On a hot and sticky mid-August night several years ago, I boarded an overnight train from Paris to Milan. The cabin was filled with two sets of bunk-beds that were meant to accommodate four people. Instead, we were five because the couple sharing the cabin with us had a toddler.
The family asked if they could have the bottom bunks, which was fine by me because I wanted to bunk closest to the itty bitty window that cracked open at a woefully insufficient angle.
Insufficient because the father had removed his shoes and the smell was horrific.
It was so bad that I couldn’t sleep. I was finally forced to look in my Italian phrasebook and scan the pages by moonlight for something appropriate to say that would make the man put his darn shoes back on!
Unfortunately, my phrase book had nothing related to shoes, or putting on shoes or telling people that the smell of their feet was intolerable. However, I did manage this:
“Per fevore, signore. I vostri piedi, è violazione dei miei diritti umani!”
Which worked out roughly to mean, “Excuse me, sir. Your feet, this is a violation of my human rights!”
No response. So I tried these other phrases:
“I vostri piedi, sto svenendo . . . Non riesco a respirare . . . !”
Which means: “Your feet, I’m passing out . . . I cannot breathe . . . !”
Then I repeated, “I vostri piedi,” pointed to his feet, crossed my eyes and pretended to die.
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
He must have understood me because he refused to acknowledge my existence. I tried not to take it personally, even though I hated him more and more as we crawled south to Italy. Maybe, I thought, he was trying to incapacitate his over-active son. Or maybe he was angry at his wife and was trying to suffocate her with the smell of his feet.
Seriously. If that smell could be weaponized, the war on terror would be over.
So what does this have to do with carbonara, that amazing Italian dish that uses the residual heat of freshly boiled pasta to transform bacon, beaten eggs and Parmesan into a creamy sauce?
The idea to use orecchiette and peas actually comes from Suzanne Goin‘s Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Her description of how orecchiette are perfectly shaped to cup small bits of bacon and peas was irresistible to me, but I prefer to stick with my old phrasebook’s way of making carbonara because it only uses one pan — and who doesn’t prefer that?
These proportions will make enough for two, but can easily be adjusted for more. For something richer, you could add about a 1/3 of a cup of caramelized chopped onions to the mix. This recipe was also a great way to start using the wonderful shell peas that are at the market right now, as well as the bacon and pullet eggs from my CSA.
Pullet eggs are small eggs from young hens that have just started laying. They say that two pullet eggs are the equivalent of one regular chicken egg, but I find that it’s really more like 3 pullet eggs = 2 regular chicken eggs. Pullet eggs are wonderfully rich in both flavor and mouthfeel, just perfect for carbonara if you can get a hold of some.
I also used up the last of my CSA bacon ends to make my bacon bits, but you can use crumbled cooked bacon strips in this if bacon ends are not handy.
1/3 pound of dried orecchiette
1/3 cup of bacon bits or crumbled cooked bacon
1/3 cup of freshly shucked green peas or frozen peas
5 pullet eggs or three regular eggs
1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan
Freshly grated black pepper
How to prepare:
1. Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. When the water has reached a rolling boil, add the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, set up the other ingredients. This recipe moves quickly near the end, so it is a good idea to have everything ready to go.
2. Combine the Parmesan and eggs in a small bowl with freshly ground black pepper.
3. When the pasta is not quite al dente, add the peas to the boiling water. Let the pasta and peas finish cooking together. Drain and pour the pasta and peas back into the saucepan. Add the bacon along with a quick drizzle of olive oil. Pour the beaten egg mixture over the pasta and begin stirring everything together quickly. When you add the eggs, the pasta should be warm enough to barely cook them. You want the sauce to be just thick enough to coat the pasta with a glossy sheen. If the sauce seems soupy instead of creamy, put the pan over a very low flame and continue to stir and toss the pasta quickly until the sauce turns smooth and creamy.
Don’t worry if you accidentally overcook the eggs and they scramble a little bit. It will still be delicious.