If you’re anything like me, and most of the rest of America, it’s pretty hard to resist a hearty pasta dish. There’s a little drop of Italian in us all, even if it’s just in our hearts and not in our actual heritage, and the idea of a good plate of pasta is almost as appetizing as chocolate. At least to me.
I have been blessed enough to be able to travel to Italy and learn some of their culinary secrets, and while there I was able to perfect one of the most classic Italian pasta staples there is: Pasta Carbonara. It’s a delicious Alfredo-type pasta, but it doesn’t actually use Alfredo sauce. In fact, the most notable thing about Carbonara is there is no milk or cream in the sauce at all – it’s made with eggs, and accented with bacon, onion, and garlic.
The first great thing about Pasta Carbonara is that it’s really fairly simple once you know what you’re doing and it’s quick to toss it together if you have a night where you just didn’t have time to prepare properly for dinner. (It also sounds and tastes fancy but is easy to cook for a large number of people, if you have some last minute unexpected dinner guests!) The second really great thing about Carbonara, though, is that it’s like a blank canvas just waiting to be added to. It’s great in its traditional form, but you can add almost anything to it and make it taste amazing. This is one of my favorite versions, and I’ve never had a single complaint from anyone I’ve made it for.
There’s a lot of steps to this one, but they are all very basic and simple, so try not to feel overwhelmed! The recipe I’m giving is for just one serving, but it is very easy to double/triple/whatever based on how many people you are feeding! I give it in the one-serving format because it’s a fantastic meal to cook when you’re by yourself and have had take-out one too many times that week!
Start off by getting 4 cups of water in a saucepan and 1 cup of water in a frying pan. Add a couple teaspoons of salt to each, then put them both on high heat to bring them to a boil. (Tip: use hot water from the sink instead of cold. It boils a lot faster!)
While the water is heating up, roughly chop a small handful of baby spinach. It should end up being about 3/4 of a cup.
The water in the frying pan will boil first; once it starts boiling, add the spinach to the pan. You only need to make it slightly tender, so after it’s been in the water for a minute or two, immediately drain it in the sink.
Go ahead and leave the spinach in the colander – you can drain the pasta right overtop of it later. Put the frying pan back on the stove and add a couple tablespoons of olive oil to it, then go back to the cutting board for more prep work.
You’ll need to dice 1/4 of a medium sized onion and mince 1 clove of garlic.
A few MAKE OR BREAK TIPS to make life easier…
To dice the onion, cut it first this way, avoiding cutting all the way to the hairy end (about 1/2 inch between each cut):
… And then this way, again about 1/2 between each cut:
Cutting it this way helps keep the onion in place and ensures all your pieces are the same size, which is essential in cooking!
Garlic is very sticky and hard to peel. It makes life so much simpler if you smash the clove under your knife:
This breaks the protective skin away from the sticky clove so that you can easily peel it off. Mince the garlic by finely chopping it with your knife and then set it aside with the onion.
Switch to a plastic or metal cutting board from here on out, because now you’ll be working with meats. It’s important to never cut meat on a wooden cutting surface, because the wood can absorb the bacteria in the raw meat.
Chop the kielbasa first. It’s technically not raw, as it’s a smoked sausage. It typically comes in a long, folded up link that looks like this:
You won’t need nearly that much, of course, so just take a few inches off the end, maybe 3-4 inches.
Cut it longways first, to cut it in half, and then chop it into 1/2 inch (or so) pieces:
For those interested, the knife I’m using is by Paula Deen and it’s probably my favorite knife in my kitchen. I strongly recommend investing in a good set of kitchen knives. I got mine from Walmart.
MAKE OR BREAK TIP: Before you start on the bacon, put some heat under your frying pan with the oil in it (a medium-high heat level should do it). You never want to put food into a cold pan! Especially when you’re cooking with oil, you always want to heat the oil first before adding the food to it.
Roughly chop 2 strips of bacon, about 1 inch wide.
NOTE: True Italian Carbonara would use Pancetta, which is a type of Italian bacon-like pork product, but since the point of this blog is to show you simple and easy ways to cook, I’ve used bacon, which is found in far more American homes! (We always have at least a pound in the fridge; it’s a staple here!) It’s a perfectly fine substitute for Pancetta, but if you’re ever feeling adventurous, pre-packaged diced Pancetta can be found at most grocery stores, especially specialty chains like Wegmans.
Add the bacon to your heated frying pan. At this point the water in your saucepan should have started boiling, so add your pasta and cook according to the directions on the package. I like to use bite-sized pasta when I make Carbonara. A heavy cup of any bite-size pasta is enough for one serving. (I used Rotelle, which cooks to al dente in about 8 minutes.)
