Confession time: I’ve got my flashy arsenal of “cooking for people” dishes that I whip out whenever I have an audience, which I define as me + anyone who’s not me. The things I generally make when I’m on my own? Whole different menu. This version of pasta carbonara is one of my favorite meals for one– a cleaned-up version of a comfort food classic.
Traditional carbonara sauce is a carefully orchestrated concoction of pancetta (or bacon), egg, cheese, and pepper. My version subs shiitake mushrooms for bacon to retain some of the “meaty” texture of the original sauce. To play up the earthy flavor of the mushrooms, I like to swap out the white wine for rice wine. When we first moved to San Francisco there was a Filipino grocery store down the street from us and it was the best place to shop ever. Cheap veggies and an impressive array of fresh fish, and all the specialty Asian ingredients. (I miss that place). I killed a bottle of Shaoxing cooking rice wine (the clear kind) in about 2 months by adding it to anything that seemed like it needed its flavor kicked up by a dimension or two. Sadly our convenient market is far away now, and I am lazy. So tonight, we’re sticking with dry white wine. Another option is broth (chicken or vegetable), which I find pretty underwhelming when your other option is wine, but it’s not terrible.
This is not a terribly challenging recipe, but pulling it off well does take a good dose of preparation and careful timing. If using drinkable wine (Chinese cooking wine almost always has salt added, and thus is not something you should pour yourself a glass of), open the bottle before you start cooking. This is important for two reasons, the first being that now you get to drink some while you cook, the second (and probably more important) that you won’t have to worry about a rogue cork acting up when the clock is running out.
Slice mushrooms into thin strips and saute them in some butter. Once they’re soft and brown(er), pull them out and set them aside.
Mince onions and garlic and prepare to start cooking them. If you don’t know what mince means read this now. Start boiling a pot of salted water now. This is important for the whole timing thing.
Throw garlic and onions them in the pan with more butter. Take note that this is a vegetarian recipe, but by no means vegan and by especially no means skimpy on the butter. Cook your onions/butter until onions are soft and translucent and garlic is fragrant. If you’re using rice wine, go easier on the salt than you think you should. For white wine, salt normally.
Now add rice wine/white wine/broth to the onions and turn down to a nice simmer. You want to the liquid to reduce a bit, but not let it entirely disappear. Check your water. Is it boiling? If it is, add your pasta.
While the pasta’s cooking crack your egg(s) and beat them a bit, then add parmesan and parsley and and mix it all up. Take onion mixture off heat and add mushrooms.
Now for the tricky part. When the pasta’s done, give it a quick drain but don’t rinse it; you want to retain as much heat as possible. Throw it back in the pan and pour the egg mixture over the pasta and stir until pasta is coated. Now add the onion/mushroom mix and stir to incorporate.
The residual heat from the hot pasta should be enough to cook the egg, but if it doesn’t seem done enough (or if you’re paranoid about raw egg), you can turn the pan on low for a minute or two. Make sure that if you do this, the egg mix has adequately coated the pasta or else you’re get a weird, scrambled egg-like curds instead of a nice creamy sauce. See? That wasn’t so hard.
Mushroom Carbonara For One
Butter for cooking (a few tablespoons)
1/4 lb pasta of your choice (something with a lot of exposed surface area is best, e.g. linguine, spaghetti or fusili- stay away from anything with holes in it, such as elbow macaroni or penne)
2-3 ounces shiitake mushrooms
1/4 of a large white or yellow onion
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup white wine or rice wine (can substitute 1/4 broth, see below)
1/4 cup vegetable or chicken broth (can substitute another 1/4 cup of whatever wine you’re using if you don’t have it)
1/2 c grated parmesan cheese (plus more for topping)
a small fistful of fresh parsley, minced (plus more for garnish)
black pepper (freshly cracked is obviously the best choice, but I don’t have a pepper mill, which tells you how much I care about particular spice at this point in my life)
1. Prep: Open wine, fill large pot with water, clean & assemble ingredients.
2. Heat a pan over medium heat with some butter. While it’s heating, slice mushrooms lengthwise, then add to pan. Cook until soft and brown, then remove from pan and set aside.
3. Start boiling pot of water. Mince garlic and onions and add to the same pan you used for the mushrooms (with more butter, of course). Add salt and cook over medium heat until onions are translucent and garlic is fragrant.
4. Remove onions and garlic from pan and deglaze with 1/4 cup wine. When wine is simmering add mushrooms, onion mixture and the other 1/4 of liquid to the pan. Turn heat to low and let simmer.
5. Add pasta to boiling water and set timer. While pasta is boiling, beat together egg, cheese and parsley until well incorporated.
6. When pasta is done drain quickly then return to pot. Immediately pour egg mixture over pasta and turn to incorporate. When pasta is coated, add mushroom mixture. If the consistency seems too runny, set the heat back on low for a minute or two to help “cook” the egg mixture. If you do this, stir continuously!
7. Serve with black pepper and a bit more cheese, if you like.