This dish has been a winter-long workhorse for me. I must have made it at least a half dozen times over our cold, though snow-less Boston winter. I even made it for my parents when I went home for Christmas. It’s the kind of dish that always sounds like a good idea: pasta studded with just the right amount of crispy, salty pancetta, coated with a rich, creamy (yet cream-less) sauce, and still loaded with a ton of vegetables. I knew I’d post it here in the next few months, but hadn’t found the right excuse. It’s the meal you make late at night, exhausted, after work, and you don’t bother to take photos of the food on the plate because it doesn’t stay there long anyway.
And then this month’s Recipe Redux topic was announced: the first shoots of spring. The theme highlights the first fresh produce of the season, and the recipes (check out more contributions to the Redux below) incorporate a wide range of veggies including ramps, Carolina sweet onions, and asparagus. And I though: what a perfect opportunity to introduce this fabulous carbonara.
Spring seems to arrive a bit later in Boston, and our farmer’s markets aren’t up and running yet, so I didn’t have a huge variety of spring shoots to incorporate into my recipe. All winter long, I’d been using leeks and onions, but a trip to Whole Foods in the early days of April yielded a bunch of spring garlic. I sliced the bulbs, including a good portion of their stalks, into thin strips that cook down and mirror the spaghetti pasta base of the carbonara. Both the pasta and the spring garlic can be twirled around your fork. The spring garlic has a sharp flavor when it’s raw, but it mellows quite a bit with cooking and becomes sweet and almost caramelized in the pan.
The sauce is made with a combination of whole eggs, egg yolks, and pasta water. Eggs have been a much-maligned food in the nutrition world in previous decades, but they actually fit well in a healthy diet. Recent research shows it’s the saturated fat content in foods, not necessarily the dietary cholesterol, that’s primarily responsible for raising unhealthy blood cholesterol levels. So this carbonara nixes the heavy cream and relies completely on a few egg yolks for its silken texture. It’s important to reserve more pasta water than you think you need, just in case the dish ends up being a little dry.
This recipe calls for pancetta, which I’d highly recommend over bacon. Bacon can be substituted, but it will have a stronger flavor, which can overwhelm the spring garlic, so you may want to use less. Alternatively, the dish can be made vegetarian by omitting the pancetta all together and ever so slightly upping the amount of Parmesan and salt used.
Spring Garlic Carbonara
1/4 lb. pancetta, trimmed of excess fat
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
3 bulbs spring garlic
1/2 red onion
1 lb. spaghetti or linguini
2 eggs + 2 egg yolks
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
approximately 1 cup reserved pasta water
1. Dice the pancetta into small cubes, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Prep the vegetables before starting: roughly chop the garlic and set aside. Thoroughly wash the leeks and spring garlic bulbs (rinse between the layers to remove all residual dirt). Chop the root and the rough leaves off the ends of the plant; you should have between 6 and 8 inches of leek and garlic stalks to use. Halve the stalks lengthwise. Cut each stalk into 4-inch pieces. Continue to cut the stalks lengthwise to achieve slivers (I found quartering each half worked well). Slice the red onion.
2. Over medium heat, cook the pancetta until most of the fat has rendered off (it won’t be much), and it starts to brown and crisp, but not burn. Transfer the cooked pancetta to a plate and drizzle the olive oil to the pan. Add the chopped garlic cloves and cook 2 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables and cook until wilted and starting to color, about 10 more minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti according to package directions. Before draining, reserve at least 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain and return to the pot.
4. Combine the eggs, egg yolks, Parmesan, and 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Whisk quickly to ensure the egg doesn’t start to cook and curdle in the warm water. Combine the vegetables, pancetta, and pasta in the large pot. Pour the carbonara sauce over the pasta and stir – very quickly – to coat evenly. Working fast here is the key to not having scrambled eggs develop on top of your spaghetti. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
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