Pasta Carbonara

One of my criteria when I go out to eat is to order a dish that I can’t, or won’t, make at home. Why spend the money on a dish that I can likely make for less money with a higher degree of ingredient control in my own home? Do any of you all have this rule, also? Every so often, I will take a dish that has previously been deemed “out of my league” and tackle it at home in the hopes that I don’t have to wait to go out to eat in order to enjoy its deliciousness. Spaghetti carbonara was one of those dishes that was always deemed out of my league. Cooking eggs with carryover heat to create a sauce? I was skeptical, at best. I’d seen some shows on Food Network on how to make it, and I’d eaten plenty of plates of carbonara from local Italian restaurants. I was content to let the professionals tackle such a complicated dish. But then, one day, I just decided I would not be bested by eggs, cheese, pasta, and heat. Y’all, I’m here to tell you a secret. Listen closely. It isn’t all that complicated. Not.at.all. Here we go!


Pasta Carbonara – Serves two

Ingredients
4 ounces pasta – I like linguine, personally
4 eggs: 2 whole and 2 yolks
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
8 Kalamata olives
1/3 cup diced onion
2 – 4 cups chopped spinach (I only had 2 cups this time, but I wish I’d had more.)
1 tablespoon of oil or butter (for cooking the onions – your preference)
Basil or parsley leaves for garnish if desired

Steps
1. Put a large pot of water on to boil for your pasta. Salt the water liberally as this is your only chance to season your pasta. A Food Network chef once said, “The water should taste like the ocean.”
2. While the water is boiling (and doesn’t it always seem to take forever??), dice your onion, drain, blot, and chop your olives, and grate your cheese.

3. Heat a skillet over medium heat. I typically use 5 out of 10 on the dial on my stove. Add your butter or oil, and let it heat up for a minute or two. Add in your onions, turn the dial down to 3 or 4, and let them sauté until they reach your preferred level of softness.
4. Usually while my onions are cooking, my pasta water is ready. Add your pasta and cook it for the time given on the box. This is semi-critical for the remainder of the recipe. I suggest you set a timer to keep you on track.
5. Crack your whole eggs into a bowl. Carefully crack the eggs you need to separate over the sink and separate using your preferred method, adding only the yolks to the bowl. Add the cheese and beat well. It will be thick, and this is okay.
6. Chop the spinach, and check on your onions to make sure they aren’t burning – just sautéing and even caramelizing just a bit.

7. With about 2 minutes to go on your timer, turn your heat down to low (I go with 1 or 2 on my dial), add your spinach to the onions and mix them together. The spinach will cook and wilt a little bit. You can cook it higher or longer if you prefer your spinach to be more wilted or cooked. I do not. Add your olives just at the last minute, and toss them around.
8. When the timer goes off, drain your pasta, and then add it to the pan of veggies. Gently stir to mix it all up. Now you can choose your level of bravery and comfort. Officially you can turn the heat off and proceed, or you can leave it just barely on low. It’s up to you.
9. Once your pasta is all mixed up with the veggies, add your cheese-egg mixture, stir like crazy, and don’t stop for a good 90 seconds – 2 minutes. Keep stirring! For a split second, you may think it resembles something that might want to be a scrambled-egg pasta. Keep stirring, and something magical will happen as it transforms into a creamy, cheesy egg sauce for your pasta. It will be pale yellow/light white and well combined when all is said and done.
10. Transfer to a plate, top with your desired garnish, and enjoy your impressive feat.

Pour the sauce mixture into the pasta pan.

Stir and keep stirring!

Whip it around the pan!

Fold, turn, rotate, and keep stirring!

Don’t be shy now. Keep it up!

Soon and very soon you’ll have pasta sauce!

How ’bout them apples? It’s pasta sauce!

A few recipe notes: This is certainly not a traditional carbonara. Traditional carbonara is simply the pasta (which ought to be spaghetti to stay within tradition), the egg/cheese sauce and a crispy pork product like pancetta or bacon. The cheese should be Parmesan if at all possible. However, I first made this recipe for Meatless Monday, and I wanted to balance out what I assumed to be a high calorie/fat content with some vegetables and to add some additional flavors while removing the bacon. In my carbonara research, the “experts” and purists were emphatic that cream did not belong in a carbonara recipe. Nonetheless, there are many recipes out there with cream in them. My thought, however, is that there is already a CUP of cheese and FOUR egg yolks in this recipe. Do we really need cream? I think not, friends. Let us show some restraint somewhere. 🙂 Last note, I’ve mixed my sauce and pasta both over heat and off heat. For my current, personal comfort level, I prefer to mix it over the barest level of heat, but I’m also sure that the one time I did it off heat, my boyfriend and I survived without contracting food-borne illness. So maybe one day soon, I’ll graduate to full off-heat mixing.

