Lately my cooking has been kind of uninspired—I’m biding my time until the good stuff starts showing up at the farmers markets. A few weeks ago I made a big bowl of something I preemptively called “Almost Spring Slaw!” but it didn’t have the effect I wanted it to—it left me dissatisfied with cabbage; it left me hungry for asparagus and peas—and I spent the better part of a week choking it down in small doses. So I decided to change course and use these few weeks as an excuse for baked goods and rich things that I’ll have less interest in cooking once the temperature rises and the vegetable bounty begins. I’ve enjoyed these brownies more than once, and this bread, and this vegetarian cassoulet. And then I made carbonara. Thrice.
Carbonara is the pasta dish where piping hot, freshly cooked noodles are tossed with beaten eggs, which coat and cook when they make contact with the noodles. Recipes often begin by browning bacon or pancetta, and I decided to work around that with (surprise!) vegetables. I meant to simply caramelize onions and celery, aiming for rich, slow-cooked bits of flavor to freckle the pasta. But I lost my patience and turned up the heat. The resulting vegetables were somewhat chewy, slightly charred little flavor nuggets that tasted smoky and even slightly astringent. I liked them this way and liked the method—first over low heat to soften them, then turning it up—so I decided to do it again the next time. The next time, which happened to be two days later, I also added a carrot with the onions and celery, rounding it off as mire poix, as well as a handful of baby arugula at the end. Then I read Heidi’s recipe for quesadillas, which she tops with pan-fried capers, and tried this in my next round. Bingo. Now I have the salty, the sweet, and the savory, and it’s fully realized when combined with a bit of cheese and a beaten egg.
As an aside, it wasn’t until I was working as a prep cook at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that I learned how to properly salt pasta water. The chef and I were standing over a very large pot of boiling water and he asked me to salt it. I did what I’d always done, which is, I threw in a literal pinch of salt. “Oh no,” he said, reaching for the box of Kosher salt. He then proceeded to pour salt into the pot in a thick, dusty cascade. He must have poured in at least cup of salt. He made me taste the water. “It should taste like seawater,” he said, which indeed it did. I don’t salt it quite that much these days, but with the principle in mind, you might find, as I did, that cooking your pasta in well-salted water will produce a more properly seasoned dish.
I made this as a hearty dish for one because that’s how I’ve been enjoying it, but it’s very easy to double. And as you read the recipe you might think it sounds tricky to get the timing right, since the moment the pasta is done, it must be immediately tossed with the beaten egg whether or not the vegetables are ready. If you’d like, you can cook the vegetables first, remove them from the heat, then cook the pasta, and when the pasta is almost done, rewarm the vegetables before you add the arugula, followed by the cooked pasta and egg. This sounds far more complicated than it actually is.
Spaghetti and Vegetable Carbonara with Fried Capers for One
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and blotted dry with a towel
1/4 large or 1/2 small red onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 large handful (about 1-1/2 cups) baby arugula
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
Several grinds of black pepper
1/4 pound spaghetti
Pinch lemon zest
1. Heat oil in a deep skillet or sauté pan (something large enough to hold the cooked spaghetti) over medium-high heat. When hot, add the capers and fry, stirring frequently, until blistered and slightly puffed, about 2 to 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper towel or flattened paper bag to drain.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then add the onion, celery, and carrot. Add an extra splash of oil to the pan if it appears dry. Cook until the onions and celery just begin to soften, 3 to 4 minutes, then turn the heat up to medium-high and continue cooking until shrunken and the onions are deeply colored and even charred. This will take about 15 minutes more. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt.
3. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil. When boiling, add 1 tablespoon salt. After the vegetables have been cooking for at least 7 minutes, add the pasta and cook until al dente, usually about 9 to 10 minutes, or according to package instructions.
4. Also meanwhile, whisk together the egg, paremesan cheese, and black pepper in a small bowl until thoroughly blended.
5. To assemble: Just before the pasta is finished cooking, remove the vegetables from the heat and top with arugula. Using tongs, toss once or twice to combine. Reserve at least 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta. Quickly add the hot, drained pasta to the pan with the vegetables. With the bowl containing the beaten egg in one hand and tongs in the other, pour the egg over the hot noodles while tossing and stirring vigorously with the tongs, ensuring that the egg is as evenly distributed as possible and the pasta and vegetables are thoroughly combined. Add reserved pasta water, in increments, to loosen the sauce if desired. Serve hot, topped with the capers and lemon zest.