The word carbonara comes from “carbone” which in Italian means coal. The "carbonara" is the wife of the coal miner. Many believe that carbonara dates back to Roman times while others believe it was the preferred dish of coal miners. There is even speculation that after WWII the Americans stationed in Rome approached the locals with ham and eggs and asked them to make a dish. The result? Carbonara pasta.
A good carbonara is a bit of an art form especially when one considers just how many recipe variations exist. The one I find the most authentic uses large chunks of guanciale and never contains any cream. The other key ingredients are aggressive amounts of black pepper, Pecorino Romano and eggs.
This variation with chorizo happened when I came home late one night from a party with an appetite for carbonara. However, I did not have any pancetta, guanciale or even bacon in my refrigerator. I did, however, have good Spanish chorizo. I thought this should work and it did…beautifully.
If you wish to make a traditional carbonara, follow this recipe exactly and instead use guanciale or very good artisan pancetta. The technique is the same for both versions. It may take some practice to get this dish down and to not overcook the eggs but it's absolutely worth mastering. The classic pastas used are rigatoni or spaghetti.
Ingredients (serves 2-4):
-Best quality Spanish chorizo (I like the Palacios brand available at Bi-Rite and most good markets)
-Best quality spaghetti or other favorite pasta
-2 farm eggs
-Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano
-Pasta cooking water
Cut the chorizo (1/2 to 3/4 cup) into small pieces (if using guanciale or pancetta cut into larger, bite-size pieces). Place into a sauté pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes or until lightly colored. In a bowl combine the eggs with a generous grating of Parmigiano Reggiano and aggressive amount of coarsely ground black pepper. Whisk and combine well. Set aside.
Drop your pasta into salted water. Cook until al dente. Place the pan with chorizo over medium heat. Using tongs remove the pasta and transfer to the pan with the chorizo. Add a little pasta cooking water to coat and toss gently for 20-30 seconds. Turn off the heat. Wait 20-30 seconds. Add the egg/Pecorino mixture to the pan and toss carefully, taking care not to over cook the egg (add more pasta cooking water if this occurs). Plate the pasta and finish with more grated cheese.
James is a food writer and Bay Area chef who owns and runs a private dinner party and cooking class business specializing in regional Italian and Spanish cuisine. See CookWithJames.com