MAKE OR BREAK TIP: Always cook your pasta according to the “al dente” time listed on the package if you’re looking for authentic Italian pasta. “Al dente” (or “firm to the bite”) is the appropriate level of done-ness for the pasta to hold to whatever sauce you’re putting on it and not get mushy. There’s nothing worse than over-done pasta!
Using the same glass measuring cup you had the dry pasta in (my ever favorite, handy dandy Pyrex cup!), whisk together 1 egg, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, 1/2 tsp basil, and 1/4 cup fresh Parmesan cheese. The spice measurements are guesses, as I always just eye-ball it… it’s usually a couple of turns on the salt and pepper grinders and a few shakes of the basil container. (If you grow your own spices, 2-3 leaves of fresh basil in a chiffonade cut should do the trick!)
MAKE OR BREAK TIP: Yes, it really is just salt, pepper, basil, and Parmesan! The trick to really tasty food is to not over-season it. A few flavors should be able to work together well enough to blend into a really spectacular dish. Plus, there is a TON of flavor added by the bacon, garlic, and onion! “But it’s less than a half cup of sauce!” I bet you’re thinking. “How could that possibly be enough?” Pasta is meant to be just that: pasta. Not soup. The true Italian way is to never drown your pasta in sauce, but to lightly coat each individual piece of pasta. If it looks like your pasta is wallowing in a swamp, it’s probably too much sauce.
Once the bacon looks about like you could pull the pieces out of the pan and eat it (about 4-5 minutes), you can lower the heat to medium-low add your kielbasa and diced onion.
Once the onion and kielbasa have browned (another 2-3 minutes), remove the pan from the heat and add the garlic. The residual heat of the pan will cook the garlic and the lack of a continual heat source will prevent the garlic from burning. (Nothing smells or tastes worse than burnt garlic!)
By now your pasta should be done.
MAKE OR BREAK TIP: Just before you drain the pasta, take a couple tablespoons of the boiling water and whisk it quickly into the egg mixture. This will “temper” the egg and keep the mixture from turning to scrambled eggs as soon as it hits the hot pasta!
Once you’ve tempered the eggs, drain your pasta in the sink right overtop of the spinach that you left in the colander, and then return the pasta and spinach to the saucepan. Add the tempered egg mixture to the pasta and stir it in quickly.
Add the meat, onion, and garlic from the frying pan and stir this in, as well. Ta-da, you’re ready to serve! Despite the length of this blog post, it should really only take 15-20 minutes to create the dish from start to finish, depending on how fast your water boils!
I promise you, as soon as you’ve tried this dish, it will quickly become a staple in your home! I make it probably at least once a week. There are so many different ways you can create this. If you want to do the classic carbonara, just make this dish without the spinach and kielbasa. Another great variation is to add 1/4 cup of dry white wine when you add the garlic to the frying pan. Let it reduce down for a couple of minutes before you remove it from the heat and it adds another delicious dimension to the dish!
Pasta Carbonara with Baby Spinach and Kielbasa
Yield: One serving.
5 cups water (4 for pasta, 1 for spinach)
2 tbsp salt (1 for pasta, 1 for spinach)
3/4 cup chopped baby spinach
1/4 medium sized onion
1 clove garlic
3-4 inches of a kielbasa link
2 tbsp olive oil
2 strips of bacon
1 heavy cup of Rotelle pasta
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp basil
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1) Put 4 cups of water in a saucepan and 1 cup of water in a frying pan. Add a tablespoon of salt to each, then put them both on high heat to bring them to a boil.
2) Roughly chop baby spinach. Add it to the water in the frying pan once it boils. Remove and drain after 1-2 minutes. Return frying pan to stove and add olive oil to the pan, but don’t turn the heat on yet.
3) Dice onion and mince garlic. Cut kielbasa link lengthwise, then chop into 1/2 inch pieces.
4) Turn the frying pan to medium high heat, then chop bacon into 1 inch pieces. Add pasta to boiling water in saucepan, and then add bacon to heated frying pan and cook until crisp and browned, stirring occasionally, about 4-5 minutes.
5) Whisk together egg, salt, pepper, basil, and fresh Parmesan cheese in glass cup. Temper this egg mixture with 2 tablespoons of boiling water from the pasta.
6) Add kielbasa and onion to pan and brown, tossing occasionally, about 2-3 minutes.
7) Remove frying pan from heat and add garlic, allowing the residual heat to cook it.
8) Once pasta has reached al dente (8 minutes for Rotelle), drain overtop of spinach and then return pasta and spinach to saucepan. Add egg mixture and stir in until cheese is melted, then stir in meat, onion, and garlic. Serve immediately.