in a pasta dish. So as much as I get worked up about “real” carbonara, I’m usually trying to find ways to jazz it up and add a bit of nutritional value so my wife will let me make it. Once in a while I’ll add shrimp, or throw in something green and leafy.
My carbonara craving last night happened to coincide with a visit to the Brickworks Farmers Market this past weekend, which led me to create a version of the dish that – while still abiding by my central rule of no cream – threw out pretty much every other basic tenet of carbonara creation. I’d picked up some great smoked bacon from a vendor at the market, so in that went in place of pancetta. I also picked up some garlic scapes, which I thought would provide a compromise solution between onions or garlic. And I also added some frozen spinach and served the sauce on spelt noodles in order to add some nutrients and fibre. Whether or not the resulting dish was “true” carbonara is perhaps a matter of debate, but it tasted great and satisfied my craving nicely.
Smoked Bacon and Garlic Scape Carbonara
Smoked bacon (enough to make the dish as bacon-y as your little heart desires)
2 garlic scapes
Spinach (ideally a large handful of fresh, though I used frozen spinach, thawed and drained, because it’s what I had on hand)
A cup or so of freshly grated parmigiano and/or pecorino-romano cheese
In a bowl, whisk together eggs, grated cheese and several turns of fresh ground pepper. Set aside.
Dice bacon into small cubes, and dice garlic scapes.
Prepare pasta according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and sautee bacon and garlic scapes until both become translucent. Then, turn off the heat.
Before draining pasta, reserve a half cup of the cooking water. Temper the eggs by slowly pouring a few teaspoons of this water into the bowl with your beaten eggs, whisking quickly as you do.
The next couple of steps require some quick work in order to retain the heat in the pasta, which will be used to “cook” the egg:
Toss drained pasta in the pan with the bacon and garlic scapes. Transfer to a large serving bowl, then slowly pour in egg/cheese mixture, tossing the pasta to coat as you pour. The goal is to have the egg sauce heated by the pasta, but to not get so hot that it curdles like scrambled eggs.
Serve in bowls, topped with more grated cheese and fresh ground pepper.