Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pasta Carbonara in Minutes - and the Fiction of Recipes

For most dishes, recipes are an inspiration, not a road map. There's no point in stressing over exact measurements for most recipes - differences in technique and ingredients are going to make your dish an individual creation anyhow. Relax, be yourself, and make it the way you like it.

Pasta carbonara is a great example of this approach. In essence, it's bacon and eggs with pasta - breakfast bolstered for dinner. Calvin Trillin argues that it ought to replace turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, though I don't go quite that far. Turkey deserves its place as a once-a-year struggle, while pasta carbonara ought to be in the regular rotation of weeknight dinners.

Here's how I made it last night. I am completely capable of writing this in the traditional format of recipes, with a list of ingredients followed by cooking instructions, but I'd prefer to break out of that mold. This is not a scientific formula to be slavishly recreated. I started a pound of pasta boiling, and fried up a third of a pound of pancetta, adding a a few cloves of minced garlic when it was almost crisp. When the garlic was softened and the pasta cooked to my liking, I tossed the drained pasta in with the pancetta along with a little bit of the pasta water, removed it from the heat, tossed in 4 eggs I had whipped with salt and pepper, stirred that vigorously together, and then stirred in about a cup of parmesan and some parsley.

That's all, folks. In the time it would have taken to heat up two microwave dinners, I made enough pasta carbonara to make dinner and a couple hearty lunches.

At almost every point in that brief recipe, though, there was room to add your own preferences. I used pancetta this time, but bacon works great, and so does prosciutto. Go with your preference. I used a pretty heavy hand with the garlic - use as much or as little as you like, and add it early if you want its flavor to mellow and meld, or add it late if you want it to be sharp. Use as much or as little pasta water as you like to get the consistency you prefer, or toss in a little white wine to give it a touch of acid. Use as many eggs as you see fit, and substitute different cheeses for the parmesan - or simply use a different grade of parmesan. (I was lazy last night, and used the parmesan that had been grated at the store - I could have easily upgraded by buying a chunk of real parmesan and firing up the food processor.) If you want, you can add capers or olives, and you can toss in herbs.

Even if I had set out to accurately recreate someone else's recipe, it's doubtful that I could recreate exactly what the recipe writer makes. How crisp is crisp pancetta? What brand of pancetta are we each using? They're not all the same. Even the pasta and eggs have subtle differences and vary in freshness - not to even mention the possibility of home-made pasta. The cheese is a wild card - even IF we both chose parmesan, it's unlikely that they're going to taste very much the same.

Most recipes are springboards to get you started creating. Don't fear the recipe police. Go with your preferences.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Logtar said...

I could not agree with you more on recipes being a springboard, but I know plenty of people, my wife included, that follow them very closely and make wonderful things that way.

I agree the Pasta Carbonara is underutilized as a dinner alternative and we will surely be doing it more in the near future.

I also like to write stuff as a conversation rather than a bunch of measurements.

10/27/2009 8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about adding some fresh chopped tomato, and perhaps a few small chop spinach leaves to this for more color appeal? Just a thought.

10/27/2009 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops...missed the parsley green already.

10/27/2009 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Jodi said...

I usually agree about making recipes your own. Nevertheless:

Under no circumstances may you add olives or capers to pasta carbonara. You can mess with the cheese or add heavy cream if you absolutely must.

That is all.

10/28/2009 1:33 PM  
Blogger james said...

What about peas? and if you can add peas, why not capers? I love capers!

11/09/2009 9:23 PM  

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