I will say this right off the bat: there is nothing authentic or particularly traditional about my carbonara. Zero. Zip. Starting with the pasta.
For example, I use linguine instead of spaghetti.
I realize that’s not that big of a stretch, but I use some other unconventional ingredients, too: half-and-half and smoked salmon.
My carbonara is smoky, smoky — first hit of smoke: applewood smoked bacon; second punch: hardwood smoked salmon. (I told you this isn’t conventional.)
Authentic Roman carbonara calls for pancetta (unsmoked bacon). It also calls for egg yolks, but I use whole eggs instead.
This next part isn’t traditional either. Part of it is — whisking the eggs with the cheese — but whisking in half-and-half instead of pasta water is a guilty deviation.
Some people would balk at adding cream or half-and-half to carbonara. I’m not one of those people.
I don’t throw all caution to the wind — I do heavily salt the pasta water.
It’s important to salt the water (after it comes to a boil) to “season” the pasta. It’s also important to stir the pasta as soon as it’s added to the boiling water to submerge it and keep it from settling to the bottom into a gloppy mess.
I reduce the heat, too. No need to boil it to death, but you do want a good simmer.
After the pasta is gently boiling, start the bacon in a cold skillet over medium heat (I don’t mean chill the skillet first, I mean don’t turn the heat on until the bacon is in the pan). This helps render out as much fat as it’s going to give.
When the bacon is showing signs of crisping, but still hanging on to the last vestals of fat, stir in the garlic. Stir the garlic in too soon, and it will crisp up like the bacon, maybe even burn.
Smoked salmon is the least traditional ingredient in my recipe, but it sure makes a good, smoky carbonara.
This Red King chinook salmon is not cheap ($8 for a 6.5 oz. can). I buy it at a local farmers’ market from Roger Kamb, a jolly fisherman who splits his time between Seattle and Scottsdale. His business is Especial Tuna, and I’d point you to his website, but it doesn’t seem to be working.
Too bad, because this is some great stuff — nothing like the commercial brands found at most supermarkets. You can certainly use one of those brands (my mother made salmon patties with Honey Boy Red (not pink) salmon, but you have to clean it up a bit, removing the skin here and there, and Honey Boy isn’t smoked).
Once the pasta is al dente, drain it (reserve a half a cup or so of the pasta water) and put the pasta in the skillet with the bacon and garlic.
WAIT! Before you do that, I have a confession: I deglaze the pan with rosé first — definitely not traditional.
But it is delicious. You can skip this step if you want.
Once the hot pasta is in the pan with the deglazed bacon and garlic, turn the heat off.
Stir in the egg/cheese/half-and-half mixture. If you leave the heat on, the eggs will scramble (it’s not the end of the world if you get a little scramble, it’s just not traditional, and you know what a stickler for tradition I am).
Toss in the can of smoked salmon and keep tossing. If the sauce seems too thick (and it likely will), pour in some reserved hot pasta water, just enough to make the sauce look creamy.
Season with a good dose of freshly ground black pepper. Top with more grated Parmesan. (And no, the basil leaf isn’t traditional either.)
Pour a glass of rosé if you haven’t already, and dig in quickly, before it cools off.
Smoked Salmon Carbonara
This rich, comforting, if unconventional, carbonara comes together quickly — less than 30 minutes. You can do the prep while you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil. It’s a good idea to warm your pasta bowls, too, as this dish gets cold quick once it’s done. It makes three hearty servings, but you can stretch it to four reasonable size portions, especially if you serve a side salad and crusty bread. Wine pairing: I drink a dry rosé (not surprising if you know me) but an unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnay pairs well, too.
1/2 pound linguine
2 to 3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 strips of bacon, sliced into 1/4-inch strips crosswise
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup dry rosé or dry white wine
2 large eggs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for garnishing
1/4 cup half-and-half
Generous pinch fresh grated nutmeg
1 (6.5 oz.) can high quality smoked salmon, drained
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Bring 5-1/2 to 6 quarts of cold water to a boil in a large pot. Stir in salt when water comes to a full boil.
- Stir in pasta, constantly stirring until pasta is submerged and soft. Reduce heat to medium-high (just enough to get a gentle but active boil).
- Place bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook until almost crisp, about four to five minutes, then stir in garlic. Cook until garlic is fragrant, about a minute, and then deglaze pan with 1/4 cup wine, scraping up the browned bacon bits. Cook until the wine is reduced to 2 tablespoons.
- Whisk the eggs, Parmesan, half-and-half, and nutmeg together in a bowl or measuring cup while the bacon is cooking and set aside.
- Drain pasta when it is al dente (about 7 to 8 minutes total cooking time). Reserve about a half a cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Place the hot pasta into the deglazed skillet with the bacon and garlic. Turn off the heat.
- Pour the egg mixture into the hot pasta, tossing quickly as you pour. Stir in the drained can of salmon, breaking up the big lumps.
- Stir in reserved pasta water if the sauce seems too thick. Sometimes I need 1/4 cup, other times I use 1/2 cup. The sauce should look creamy.
- Stir in the black pepper. Toss well to distribute the pepper. Taste and if desired, season with more pepper and/or kosher salt.
- Divide among warmed pasta bowls and garnish with more Parmesan. Serve immediately.
NOTE: Recipe halves easily, but if you want to double, only double the amount of pasta, and 1.5 times the remaining ingredients.