Since I’ve clearly made my peace with a non-traditional carbonara dish, I do encourage you to experiment with variations of your own pasta carbonara. To me, this dish is simply begging to be experimented with, be it with pasta type, different kinds of veggies, or various kinds of crispy pork bits. So far, I’ve made my carbonara with combinations of kale, spinach, onions, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, green onions, bacon bits, and broccoli. The combination I gave you above is my preferred Meatless Monday combination. I did really enjoy the crispy bacon bits the one time I had them, but they aren’t a deal maker for me. The green onions are also really nice on top. A word of caution about the tomatoes, if you choose to try them: they will make your sauce much looser than you might anticipate. As they are made up of so much water, it’s hard to get it all out before you cook them; they will release their liquid into your skillet, and thus, it will end up in your sauce which will be a little thinner and a little pinker than you were ready for. Just a heads up. I’d love to know what combination of vegetables you use in your pasta carbonara!

If you are unused to separating eggs, let me offer you a few tips. First of all, you do not need any special kitchen gadgets to separate eggs! And this is serious business coming from a lover of all kitchen gadgets. Your clean hands or the egg shells will work just fine. Some folks prefer to use their hands to separate the egg, cracking it and pouring it into their hand over the bowl or sink, depending on which part you need. You can let the whites run out between your fingers, leaving the yolk behind. Alternatively, you can carefully crack the egg in as close to half as you can get and then, leaving the yolk in one half of the eggshell, let the whites run out over the edges. Gently shift the yolk to the other half of the yolk, and the rest of the white will run out; if you do this maybe 3 or 4 times, you will get a white-less yolk.

Sometimes the yolks break and that’s okay.

If you are cooking for one, this is a great dish for that as it scales easily. Just adjust your eggs at one egg and one yolk per person and a half cup of cheese per set of eggs for the sauce. Past that, it really is all about your vegetable preference. When I’m making it just for me and not for my blog, I’m less likely to measure and just to eyeball instead. Maybe it’s a little extra onion-y and garlicky that night, but if it’s just me, who cares? I encourage you not to care either. Throw caution to the wind, and go with what your taste buds tell you sounds good!

Leave me a comment, and share what veggie combinations you have tried or are planning to try. I’d love some inspiration myself, and it is always good to share the foodie love with others. Good luck and don’t be intimidated; you can do it! Happy eating!

Nutritional content: per serving
Calories: 643
Fat: 43.3 g
Carbs: 49.8 g
Protein: 38 g
Calcium: 79.2%
And that’s without the bacon or pancetta, y’all! I may never put bacon in it again!

Baked Fig Bites

Dear eaters, I went on an unknown culinary adventure recently. I am going to share with you what I did, what I ate, and my thoughts on the whole thing, but please do let me know your experiences with figs if you have any as I’m a wee bit uncertain about the whole thing. It all started when I realized that my significant other has a fig tree outside his apartment. Well, color me happy! Hello, free produce! The only tricky part is that I am pretty much totally unfamiliar with fresh figs. But when you are handed free produce, you do not shy away simply because you don’t know. Well, at least I don’t think you should – not when you have the World Wide Web at your disposal. So I researched via Google and my friends on Facebook, and I waited for the figs to get ripe. By mid-last week, there were a whole bunch of ripe ones, and I could tell the birds were starting to eat the figs, so Lance and I harvested an overflowing quart bag for me to bring home for experimentation purposes. Here are those experiments for your reading and eating perusal and enjoyment.

Plate o' Deliciousness

Baked Fig Bites

Ingredients – all to taste, depending on how much of each kind of bite you want to eat
Fresh figs
Semi soft cheese – I used plain goat cheese
Bacon
Walnuts
Honey
Prosciutto
Bread – I used ciabatta

Steps
1. Wash the figs, scrubbing as necessary to remove any outdoor detritus from the outside of the fruit. Be gentle as the skin is fragile. I used my handy-dandy produce brush.
2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a jelly roll pan with foil. I recommend placing a cookie cooling rack or small wire rack on the pan if you use bacon on your bites so the bacon grease drips away from your bites.
3. If you are using walnuts, chop them up so they are ready to go when you want them. I chopped up about 4 or 5 halves and had leftovers.
4. If using bacon, slice each long piece in half.
5. Start slicing figs in half. Most of mine I sliced from top to bottom, vertically rather than horizontally, although I did experiment with a few horizontal cuts. I think I prefer the vertical cut (although the horizontal cut seems prettier) because it opens up sort of a wee bit of a pocket in the fruit that is ideal for widening to stuff. I used a cheese spreader (small, dull, round implement) to widen a divot in the fruit.

Divot for Stuffing!

Then I began making decisions. Some I put walnuts in first and then smushed goat cheese on top. Others just got goat cheese smushed in there without any walnuts. It was a bit random. Some got walnuts (no more than ½ teaspoon), and goat cheese,  were wrapped in bacon, and then were secured with a toothpick. Two halves went on the baking sheet plain, just to see.

