Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Carbonara Nirvana (Iron Chef Potluck #1, Volume 3)

There are times when I chide myself for my constant out-pour of affection and appreciation for all things Italian. Sometimes I wonder if the ingredients and cuisine there are in fact better than what we have here in the US, as I often claim. This weekend was not one of those times.

Sure, it can be annoying to hear my undying love for Italian Parmesan or my quest to fine-tune my favorite Roman dishes. But such obsession lends to perfection, and on Saturday I think I finally reached carbonara nirvana.

Now that I've used fresh, Italian-imported ingredients in my carbonara, I will never go back. Bay Cities Italian Deli is a Santa Monica staple where locals wait hours for monstrous sandwiches and  imported Italian groceries. Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, chocolates and treats, proscuitto de parma, aged cheeses and fresh pasta are just some of the items one can pick up there. They are imported so you spend a little more there than you would at Ralph's, but in cases like this it's definitely worth it.  

Rigatoni Carbonara (serves 8-10)
  • 2 lbs fresh rigatoni pasta
  • 4 cups sliced pancetta (or guanciale)
  • 2 cups thinly sliced yellow onion
  • 8 whole eggs
  • 8 separated egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
  • sea salt & cracked black pepper to taste
First, I prepped my ingredients to the best of my ability, as carbonara needs to be served as soon as it's prepared. I sliced up razor-thin pancetta into strips, chopped onions, grating the cheeses and learning how to separate eggs! Heruy patiently taught me how to slide the yolk from one half of a cracked egg to the other, until the whites are all out. I whisked the whole eggs and egg yolks together into a light and frothy cream. 

I rendered the pancetta until slightly crispy, and removed from the heat. In the remaining bacon oil (yum), I sauteed the onions until soft and nearly caramelized. I added those to the pancetta to save until just before I was ready to plate my masterpiece. While I waited, I got to work on the Toscana Italian wine I picked up at Trader Joe's, one of my favorite red wines for under $10. (For me, wine is an essential aspect of cooking.)

After Alex, Sam and Heruy had prepared, plated and served their dishes, I got to work on mine. I learned from the last time I used fresh pasta that it cooks MUCH quicker than dried pasta -- it only takes 2-3 minutes. As the rigatoni boiled happily away, I brought the sauteed pancetta and onions back to the pan to heat up. Once the pasta was finished, I combined the two together and began to add the egg mixture.

Here's the important part. To keep the eggs from scrambling, keep your pasta water on reserve and add in spoonfuls as you toss the pasta with the egg mixture. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and take off the heat as you mix together. Italian carbonara doesn't use any cream! The creaminess of the sauce comes purely from the egg and Parmesan. Once you've served your pasta, sprinkle it with the Pecorino-Romano cheese, a nice salty kick to the sweetness of the dish.

I was worried that I would screw up my favorite dish and be mortified in front of my friends, but it turned out delicious! After two years of practice and tinkering, I can now square away this carbonara recipe to my own personal hall of fame.

Next up: Jodi's Gnocchi with Spinach & Peas & Ted's Baked Sweet Potato Fries!

Previous Iron Chef posts: 1 & 2


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