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I first tried spaghetti carbonara last month when my in-laws visited for a week. We went to dinner at a fabulous restaurant in the North End, and, feeling brave, I ordered the spaghetti carbonara.
Up until a couple years ago, I had a strong aversion to bacon and all things pork. This is a direct result of taking AP biology senior year of high school. We dissected fetal pigs for weeks, it seemed, and kept the preservative-soaked corpses on trays around the room that whole time. Or maybe they were kept in buckets, but I think it was trays. Anyway, the air in that room was thick with the nauseating perfume of dead fetal pig flesh, and I had to breathe it in for 45 minutes a day. It’s a peculiar and distinctly porky smell, and it lingered in my nose for months afterwards. Even years later, the smell of a pork roast or bacon would turn my stomach.
Then I met my husband.
James loves bacon. And he cooks it really, really well, so that it crumbles and dissolves in your mouth. Needless to say, with some patient guidance/prodding/coaching from James, I slowly overcame my bacon aversion. Then we visited his parents for Easter, and his mom served ham. Ham! I could handle smoky, crispy bacon, but ham? I wasn’t sure, but I had to try. I had to be polite! So I had some ham, and it was good! I guess avoiding pork for years helped disassociate edible pork from preserved fetal pork. From that point on, I didn’t have trouble eating bacon, and I even cooked up a couple of hams (oo, I’ll have to share that recipe sometime!) but every once in a while the specter of fetal pig smells comes back to haunt me. I cooked up a pork roast this spring and I could hardly touch it, it was so fetal-piggy.
So I’m still a bit nervous about different applications of pork, which is why I’d never tried spaghetti carbonara, whose flavor comes mainly from bacon. And I was a bit anxious that I wouldn’t like it, but oh boy, was it good. Rich and savory and yes bacon-y, but in a fabulous non-fetal pig way.
James tried it and loved it too, so I knew when I spotted a recipe for it in my America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook that I’d have to give it a whirl.
This recipe was a little bit tricky, but it probably would have been less so had I actually read it thoroughly beforehand. My biggest flub was the bacon – you cook in in olive oil (which I inadvertantly omitted) and then in wine, which you reduce down. Well, I set my husband to cooking the bacon just like he always does (for some reason I always overcook bacon so it’s just best if he handles it) and after five or so minutes I actually read the bacon instructions. First, it should be chopped! Stike one. It should be cooked in olive oil! Strike two. After a bit of cooking, you add the wine to reduce. Almost strike three – I read that just in time and dumped the wine in so it could reduce down without cooking the bacon to death. After it cooled off a bit, I chopped the bacon on a cutting board and I don’t think I lost too much of the juices, so it turned out fine in the end.
Oh wait, that should be chopped…
Also, I underestimated the size of the bowl. The one I chose held all the pasta with no room leftover. I should have chosen a bigger bowl so that I could stir the eggs into the pasta quickly without flinging bacon and noodles around the room. The bowl needs to be big enough to hold a full pound of pasta with plenty of room leftover, and it needs to be ovensafe enough to be heated at 200 degrees.
The bowl turned out to be crucial. After you drain the pasta and put it in the bowl, you have to stir the bacon mixture and the egg and cheese mixture into the pasta – quickly. That’s the key to getting the eggs to cook into a creamy sauce without scrambling, and since my bowl was awkwardly small, I had to stir carefully and the sauce turned out a bit chunkier than I think is ideal. I was pretty fed up and frustrated at the end, and dumped it all into the biggest bowl I own even though it wasn’t warm (apparently having the bowl warm is also key to getting smooth sauce) and continued stirring until it was evident that the little chunks weren’t magically disappearing, at which point I threw my hands up in frustration and served it.
So it didn’t turn out pretty, but it sure was tasty – rich and creamy despite the chunky bits. And you know, I didn’t even notice the little chunks. And while the bacon flavor is definitely noticeable – you get it in every bite, even if you don’t get a piece of bacon – it’s subtle and smoky goodness. It adds a rich depth of flavor to the sauce without being overwhelmingly bacon-y. I definitely want to try this again, because I’d like to master the egg-stirring before attempting it for guests. This recipe is definitely a keeper – no surprise, coming from America’s Test Kitchen!
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
From America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
Start to finish: 30 minutes
3 large eggs
1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (3/4 cup)
1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese
3 garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces bacon (8 slices) chopped fine
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 pound spaghetti
1. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position, place a large serving bowl on the rack, and heat the oven to 200 degrees. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot for spaghetti.
2. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, cheeses, and garlic together and set aside.
3. Cook the bacon and olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until the bacon is crisp, about 8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it is slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cover.
4. When the water is boiling, stir in 1 tablespoon salt and the spaghetti. Cook, stirring often, until the spaghetti is almost tender but still a little firm to the bite.
5. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water then drain the spaghetti, leaving it slightly wet. Remove the warm bowl from the oven and add the spaghetti. Immediately pour the egg and bacon mixtures over the spaghetti and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Add the reserved pasta cooking water as needed to loosen the sauce before serving.