Stuart Forster shares his spaghetti carbonara recipe with Parma ham.
Spaghetti carbonara is a dish that I ate for the very first time in Rome, years ago. It’s remained one of my favourite Italian dishes. That’s possibly because of my fond memories of dining in the Italian capital and because it’s tasty and easy to cook.
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I was a teenager on an Interrail tour around Europe. Despite money being tight, I was determined to taste as many local dishes as possible on my rail journey around the continent.
Eating spaghetti carbonara in Rome
After a day of exploring the Vatican Museums and being impressed by the vastness of St Peter’s Basilica, I ambled about Rome looking for a suitable place to dine. Eventually, I chose a traditional trattoria a few streets away from the Vatican. It had red and white checked tablecloths and a personable waiter who made me feel very welcome.
To be honest, spaghetti carbonara wasn’t a dish that I knew. However, the name jumped out because I enjoyed reading about the unification of Italy and the history of the Risorgimento movement. The Carbonari were secret societies that pushed for change in the early part of the nineteenth century. Their name translates literally as ‘the charcoal makers’.
Making spaghetti carbonara at home
The dish impressed. Back home in the United Kingdom, the first recipes I found for spaghetti carbonara included cream as an ingredient. It just wasn’t the same as the flavourful dish I’d enjoyed so much in Rome.
Eventually, I found a traditional recipe for carbonara sauce that included only beaten egg yolks, lots of freshly ground black pepper plus grated pecorino cheese and chunks of guanciale — a flavour-rich cured meat from the cheeks of pigs.
As a student, regularly buying speciality Italian meats and cheeses was beyond my budget. Consequently, I would dice slices of bacon to use in my carbonara sauce. Over time, I graduated to using pancetta and grated Parmesan cheese. Cooking the dish with Parma ham is a tasty treat.
Variations on carbonara sauce
Carbonara sauce recipes usually recommend using only the yolks of eggs. I’ve made it with and without the white of eggs. These days I prefer to leave the egg whites in the sauce so that it has more body and to avoid waste.
Mushrooms don’t appear in the traditional recipe for carbonara sauce. That said, I find them a tasty addition.
A couple of finely chopped garlic cloves also add depth of flavour to the sauce.
Out of Parmesan cheese? Mature Cheddar is an option (but if any Italians ask, you didn’t hear that from me!).
Occasionally, I’ve made carbonara sauce where I’ve added a dollop of soft ricotta cheese along with finely grated Parmesan.
This spaghetti carbonara recipe with Parma ham is ideal as a filling and tasty pick-me-up meal at the end of a long day. Served with a glass of red wine, it’s an idea for an easy-to-cook recipe on a midweek date night.
The origins of Parma ham
Parma ham is known in Italy as prosciutto di Parma. It’s produced in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, in hills around the city of Parma.
The pork used in making Parma ham is salted and then air-dried. Only the rear haunches are selected and salt masters apply sea salt.
Following a week of refrigeration, the meat is salted once again and then left for between 15 to 18 days. The hams are then hung for between 60 and 90 days in refrigerated rooms where the humidity is controlled at 75 per cent.
Salt is then washed from the meat and the ham is air-dried. Curing and greasing of the ham take place in the months that follow.
The process of making Parma ham takes at least a year from the initial salting. Prosciutto di Parma can be cured for up to three years. After quality control checks, Parma ham is branded with its Ducal Crown certification, a trademark reflecting that it is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product.
For further ideas about using Parma ham as an ingredient while cooking, check out the recipes on the Prosciutto di Parma website.
Parma ham is available to purchase online via Amazon:
Ingredients of my spaghetti carbonara recipe with Parma ham
200 grams (8 ounces) of spaghetti
100 grams of Parma ham
200 grams of brown mushrooms
3 large, free-range eggs
50 grams of Parmesan cheese
A tablespoon of olive oil
2 teaspoons of freshly grated black pepper
Follow the steps below to make spaghetti carbonara. Including the preparatory chopping, beating grating and grinding, this dish takes around 20 minutes to make:
- Prepare the ingredients for use. Slice the mushrooms, dice the slices of Parma ham into thin strips and chop the garlic cloves into small pieces. Grate the Parmesan cheese — do so that it’s finely grated. Beat the eggs in a bowl.
- Bring a large pan of water to a boil and cook the spaghetti. Drain the water from the pasta.
- Meanwhile, fry the mushrooms in a large frying pan over medium heat, stirring them frequently. When they are almost cooked, add the garlic and Parma ham. Cook for a couple of minutes then remove the pan from the heat. (It’s important that the pan is no longer being heated or the eggs will scramble when you add them — yes, I made that mistake when learning to cook carbonara.)
- Stir in the drained pasta to the frying pan, ensuring the ingredients are well mixed. Then add the grated cheese, the egg and the pepper stirring them thoroughly.
Serve the spaghetti carbonara and enjoy your meal.
Enjoy learning about the provenance of local cuisine while you travel? Plan a trip to the Museum of Prosciutto di Parma in the city of Parma. The museum explains how the production of Parma ham draws on a traditional process that came into use during Roman times and is now approved by the European Union. The long-established process is controlled by the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.
I tend to serve my spaghetti carbonara with Primitivo wine from Italy’s Apulia region:
If you have a wine that you’d recommend to serve when cooking this spaghetti carbonara recipe with Parma ham then please let me know in the comments field below.
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