If I had to choose a pasta dish above all others, this would be the one. It’s hard to believe that something so simple can taste so amazingly good. And the spiciness from the reds serrano peppers is a perfect foil with the creaminess. Chili con carbonara is delicious for brunch, lunch, supper, or dinner.
Never heard of chili con carbonara? That’s not surprising. It only got awarded that title after a pal and I recently relished its astonishing excellence.
We knew it was destined to be absolutely fabulous when we talked through the ingredients. That was pretty much a to-die-for list starring red serrano chilies with their upfront, bright heat; smoked bacon; garlic; brown mushrooms; peas; and butter. They’d all be brought together in a sauce of heavy cream, eggs, Parmesan, and black pepper. The pasta? For the big, rich flavors, fettuccine seemed a more robust option than spindly spaghetti, so that’s what we settled on.
And then a bit of slightly shocking inspiration slipped onto the sauce’s list alongside the Parmesan. Goat’s cheese.
Truth be told, it was as much convenience as it was inspiration. There happened to be sitting in the refrigerator a gorgeous piece of firm, almost crumbly, mature goat’s cheese from a small, international award-winning artisanal maker.
And without a shadow of doubt, the combination of those serrano peppers and that cheese was our carbonara’s crowning glory.
Building on a legend
Rightly famous around the world, spaghetti alla carbonara is indeed a wonderful dish. Like penne arrabbiata, it’s an all-time great that (perhaps) originated in Rome. With a few topping dashes of hot chili sauce, I rave about trad carbonara when I make it every few months or so.
And that Italian classic was the basis for our chili con carbonara.
So, what’s different? Well, all the things that most definitely do not feature in an authentic carbonara. That’d be the fairly fiery, red serrano chilies, the heavy cream, and smoked streaky (aka Canadian) bacon — instead of cured pork cuts like pancetta or guanciale. Then there are the peas for some contrasting texture and vivid color, and the mushrooms with their earthy depths of flavor.
And finally, the unmistakeable tang of goat’s cheese that — just like those red serranos — brings in another, totally distinctive dimension.
A balance of power
Among all those varied flavors, you’ll happily discover that there isn’t one that totally dominates the others. That’s because the eggs and cream level the playing field, allowing each ingredient the chance to shine individually. This dish is both surprisingly subtle and bursting with charisma — all at the same time.
It’s that unusual, contradictory quality which allows our carbonara to stand proudly on its own — it’s so satisfyingly complete that it simply doesn’t need anything else to be served with it. Salads and breads? Don’t bother.
Cooking up a storm
Translated from Italian, “alla carbonara” means in the style or manner of charcoal burners — the folk who make charcoal. It seems they could also turn their hands to inventing and making a giant of Italian cuisine. And the burners’ way with spaghetti is angrily protected. A recent NYT Cooking recipe for ‘smoky tomato carbonara’ had the pasta purists up in arms over what they see as unforgivable abuse of a culinary icon.
Fact is, nobody knows for certain when or where spaghetti alla carbonara was first devised. Nobody. In addition to Rome, Naples also proudly claims ownership. And references to it didn’t appear until after WWII, so it’s hardly a dish with a heavyweight history.
But one thing’s for sure, our chili con carbonara wouldn’t exist without an icon’s generous guidance. Salut!
Chili con Carbonara
- Mixing Bowls
- Tall Saucepan
- 4 red serrano peppers cut crosswise into 1/8 inch slices, seeds and all
- 1 pound dry fettuccine durum wheat pasta is best!
- 1 1/2 cups heavy full cream at room temperature
- 6 large eggs at room temperature
- 6 ounces rindless smoked Canadian bacon aka smoked streaky bacon. Roughly chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and very finely sliced
- 1/2 pound brown mushrooms quartered, stalks and all
- 4 ounces frozen garden peas defrosted
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 2 1/2 ounces finely grated parmesan at room temperature
- 2 1/2 ounces matured goat cheese thinly sliced, at room temperature
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt one for the pasta’s water, one for the sauce
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- Ready-warmed bowls. Timing and temperatures seriously matter in this dish.
- You’re aiming to add the still-hot, fried ingredients – chiles, mushrooms, bacon, and garlic – to the pasta the moment it’s cooked and drained. And then you’ll be very quickly stirring in your egg, cream, cheeses, and peas for the final few moments’ cooking.
- So, first up is to beat the eggs together in a mixing bowl with the cream, parmesan, and a heaped teaspoon salt, and black pepper. Do make sure the eggs, cream, and parmesan are at room temperature first. Straight from the refrigerator is a definite no-no. Why? Well, that mixture is going to be rapidly combined with the pasta right after the fried stuff’s added. If it’s cold, the whole lot will take far too long to heat in the pan. Result? The egg will start to scramble rather than staying totally smooth. And that must not happen. Must. Not. Happen.
- Fill a good-sized saucepan 3/4 full with water, add a heaped teaspoon salt, and bring to the boil on a high heat. The pan needs to be big enough to easily hold the pasta and all other ingredients once the pasta’s cooked.
- Add the fettucine, and reduce the heat a little so the water stays at a good rolling boil. Let the pasta cook like that for about 8 minutes. You want it to be just barely al dente, so try a piece to make sure.
- While the pasta water is coming to the boil, set a skillet onto a high heat and add the butter. As soon as it foams, stir in the chiles, bacon, garlic, and mushrooms. Drop the heat to medium-high and cook for about 6 minutes with a good few stirs. You want to melt about half the fat from the bacon, and for it to colour slightly but not to become crunchy-crisp. Then drop the heat to low so that everything in the skillet stays nicely hot in readiness to join the cooked pasta.
- Now things need to happen carefully but quickly – and I mean quickly.
- Drain the fettucine and return it steaming hot to its pan over a low-medium heat. Fast as you can, add the thinly sliced goat’s cheese, peas and everything from the bacon-fatted skillet. Give the pan a few thorough stirs as it sits for 90 seconds on that low-medium heat.
- Now stir in the egg, cream and parmesan mix so that it coats everything in the pan. Drop the heat to low. Continue stirring in a thorough, coat-it-all fashion for another 90 seconds on that low heat.
- It’s now crucial – yep, crucial – that the pan’s slowly growing heat gets evenly distributed through all of your chili con carbonara. Too long and too hot will mean the eggs won’t stay completely smooth – don’t let that happen.
- Remove from the heat and serve immediately into those warmed bowls.