A couple of months ago I presented this topic, which I feel passionately about, in a blog. If meat production is disproportionately impacting the environment, I consider it my responsibility to reduce that impact. But I’m not ready to eliminate meat altogether; can’t we just be more judicious with how we use meat? So many international cuisines are rooted in this premise: make the valuable animal go a long way.
Recently, I came into possession of a few ounces of pancetta. Pancetta is, more or less, unsmoked bacon. A piece of pork belly is aged with salt and some spices. As it ages, its proteins break apart into amino acids, including glutamate. Glutamate is synonymous with umami, the fifth taste. When bonded with other amino acids to form proteins the glutamate did not affect the palette. But now, independent, it can trigger the senses and create a potent response. With just a half ounce portion in each bowl, we can experience a huge impact.
I chose to make a variation of Pasta Carbonara, which utilizes pancetta as a primary seasoning (along with black pepper and onion). I wanted to incorporate available spring vegetables to build on the nutritional content. I chose asparagus. I also used king oyster mushrooms, which are one of my favorite meat ‘fill-ins’ with their hearty texture (try grilling them skewered!).
The most defining element of carbonara is the sauce, thickened by egg in an incredibly gentle cooking process. The residual heat of the pasta will slightly cook the eggs to make a custard. You’ll notice I don’t salt my pasta water, as I want to utilize the starched water into my sauce. This elixir is the original non-dairy creamer and is a cook’s secret weapon, turning any sauce velvety. It is simply one of the simplest, and cheapest, hacks in a cook’s arsenal.
One of the most common mistakes made when making a pasta dish is leaving the sauce too dry. A hot plate of pasta continues to evaporate moisture; if it starts put stiff, it will be downright uninviting after a quick minute or two. Make sure your sauce has some ‘slosh’ to it by adding pasta water generously when finishing. This will ensure that the last bite is as sumptuous as the first. I chose a short, rolled pasta called spaccatelli because I expected it to trap the sauce well, like its longer cousin strozzapreti. I tip my hat to whomever named the strozzapreti, which translates to ‘priest stranglers’—this is a thrill that should be injected into any meal.
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 oz pancetta, diced 1/4 inch
3 oz king oyster mushrooms, cut into bite-sized pieces
12 oz asparagus, sliced 1 inch pieces
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red chili flake
2 eggs, whisked to break up
1 cup loosely packed, finely grated Pecorino Romano
1/2 pound dry pasta of your choice
2 Tablespoons parsley, chopped
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
1. Heat a pot of water for boiling pasta.
2. Put the oil and pancetta in a 12 inch pan and start heating it on a medium heat. Allow it to slowly sizzle until it has colored but not dried out, about 10 minutes.
3. Add the mushrooms for a couple of minutes, then the asparagus; cook until just tender. Add the garlic for a minute, then the seasoning and shut off the heat.
4. Drop the pasta in the boiling water. Cook until tender. Scoop out and reserve a couple of cups of the pasta water, then drain the pasta in a colander.
5. Add a cup or so of the pasta water to the pancetta pan and make sure it is hot! Reheat if necessary, then shut off the heat.
6. Add the pasta to the pan and toss it all about.
7. Add the eggs and mix it up well, then add the pecorino slowly as you mix. If the pan seems dry then add more pasta water. The key is to have a slightly sloshy creaminess.
8. Taste for seasoning and toss in the parsley, then plate and finish with some Parmigiano.
Want to learn how to make pasta from scratch? Join us for Hands-On Pasta Workshop on Sunday, May 29 at 10am at Lincoln Square. You'll use pancetta as a seasoning agent in one of the dishes on the menu:
- Crab-Stuffed Ravioli with Herb Cream Sauce, Toasted Breadcrumbs and Crispy Pancetta
- Fettuccine Primavera with Arugula Pesto