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Don’t rake dinner over the coals – try spaghetti

The other night I made some spaghetti alla carbonara, and it was delicious. I began wondering why I had not done it before and decided to do some research on its origin.

Pasta alla carbonara (usually spaghetti, but sometimes linguine) is an Italian pasta dish based on eggs, pecorino and romano cheeses, and pancetta and black pepper. It was created in the middle of the 20th century.

The origin is pretty obscure and there are legends about it. As the name is derived from the Italian word for charcoal, some believe that the dish was first made as a hearty meal for Italian charcoal workers. This theory gives rise to the term “coal miner’s spaghetti,” which is used to refer to spaghetti alla carbonara in parts of the United States.

Others say that is was originally made over charcoal grills. Still others say that it is named so because of the specks of bacon and pepper in the pasta, which look like charcoal. It has been suggested that it was created by, or as a tribute to, the Carbonari (charcoal-men), a secret society prominent in the unification of Italy.

The popularity of the dish began after the Second World War, when many Italians were eating eggs and bacon supplied by troops from the United States. The recipe was included in Elizabeth David’s 1954 cookbook published in Great Britain. The dish became popular among American troops stationed in Italy; upon their return home, they popularized spaghetti alla carbonara in North America.

The recipes vary, though all agree that cheese (parmesan, pecorino, or a combination), egg yolks (or whole eggs), cured pork (usually pancetta) and black pepper are basic. I usually use Parmesan because I have that on hand and not the others.

The pork is fried in fat (olive oil or lard), a mixture of eggs, cheese, and butter or olive oil is combined with the hot pasta, cooking the eggs, the pork is then added to the pasta.

Cream is not used in Italian recipes, but it is used in the United States, France and the UK. Other Anglo/ Franco variations of carbonara may include peas, broccoli or other vegetables used for color. Another American version includes mushrooms and many of these preparations have more sauce that the Italian versions, and resemble fettuccine alfredo. But in all versions, the eggs are added to the sauce raw, and cook with the heat of the pasta.

Carborana is a dish for all seasons, to be consumed in great quantities. It is luscious, simple, and, thanks to the eggs and fatty pork, slightly naughty. (I think eggs are healthful especially if pasture raised but not many are.) Experience has taught me that it is the way to a man’s heart, unless he is watching his cholesterol (my man doesn’t).

I have included two recipes. The one I used is from the 2009 March issue of Redbook magazine and the other is from the cookbook by Maracella Hazan, “More Classic Italian Cooking.” You decide which you should try, but try it you must.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

(From Redbook Magazine)

Preparation: 8 minutes

Cook time: 22 minutes

4 oz slab-bacon or pancetta, cut in 1/4-inch dice

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 extra-large eggs

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

1/2 tsp. each kosher salt and red pepper flakes

1 lb. dried spaghetti

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.

Cook bacon or pancetta in oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat until golden brown and most of the fat has been rendered, about eight to 10 minutes, then remove skillet from heat.

In a medium bowl whisk eggs, parsley, salt and red pepper flakes until combined.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook according to package directions, until al dente (tender yet firm to the bite). Drain pasta, reserving one cup of the cooking water.

Add hot spaghetti to bacon mixture in skillet and toss well over medium-low heat until pasta is coated. Add egg mixture and a little of the cooking water; toss gently until spaghetti looks creamy. Add cheese and toss to combine. Serve immediately.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

(From Marcella Hazan)

Serves 4

Heat 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add four cloves crushed garlic; cook until golden, about one minute. Remove and discard garlic. Add one 2/3 pound chunk pancetta cut into 1/2 -inch long strips; cook until edges are crisp, five to six minutes. Add 2/3 cup white wine; simmer until thickened, two to three minutes. Remove from heat. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add 1 pound dried spaghetti and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup pasta water.

In a large bowl, whisk together 2/3 cup finely grated parmigiano-reggiano, 1/4 cup finely grated pecorino-romano, 2 tbsp. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, and 2 eggs. Slowly drizzle in reserved pasta water while whisking constantly. Add spaghetti along with reserved pancetta mixture. Season with salt and generous amount of pepper. Toss to combine.

Buon appetito.