Today at lunch we had one of my favorite dishes for the pasta course* – one which we get very rarely but many of us would be completely satisfied to eat daily: Pasta alla Norcina.
(“Norcina” is pronounced “norcheena”, and it refers to the town of Norcia, where a certain kind of sausage, used in this pasta, is famously produced. Benedictine Monks there – many of them from the United States, I might add – also now produce a good beer, and it’s a great place to visit.)
Here is a photo I found through Google Images:
Here is a recipe that I found online, which looks about right. I’ve never made this. Various people in my family are lactose intolerant. So I’ll have to find the right group to test it on. But I do intend to learn how to make it.
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Recently, some friends (not from the United States) were here in Rome visiting, and I made Pasta alla Carbonara for them – my favorite Italian pasta dish, and another pasta that doesn’t have a bit of tomato in it. (Also, alas, not a low-calorie food.) Anyway, they were a bit surprised to learn that it was a traditional Roman/Italian dish. For them, where they are from, “Italian pasta has tomato-based sauce”!
I am still working on perfecting my carbonara skillz, but I’ve definitely gotten better at it, and I think I’ve gotten over the fear of the sauce scrambling. It’s a pretty quick-and-easy dish to make, when all is said and done. Americans tend to be afraid of it because we have suspicions that maybe the eggs are not fully cooked, that we will be poisoned, that we will die, etc.
Here is one recipe that seems pretty much right, but it’s not really the one that I use – in any case, there are a lot of different techniques and everyone has his or her preferences.
For me, a proper carbonara has the following:
– Guanciale (smoked pork cheek), or in its absence, a good smoked bacon or pancetta, cut into small strips or cubes; in the US, we can get guanciale on Amazon.com (for a small fortune)
– A dash of olive oil for the meat
– About 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of white wine to de-glaze the pan (of course, you would never drain off the fat; that gets included in the sauce)
– One large egg per person
– About a cup of grated pecorino romano cheese, sometimes I mix it with paremsan
– About a teaspoon of ground black pepper
– Pasta (preferably penne or rigatoni) cooked al dente in heavily salted water
(all of these quantities are estimates and will vary based on how many people you are cooking for)
First I crack the eggs into a mixing bowl, beat until thoroughly blended, and mix in the cheese and black pepper. The quantity of cheese should noticeably thicken the egg mixture. Then I let that sit at room temperature and I fry the pork with the olive oil until it is thoroughly browned (but not burnt). Then I pour in the white wine while the pan is still quite hot to de-glaze the pan. I continue cooking for a few minutes to boil off some of the alcohol in the wine. Then the pan needs to be removed to a cooler place so that the fat and the meat will cool.
Next the pasta should be cooked in a very large pot full of heavily salted water. Be sure to cook it only to al dente. This is important for two reasons. One, so that you will enjoy a pasta that is not too mushy. Two, so that the pasta will not break up as you mix it (quickly) with the sauce.
Once the pork is cooled it should be dumped, along with its savory sauce, into the egg mixture, and this should be thoroughly mixed until combined. Sing a nice song and think happy thoughts and do not focus on the fact that you are mixing huge amounts of fat into a mixture of various other fats and proteins. It’s all going to taste wonderful.
Once the pasta water has become good and starchy, take roughly a ladle-full and cool it quickly. It will not be enough to put it in the freezer; pour it repeatedly between two glasses, or find some other way to cool it down completely. Then pour it, also, into the egg mix. (It is important that everything that goes into the eggs be room temperature so that it does not scramble the eggs or melt the cheese.)
When the pasta is done I dump it into a colander in the sink and let it sit for a bit, while I put the pan aside and let it also cool down just a tad. Maybe a minute total. Then I pour it back into the pan (it will still be quite hot) and immediately dump the egg mixture over it. It is important to stir it right away so that it does not scramble and so that the cheese melts and the eggs cook from the heat of the pasta and the pan.
If you have done everything well the end result should be a pasta with a very nice sauce that is not too thick or too runny and which is quite tasty. Dish it out and serve it immediately, as this type of pasta does not reheat well at all.
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*Eating food in “courses” is normal in Italy; first an antipasto (appetizer), then the pasta, then the meat/vegetable, then cheese, then dessert, etc. Some of these may be left out, only one course might be eaten, etc. But rarely is everything served together, like we would do back home. Naturally, there are different types of alcohol to go with each course.