Spring Asparagus Carbonara
I get a lot of emails from people who are in pasta ruts. I totally get this because I find myself in a pasta rut from time to time. Generally, it’s a red sauce rut.
For quick dinners, Bets and I make pasta at least once a week and my default is tomato sauce. It’s easy, but it can get a bit boring.
This time of year, when you can find really great veggies (like asparagus) at the store and in markets, I like to temporarily banish tomatoes from my pasta dishes. While that leaves you with a wide range of cream sauces, if you want to stay on the light side, I recommend mastering (or at least attempting) the carbonara method!
A good carbonara only needs a few ingredients and I always like to go heavy on one vegetable that’s in season. For this version, I went with asparagus and seasoned it with lots of garlic and lemon. It might look boring, but it’s actually packed with flavor.
1) Slice garlic and chop the bottom ends of the asparagus spears off (usually 1-2 inches). Then chop spears into about 2 inch pieces.
2) Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add a drizzle of oil along with the thin asparagus spears. Cook until they are bright green and are slightly tender, 4-5 minutes. Add garlic slivers and season with salt and pepper. Cook for another minute. Add white wine to deglaze pan and once it is cooked off, remove asparagus from skillet.
3) In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs with Parmesan cheese.
4) Cook pasta according to instructions until al dente. Reserve two cups of pasta water. Whisk 1/2 cup of hot pasta water into the egg/cheese mixture to lighten it a bit.
5) Drain pasta and add pasta to skillet with 1/4 cup pasta water over low heat. Fold in asparagus mixture.
6) Pour egg mixture over the pasta and asparagus and stir rapidly to mix in the eggs. It’s okay if some of the egg cooks and scrambles, but the goal is to make it into a smooth sauce on the pasta. If the pasta gets too thick, add more pasta water by the 1/4 cup. Turn heat down to low to prevent scorching.
7) After a few minutes the egg mixture should barely hold onto the pasta as a sauce. Add fresh lemon juice to the pasta and season with salt and pepper.
8) Serve carbonara immediately with lemon zest and extra grated Parm on top.
The Veggie Lineup
There’s no need to over-complicate a dish like this. Find good, fresh asparagus, bright lemons, and garlic. That’s really all you need. On the asparagus, try to find the thinner spears. The thicker ones need to be roasted or blanched but the thin ones can be tossed in a pan and they cook quickly.
Chop the bottom 1-2 inches off the spears (the tough part) and then chop them into 2 inch pieces. For the garlic, just slice it into slivers.
Add a drizzle of oil to a large skillet over medium heat. Then toss in the asparagus and cook the spears until they turn bright green and are starting to get tender. Then add the garlic slivers and cook for another minute or so. You don’t want to add the garlic too soon or it will just burn.
Near the end, hit the veggies with some white wine to deglaze the pan and season with salt and pepper.
Scoop the spears and garlic out of the pan but don’t worry about cleaning the skillet. You can use it again to finish the dish.
The sauce for a classic carbonara pasta is egg based! This can be tricky to work with. If you do it right, the eggs will form a light sauce on the noodles that folds everything together. If you do it wrong, you’ll have pasta and scrambled eggs. To be honest, many times my carbonara ends up some where in the middle and that’s just fine also.
One trick I’ve used with success over the years is to whisk the eggs with some Parmesan cheese (about a cup, but who’s measuring?). Then whisk in about 1/2 cup of hot pasta water. The pasta water will temper the eggs a bit (like making a custard) and also lighten them so they won’t clump so much when they hit the pasta.
Speaking of pasta, I like to use fettuccine for my carbonara. You could use spaghetti but I worry that it’s a bit too fragile. The wide noodles help hold onto the sauce.
When the pasta is cooked, be sure to reserve about 2 cups of pasta water. Pasta water is really important to getting the finished pasta to the right consistency.
When your pasta is drained, add it to the skillet along with 1/4 cup of the pasta water over low heat. Add in the asparagus and garlic and pour in the egg mixture.
Toss this together like crazy to try and keep the eggs evenly coated as they heat up.
Unless you are an expert Italian chef (or incredibly lucky), you’ll probably end up with some bits of cooked egg in the sauce. Don’t worry about this. Your pasta isn’t ruined. It happens to the best of us. Just keep folding the eggs into the pasta with the veggies and try to get it as smooth as possible.
At the end, hit the pasta with some lemon juice and season it with salt and pepper.
If the pasta is really thick, add more pasta water to keep the sauce smooth. If it’s thin and watery, keep tossing it in the skillet until it thickens a bit. Don’t ever crank up the heat though as that will just cook the eggs quickly which isn’t what you want.
It might sound a bit tricky, but it’ll turn out great even if you mess up the eggs a bit (I frequently do).
Most importantly, serve the pasta as soon as possible (cold eggs are no good). Garnish each bowl with lots of grated Parm and lemon zest!
Anybody here in a pasta rut? Leave a comment and ditch the red sauce for a few weeks!