The Big Flap Over “La Carbonara”

I don’t know if you have been following the latest controversy in the foodie world, but I thought I’d share this one! Italians are very protective of the authenticity of original recipes, particularly of dishes that characterize a city, a town, or a region. They are known to criticize the intrusion of one “false” ingredient or a gross variation of a dish and discuss it vehemently. So you can imagine the reaction to  the British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara which called for cream and, lord…., wine (ehm…even vermouth) in a recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara.

download-1I first caught this news item on the online magazine La Cucina Italiana where the reaction was swift and the outrage palpable. The title of the article, “Nigella Lawson toccaci tutto, ma non la carbonara!”  – meaning “Nigella Lawson, you can touch anything, but not the carbonara” says it all!  It continues on to describe “lo scandalo”, “questa volta l’ha combinata grossa” – “this time she has really blew it.” My antennas were alerted. Then I caught the story on the Kitchn, I knew a Twitter storm had brewed.

Just as The Kitchn’s Susmita Baral suggests correctly, what constitutes authenticity and how far can one go to  say a dish can be called something when it has been adulterated? Using pancetta instead of guanciale can be pardoned, as La Cucina Italiana, states….but adding cream? Vermouth? The pasta, a traditional Roman dish, can no longer be called  spaghetti alla carbonara cried one reader. It is true that spaghetti alla carbonara, like so many dishes, has been tortuously corrupted by the addition of other elements (peas!, sausage…I even saw it served in a bread bowl – horror of horrors!) that makes it no longer recognizable. One of my pet peeves is that one should not longer call a dish by its original name when a new ingredient has been added…..even if one adds a disclaimer as Nigella did that the recipe was not entirely authentic. Give it a new name and keep the purity of the recipe.

So let me set the record straight for my readers about this profoundly Roman dish, a dish with a few simple ingredients -and beware of those simple ingredients!!! Here is the recipe with a few rules attached:

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 lb. spaghetti (invest in good quality – De Cecco or Delverde) – only spaghetti, not spaghettini, linguine, tagliatelle, or short pasta. Ravioli would be heresy!

6-7 oz. diced guanciale ( pancetta will do if you can’t find jowl bacon. Make sure the pancetta is cut thick before you dice it. Do not use American bacon unless you are absolutely desperate.)

3-4 eggs  preferably at room temperature. Here is where a great deal of controversy arises. Yolks or full eggs?!? I have used the entire egg…but the pasta actually seizes up due to the egg whites.Purists say the yolks render the pasta silkier – and this is true.You can alternate one yolk for one entire egg. Calculate one yolk per person.

Parmigiano or pecorino – a good quantity not only to add to the dish before serving, but on your pasta as you eat it. Again a little controversy here. Some say pecorino is more authentic. I say…take your pick and what you have on hand!

Salt and lots of black pepper as seasoning.

Some big No-no’s: no butter or olive oil, no milk or cream, no wine, no garlic or onion ever ever….

Before you throw the pasta into the boiling salted water, cook the guanciale until it is nicely browned (cook it slowly so not to burn it). You will see it will render some fat which you can use in the dish. I prefer to drain some of it. Cook the pasta until it is al dente, then after you drain it (keep some water aside) and place it in a bowl, add the guanciale and the eggs (slightly scrambled), some of the cooking water and mix quickly until the egg cooks with heat and becomes creamy. Add the grated cheese (and more water if the pasta seems too dry) and keep stirring. Serve with more parmigiano and freshly grated black pepper. Heaven!

Nothing can be more soothing than a great plate of spaghetti alla carbonara. This is a classic and for good reason. And please, please…hold the peas….