The Curious Cook

Birthday carbonara

This is one of those dishes that starts with a simple idea and then magically takes shape into something truly delicious. It is such a surprise when a jumble of seemingly disparate ideas results in an almost perfect dish.

It was my partner J’s birthday, which takes place on January the 4th. Enjoying a much needed hiatus in Graaff-Reinet, were knee-deep in the utterly impenetrable peace that can only be found in the Karoo. But some kind of effort had to made, despite being rather tired of all the excesses of Christmas, not to mention all the lacklustre meals in restaurants we had inevitably been faced with. As always, I was on the prowl for interesting local ingredients. It started with finding some wonderfully thick, unpasteurised cream direct from a farm in Middelburg and a lemon, fresh from a tree in the garden, basking in the sun. This was the inspiration for a savoury, lemony cream sauce for pasta. I was thinking of adding egg to thicken the sauce, which made me think of the simplest of all sauces: spaghetti carbonara – raw eggs tossed through hot pasta and sprinkled with crispy bacon.

My mother likes to tell a hedonistic story of how she was seduced by an Italian man called Sandro who used to make her spaghetti carbonara for breakfast. Wow, talk about romance! It was the idyllic 1970s and her hair was so long it grazed the backs of her knees. She dyed it purple to match her purple bikini and lay on Clifton beach while Sandro braved the achingly cold surf. But he wasn’t the marrying kind, he told her he wanted to be free, go back to Italy and buy a Ferrari. Strangely enough, they bumped into each other many years later and he said “If only I had known the mistake I made by not marrying you…” After hearing the end of this story only recently, I was struck by a flight of fancy- I could have been part Italian! Now that would have made sense. I have always loved pasta for breakfast.

The next step in the evolution of this dish were the tomatoes I had roasted in balsamic vinegar the day before. Of course, bacon and tomatoes are such an excellent combination. Then there was that marvellous cream. I haven’t encountered anything like it – so thick you couldn’t even whip it. But, as all self-respecting Italians know, you never, ever add cream to pasta carbonara. It’s cheating. But I’m not Italian (as much as I would love to be) so to hell with it, I would make linguine carbonara with cream AND to boot, a poached egg on top!

BIRTHDAY CARBONARA

Serves four

Ingredients:

200g whole Romanita tomatoes, preferably on the stem, ripened out of the fridge

220g (1 pack) of best quality back bacon

400g 100% durum wheat linguine

Five extra-large free range eggs

1 medium sized clove of garlic, finely sliced

To taste: white pepper, lemon scented olive oil, celery salt, Woolworths Lamb Rub seasoning and balsamic vinegar

The zest and juice of a lemon

Half a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard

Four tablespoons of thick Ayshire cream

Method

Halve the tomatoes and place in a baking dish. Sprinkle with Woolworths Lamb rub seasoning and a smidgeon of extra salt. Add a generous dash of balsamic vinegar and drizzle lightly with plain olive oil. Grill until charred. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Line up the rashers of bacon on a baking tray and grill until very crispy. Turn if necessary. Remove and place on a plate to cool. Stir a clove of thinly sliced garlic into the fat in the tray as well as an extra drizzle of lemon scented olive oil. Place back under the grill but turn down the heat to prevent the garlic from burning. When the garlic is fragrant and transparent, take baking tray out of the oven and gently stir through the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Set aside.

Put your pasta pot onto boil, adding enough linguine for four servings. Take a small saucepan of water and bring to a boil, adding a teaspoon of white wine vinegar. When the water is gently boiling use a spoon to create a whirlpool and gently add the egg to the centre of the whirlpool. It helps to crack each egg into a cup first. Gently poach until cooked to your liking. Repeat with the 3 other eggs. Cover and set aside.

Tear or shatter the cooled bacon into roughish small pieces. I find that my fingers work better for this than a knife would. In a wide, shallow pan add the mustard, celery salt, white pepper, citrus zest and juice. Add the cream onto the opposite side of the pan so they do not mix together. Separate the yolk from the white of the egg and add the yolk to the pan. Do not be tempted to heat the pan, the egg acts as a catalyst for the alchemy of the sauce to take place.

When the pasta is cooked, take an espresso cup and scoop out some of the pasta water. Using a balloon whisk, attack the egg yolk first, add the water to the whole lot and rapidly whisk together. It may look a little watery but the pasta does a marvellous job of absorbing all the silky sauce.

Drain the pasta and immediately add to the sauce in the pan, tossing the pasta and sauce together until beautifully amalgamated. Add the bacon and stir through, followed by the tomatoes. Serve topped with a poached egg and plenty of freshly grated pecorino or Parmesan. A salad of plain green leaves such as Salanova or baby butter lettuce with a plain vinaigrette is all you need as accompaniment.

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