Recipe: Pasta Carbonara, my way

My father’s family is from the Basilicata region of Italy, and even after moving to Australia, my Nonna and Nonno would make their own sausage every year.  I think one of my great-uncles kept pigs, or maybe just one pig each year, who was the source of said sausages. I never enquired. Nonna’s sausages were big, cured, salami-like things that would hang from the garage roof or from a hook in our pantry for weeks or months without going off.  They were fairly highly spiced, I think with chilli and fennel seed, but I could be making that up, and you had to slice them thickly and cook them to render the big chunks of fat before eating them.

Pasta carbonara, in my family, was made with chunks of this sausage, and not  with ham – if there was no sausage, my mother would use ham or bacon and add paprika to the dish, because the important thing about carbonara was that it had to be spicy.  If it was not spicy, we were told, it was not proper carbonara.  We never put cream in the recipe, either – it was all held together with eggs, ideally from Nonno’s chooks.  Nonna’s sausage and mum’s carbonara were two of my favourite foods as a child, and I was terribly disappointed the first time I ordered carbonara at a restaurant and got this weird, bland, creamy thing with ham.  Not the same thing at all.

The recipe is not my mother’s, though it started there.  It has since evolved to fit the ingredients I can get, with a few ideas from Rachel Ray thrown in.  It goes without saying that my carbonara does not taste anything like the carbonara you get at restaurants, though it is clearly a related dish.

I maintain that this is the only true and authentic way to make pasta carbonara.

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250g spicy soppressa or Calabrese salami, whole, not sliced
2 bunches flat-leaf parsley
150g parmesan cheese, grated (the real stuff, please)
6 cloves of garlic
1 cup white wine
4 eggs
400g pasta (penne or penne rigate are my favourite kind for this)
black pepper
3 big tomatoes
2 capsicums
lettuce or cucumber
balsamic or red wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil

Now what will you do with it?

Chop up all the parsley (not the stems, ideally), and put about two thirds of it in a bowl and set aside.  The other third is for the salad which, believe me, you will need.  This dish is rich. Cut up your tomatoes, capsicums, cucumber and lettuce now, and put them in a bowl with the last bit of the parsley, ready to be dressed later.  Crush your garlic and set aside.

(Yes, this is an odd way to order things, but if you deal with all your vegetables first, you can move onto your sausage and cheese without contaminating things or having to start a new board and knife.).

Grate your parmesan, and put it in a bowl with the larger portion of the parsley and a good bit of black pepper.  Crack your eggs into another bowl and beat with a fork.  Put a big saucepan of water on for pasta.

While the water is coming to the boil, peel your sausage and chop into cubes of roughly 1cm.  Put them into a large skillet on medium heat all by themselves, and let them cook until the fat is mostly rendered (the white fat in the sausages becomes liquid and looks like an orangeish oil).  Use a spoon to remove most of the fat (if you pour it off and then put the skillet back over a gas flame, it can catch fire.  Guess how I know this…), and return the skillet to the heat.

Add the garlic, and cook for about a minute before adding the white wine.  Let it all simmer down until the pasta is done – you’re aiming to have just a little liquid left in the pan when you add the pasta.

Add the pasta to the boiling water, and cook until al dente (not crunchy, but not too soft).  While the pasta is cooking, take a ladleful of the cooking water and add it to the eggs, whisking them madly with a fork as you do.  Now is also a good time to dress the salad, which you do by pouring a little vinegar and a little oil over it, and tossing to mix.  I’m sorry, I have no idea about quantities – I think the oil/vinegar ratio is about two to one, but that’s the best I can do.

Drain the cooked pasta and add to the skillet, keeping the heat low.  Toss with the sausage, then add the parmesan, parsley and pepper.  Stir well, then add the eggs to the pan.

Stir everything around constantly over low heat until the eggs are a little bit cooked – you’re aiming for somewhere between custard and the softer end of scrambled eggs.  Yes, I know this sounds revolting, but it really isn’t, and in fact my husband, who hates eggs, really likes this dish.  Traditionally, I believe one is supposed to let the heat of the pasta cook the egg, with no heat underneath, but really, if you’ve come this far with me, you might as well go all the way.

Serve at once, with the salad as a side dish to help cut the richness.  None of this strange American habit of having the salad as a separate course – you want them together.

This amount serves four hungry (? greedy) people, or five to six less hungry people.  Which is to say, I normally make half this amount and Andrew and I gobble it all up without any trouble.  Though Andrew tends to leave some of his salad.


This works just fine with gluten-free pasta, and I suspect you could get a delicious, though less creamy, dish by just leaving out the eggs, if you are allergic to them.  I’m not even going to attempt a vegan or vegetarian version of this meal, however – it would be missing the point.  There’s not much left of this once you take out the eggs, dairy and meat.  I’ve heard of, and even tried making, an asparagus carbonara that was vegetarian, but it was more along the traditional (ie, way too creamy) lines, and I couldn’t get it to taste like anything that I identify as carbonara, so I don’t think it belongs here.  You’ll have to wait until I get around to my Nonna’s version of gnocchi, which is nothing like restaurant gnocchi, but which is definitely vegan…

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5 comments for “Recipe: Pasta Carbonara, my way

  1. June 4, 2011 at 3:00 am

    Yum! When you say capsicum you mean what American would call a hot pepper (possibly Jalapeno or Habanero) not a sweet pepper, right?

    • June 4, 2011 at 11:07 am

      Hi Maureen,

      A capsicum is, I think, what you would call a sweet pepper – it’s much larger than a chilli, and doesn’t have any spiciness. I don’t think I’d want to put jalapeno pepper in a salad!

      At some point, I need to do a dictionary of ingredients that have different names in different allegedly English speaking countries…

  2. Anthony
    June 4, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had the same experience when I got to Canberra, and found that what I understood to be a Carbonara vastly outmuscled anything you would see at a restaurant.

    My commercial substitute for the awesome sausages of our Nonni was chorizo (this is last century, before it was cool), and then it was all chilli, oregano, garlic, parmesan, and mushrooms.

    • June 4, 2011 at 11:09 am

      It’s very disappointing, isn’t it? I’m not terribly fond of chorizo – it tastes more porky to me than Nonna’s sausage – and of course what is best is when I can get to one of the local IGAs or delis who make their own Nonna-style sausage. Again, it isn’t quite the same, but the flavour is close and the spirit is right.

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