Penne Carbonara

I was once told by an Italian that the way I pronounced penne actually sounded like pene, the Italian word for penis. And no matter how much I tried to correct my pronunciation, it always caused a riot of mirth whenever I started talking about pasta. So maybe I should only whisper the name of this dish in the vincinity of any Italian-speakers out there. Just in case.

I realise that this carbonara may be my first savoury recipe post of the year! Shock, horror! What a glorious thing it is too. As with most pasta-based dishes, it is surprisingly quick and speedy to concot, as well as being perfect for dinner à deux. I’d never cooked this before, so turned to Google for a quick skim. The sheer volume of different recipes out there, in all shapes, sizes and uctuousness, is quite mind-boggling.

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In the end, I went for a trusty James Martin recipe, which requires a rib-sticking quantity of double cream. I had only a dribble left over from making this summer berry cheesecake, so substituted the remainder with single cream. The quantity we made could easily serve 4, but you can adapt it for 2 just by halving the ingredients.

I realise that the way I’ve made this, it’s not strictly speaking an authentic carbonara anymore. However, the mushrooms and spinach do add a zazzle of colour, texture and some veg so I’m not complaining!

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By the way, the mirth I generated amongst Italians was not limited to pasta dishes alone. Chicken Katsu was thought to be very amusing too. I don’t think I should elaborate on this.

Penne Carbonara

Adapted from James Martin on BBC Food

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 150g pancetta, cubed
  • 150g mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 handful fresh spinach
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 25ml double cream
  • 75ml single cream
  • 50g finely grated parmesan (reserve some for sprinkling)
  • 350g penne
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Heat the oil in a frying pan until hot, then add the pancetta and cook until crispy. Add the mushrooms and when almost cooked, throw in the spinach until just wilted. Set to one side.

In a large bowl, mix the egg yolks, cream and most of the parmesan, reserving some for sprinkling later. Season well with salt and pepper.

In a pan of salted boiling water, cook the penne until done. Drain, then add to the bowl of cream mixture, and stir continuously until smooth. Add the parsley.

Dish the pasta into bowls, and season again with salt and pepper. Garnish with a sprinkling of parmesan, and a little sprig of parsley. Serve outdoors in the summer sun, with a simple tomato salad on the side.

An Authentic Lasagne?

Trying to find genuine Italian dishes is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands. Slippery. Especially when you live in a country full of faux-Italian dishes, each vying with one another in their claims of genuine authenticity.

Lasagne is a case in point. It is found in supermarkets, school dinners, cafes and on restaurant menus absolutely everywhere.  It is a bastion of home-cooking. But what is the real deal supposed to be like?

Bah, I normally decry, and cook whatever suits my tastebuds best. But what if you’re cooking for a bona fide Italian? What do you do then? Throw the plateful of minced slop in front of them and see that look of barely-hidden horror in their eyes? No sirree.

So I abandoned my usual recipe, and decided to explore. Felicity Cloake has a recipe for her perfect lasagne in her “How to make perfect…” series. However, her rather dry looking result, coupled with the liberal use of hard-to-obtain ingredients meant that was out of the question. In the end, I made the lasagne recipe I got off BBC Food. The chef certainly had an Italian sounding name. Would that be a mark of true authenticity?

Well, I made a version as close to the recipe from BBC Food as I could. It was ok, crammed full of mozzarella and parmesan; I felt as though there was cheese coming out of my eyeballs. So I streamlined it down. I put a layer of bechamel between each pasta sheet instead of cheese. I replaced most of the meat in the ragu with lentils. And I saved a little parmesan and mozzarella for the very top, where it melted to form a lovely golden cheesy topping. And hey presto, it was delicious. And then, authenticity no longer mattered anymore.

Lasagne 

  • olive oil
  • 2 onions
  • 2 carrots
  • 4 sticks of celery
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • handful of dried herbs
  • 500g lean mince
  • 400g cooked lentils, drained
  • a squirt of concentrated tomato puree
  • 800g chopped tomatoes
  • 400ml red wine
  • 450ml stock
  • butter
  • 2 dsp plain flour
  • milk
  • bay leaf
  • a pinch of grated nutmeg
  • fresh lasagne sheets
  • handful of mature cheddar, grated

Finely chop the onion, carrots, celery and garlic. Heat up a splash of oil in a big pan, and gently fry everything in the pan until soft. Throw in a sprinkling of rosemary.

Mix in the mince until almost completely cooked, then add the lentils.Bubble away until most of the liquid is gone. Then pour in the wine and cook it until the wine has evaporated. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, concentrated tomato puree, and the stock. Cook this gently on a simmer for 2 hours until most of the liquid is gone.

Make the bechamel by heating a small container of milk in a saucepan with a bay leaf until  boiling. Fish out the bay leaf and set the milk aside. In the saucepan melt a knob of butter, and whisk in 2 heaped spoonfuls of flour. Gently whisk in the milk little by little until you’ve got yourself a nice white sauce, and add the grated nutmeg. Pour a little sauce onto the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Cover with layers of fresh lasagne sheets. Then spoon a thin layer of ragu over this, followed by a layer of pasta sheets, then a layer of bechamel, then a layer of pasta sheets. Keep going until all the ragu is used up. You should have quite a lot of pasta layers. I had at least 4. For the final layer of pasta, cover the top with bechamel, sprinkle with grated cheese, and stick in the oven at 200˚C for 30 minutes until the top is golden and bubbling. Let it cool slightly, and cut into pieces.

For vegetarian friends I make the lasagne in exactly the same way, but increase the quantity of carrot, celery and lentils. You could use any hard cheese as long as it isn’t made with rennet. It’s just as delicious.