The coronavirus lockdown gives keen home cooks a chance to hone their skills. But what about the rest of us?
Novices, or consumers of ready meals, have time on their hands, too, and this is an opportunity to learn how to cook dishes that are simple and delicious, especially if a culinary master takes time to talk us through it.
So I asked Francesco Mazzei, one of the leading Italian chefs in the U.K., to teach me how to make spaghetti alla carbonara and I have to say I was quite surprised at how easy it is. But first a word on carbonara.
You might think of it as a classic Italian dish.
You might be wrong.
The name carbonara first appeared in a 1951 movie, “Cameriera bella presenza,” according to the the respected Italian food-and-wine website, Gambero Rosso, which says the first published recipe, in 1952, comes from Armando’s restaurant, in Chicago. But if you are inclined to eat your words and admit carbonara might be a modern dish — possibly even an American one — just hold on.
“I don’t believe it,” Mazzei says. “There are so many stories on the history of carbonara and we Italians never agree on anything. That’s the story of Italy.”
He believes it originated with a 19th-century revolutionary group called the Carbonari, whose members developed a liking for a simple pasta dish with guanciale cured pork cheek with Pecorino cheese and eggs. Another, possibly related, version is that it was favored by coal workers. (Alla carbonara means coal-worker-style in Italian.)
Leaving all that aside, it’s a dish Mazzei’s mother used to cook when he was growing up in Calabria.
“She would never serve it with runny eggs, so it was basically spaghetti with scrambled egg,” Mazzei says. “But I loved it. It was only when I finished catering college and was lucky enough to work under chef Paolo Moretti at the Grand Hotel in Rome that I learned to cook it properly. He would say, ‘It would be a sacrilege to change the recipe, like changing a Puccini opera.’” So no cream.
Mazzei’s recipe, the basis of the dish he serves at Sartoria in London has, just four main ingredients, plus seasoning. I tried it twice and didn’t find it difficult, though I rarely attempt anything more ambitious than Asian stir-fry dishes at home. I love this recipe but my dish was too salty the first time, and I much preferred it the second, with the (Waitrose) spaghetti cooked in unsalted water.
I had the advantage of being able to call with any questions, but it was straightforward and I didn’t feel the need.
Ingredients (serves four):
350 grams of spaghetti
200 grams of guanciale, or pancetta (or even streaky bacon, but don’t tell Mazzei)
100 grams of grated pecorino
four medium eggs
1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
Fry the guanciale slowly. Remove when crispy but leave the fat. If using pancetta, you may need to add a little olive oil. Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water (if you like salt) for 1-1/2 minutes less than recommended time. Drain the spaghetti, reserving the water, and put in pan with the fat, add a ladle of the pasta water and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk room-temperature eggs in a bowl immersed in the warm pasta water. Stir the grated pecorino and half of the guanciale and half of the pepper into the eggs. Add them to the pasta, which must be off the heat so the eggs don’t scramble. Serve in bowls, with the crisp guanciale on top along with the rest of the pepper. You can add more pecorino to taste.
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