In my story Love and Gratitude (and Pasta), I talk about Nigella Lawson’s recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara. Although her recipe makes an undoubtedly tasty dish, purists (and most Italians) would not call it carbonara. It makes a few Italian culinary sins, including using pancetta instead of guanciale, the inclusion of wine, using all parmigiano reggiano instead of pecorino romano (or a mix of both) and the use of cream and nutmeg in the sauce. If you want to try it (and you should, because it is really delicious, just not a true carbonara), you can find that recipe in her lovely cookbook Feast, as well as here: Nigella’s Spaghetti alla Carbonara.
Now, a traditional carbonara contains very few ingredients: pasta, guanciale, eggs (usually just the yolks, but sometimes whole eggs too), pecorino romano (sometimes parmigano, but it’s a Roman dish, so romano is preferable), and lots of black pepper. Sometimes olive oil is added when cooking the guanciale, but for the love of all things holy, you must never add any cream or anything green like parsley or peas. The sauce is made carefully, with the starchy/salty magic that is pasta water, which slowly cooks the egg and cheese mixture to a sauce that is silky perfection. There are quite a few great carbonara recipes online, if you want to make an authentic version you should have no trouble finding one to your tastes. I like this one from Epicurious.
As a vegetarian, I cannot make traditional carbonara either (guanciale is the jowl of a pig, so that is strictly out). I still use eggs and pecorino romano, but I replace the guanciale with olive oil or butter for fat and vegetables for substance. I’ve used sun-dried tomatoes, roasted oyster mushrooms and butternut squash (this was the combination from my two bowl night mentioned in my story), zucchini (the best is from Rachel Roddy: Rachel Roddy’s Zucchini Carbonara), eggplant, broccoli rabe, and, most recently, those delightful spring greens known as ramps.
The ramp recipe is the one that I will be sharing with you today. Last month I had a lovely day foraging for the ramps in the woods behind my parent’s house where I used to play as a child. I didn’t know then that those first harbingers of spring would be so tasty (note: if you decide to harvest your own ramps, please do so responsibly, not only for the environment, but for your own health. Lily of the Valley is an extremely poisonous lookalike. Here are some resources: Sustainable Ramp Foraging and Ramps vs. Lily of the Valley).
Ramps have a very short season, and if you are unable to find them, I recommend replacing garlic and green onions for the ramp bulbs and a mild green such as baby spinach for the leaves. The taste won’t be quite the same, but it will still be delicious. Alternatively, you can saute or roast a few cups of any vegetable of your choice and add them, such as those that I have suggested above.
Ramp Carbonara Vegetariana
A few notes:
- Use the freshest, best quality eggs that you can for this dish (straight from a pasture-raised farm is best; I would not recommend cage-raised eggs for this as the eggs do not fully cook, so use caution if you are serving to immune-suppressed individuals).
- Salt your water well – like two tablespoons of coarse kosher salt well. The pasta water is a critical ingredient and the salt cannot be skipped. No oil in the water though, please.
- You must work quickly once the pasta water and egg/cheese mixture is added or else the eggs will scramble. This is still tasty, as scrambled eggs are, but silky eggs are what you are going for here. Don’t worry if you don’t achieve this the first (or even fifth) time. I still scramble mine on occasion in a too hot pan.
- Roman recipes (even inauthentic ones made by me) and simple, so the best ingredients are essential. This includes the pasta, the vegetables that you use, and especially the eggs and cheese. Imported is best for the cheese here.
1 lb. long pasta, such as bucatini or spaghetti, preferably dried
2 T. olive oil
2 bunches ramps, bulbs and leaves separated (or other vegetables, as noted above)
1/2 t. crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks (save the whites for another use)
1 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino romano (or a half/half mixture of parmigano reggiano and pecorino romano)
1/2 t. smoked sea salt (optional, but excellent)
Freshly grated black pepper
For serving: chopped chives, your best extra virgin olive oil, flaked sea salt (such as Maldon), red pepper flakes, more cheese and a bit of freshly cracked black pepper (always!)
- Clean the ramps well, especially if foraged. Remove fibrous roots from bulb and chop remainder of root. Coarsely chop the leaves. Set aside. (If using other vegetables, chop or julienne into small pieces to be sauteed),
- Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil. Salt generously when the water boils (see notes, above). Let the water return to a boil. Add pasta and cook until almost al dente (generally one minute or so less than package instructions).
- While the pasta cooks, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium head until it sizzles. Add chopped ramp bulbs and red pepper flakes, and smoked salt. Saute for 2-3 minutes until tender. (If using other vegetables, add the longer cooking pieces now and cook until tender as well).
- Meanwhile, mix the eggs, egg yolks, cheese, and pepper (generously, about 1 tsp.) together in a small bowl to form a thick paste. Set aside.
- Add the ramp leaves and cook for about one to two minutes, until wilted. (If using alternate leafy vegetables, add them now).
- Transfer the almost al dente pasta to the pan with the ramps with tongs, so that some of the pasta water still clings to it (do not drain the pot, you may still need the water).
- Remove the pan from the heat, add the egg/cheese/pepper mixture and a small ladle of pasta water. Mix everything together carefully with tongs or a pasta fork and also quite quickly to avoid scrambling the eggs. The sauce should be shiny and silky and cling to each noodle. If it’s too thick, add a bit more pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time. If it is too thin, cook it very carefully over low heat until it thickens, making sure to keep the pasta moving constantly.
- Serve immediately topped with chopped chives, a drizzle of olive oil, flaky salt and more cheese, crushed red pepper flakes and black pepper. Buon appetito!
Serves four. Better eat it all – it does not reheat well. Work up an appetite if need be, as Nigella suggested. I won’t judge.