6. Bake the non-bacon bites for about 12 minutes. They will be quite soft and a little bubbly/juicy at this point. The bacon still wasn’t done, so I gave it 5 more minutes.
7. Drizzle some with honey, as you see fit. Wrap others in pieces of prosciutto as you see fit.
8. Smear some pieces on bread.
9. Eat them all, and be satisfied.

Ready for the oven!

 

As I was preparing my bites, I tasted the raw fruit in minute quantities to have an idea of the fresh fruit flavor. Only once did I sort of squint my eyes and make a face, thinking, “hmmm that wasn’t quite good eats.” But I prepped it anyway. Baked, I thought they all tasted good, although I did get a little burned out by the end of my plate of fig bites. It was a lot of bites, y’all. I liked having the nuts in them as it provided a bit of texture in an otherwise mostly creamy/soft bite. I do like texture in my food. The bacon/prosciutto bites were good also, but I think I liked the prosciutto over the bacon, just by a hair. I’d do either of them again. The salty notes added an edge against the creaminess also. I’ve heard you can use blue cheese instead of goat, and as I do love blue cheese, I will be giving that a try next. I promise to report back. It was a little hard to scrape the fruit out of the skin to spread on the bread, so frequently I just cut the bites into smaller pieces to put on the bread, and it was delicious. I definitely was wanting some fig preserve-type product, so that’s on my mind to figure out as well. I would give all my bites two thumbs up, for sure.

Up close and personal!

 

When I was doing my research online to figure out how to know when the figs were ripe, I learned quite a bit. First of all, there are many different kinds of figs. They are not all dark brown/black/purple, like I thought, nor do they turn that color when they ripen. These figs are green figs, and they turn sort of a yellow/weird light brown/unfortunate pale yucky green color. Appetizing, I know. It’s a tricky color to describe. What would you call those colors below?

Bottom one is ripe.

Left one is ripe.

Anyway. Bright/dark green figs are a no-go. Rock hard figs are a no-go. As the figs ripen, they turn color and get heavier. This will cause them to go from perpendicular to the tree branch to more parallel. As it drops, the skin on the neck may crack a bit. It will also start to drip nectar from the bottom of the fig. They are also soft and kind of squishy. A girlfriend of mine also watches the “bellybutton” at the bottom of the fig.

Bellybuttons on figs

She says when it starts to turn pink, that’s a clue for her to pick them. There was conflicting information out there on whether or not they continue to ripen once picked, so I’m not sure what to tell you about that. My girlfriend who has been figging for years says she picks hers a bit early to keep the birds from getting them and leaves them on the counter to ripen. That’s how she rolls. I found this website to have helpful progression pictures of figs as they ripen. You should check it out!

See how the neck is starting to crack on the right?

 

Let’s talk prosciutto, a quick moment. It is, to be truthful, kind of a pricey ingredient. However, in my opinion, a few slices go quite a long way. For instance, last week I bought six slices at Central Market, and I got three meals/snacks out of those slices, and I believe the six slices cost me $4.25 or so. Plus I got a free “tasting” slice while I was standing at the counter. Bonus! If you are lucky enough to live near a Whole Foods or Central Market, the folks working the counter are often nice and knowledgeable enough to talk to you about what you are eating/serving it with so as to help you make the best choice out of your options. They also usually let you taste them so you can make sure to get one you like. I would use this as a measure of a quality meat counter, wherever you are shopping. If they won’t let you taste it before you pay $22.50/lb, then go elsewhere. Your money is too precious to waste on an ingredient you might not like. And remember, you really don’t need a whole pound. While it depends on the number of people you are feeding, in my opinion, 6 – 12 slices will probably be sufficient. But talk to the meat counter staff person, and they should help you out. It will be cut quite thin, and because of how the meat falls apart, one slice can be used to wrap at least 2 fig bites, most likely. If you are like me, you may want to be prudent and get one more slice than you really think you need for the bites as you may find yourself snacking on the prosciutto while you are preparing the rest of the bites. I’m just saying…it’s a possibility. Stay tuned for more prosciutto education as we continue our fig adventures!

The tree of abundant figs!

 

Since the first picking and bite making, I’ve got another quart bag, and still half of the original bag in my fridge. I’m going to have to figure out a preserves recipe or a pie or something, stat! I also should probably try some of them just raw. I might give the blue cheese and prosciutto bites a go. That sounds tasty to me. Perhaps some will find their way into my lunch. Either way, there is a lot of fig-figuring out going on around here. I refuse to let them all go to the birds. I’m a quick learner, so back off, birdies! I’ll keep sharing my adventures. It was recently suggested to me by a Food Network star (via Twitter – how fun!) to try them roasted with a balsamic-garam masala drizzle. So what that I don’t know how to make that? I’ll figure it out and keep you posted! In the meantime, how do you like to eat figs? What are your tips for how to know how they are ripe? I’d love to hear! Happy eating!

 
I’m still working on figuring out nutritional information for my figs. I will report back when I find something out!