Spaghetti Carbonara is probably my all-time favourite meal. It was one of the very first recipes I posted on Grubdaily, almost 8 years ago, and I think it’s well overdue an update. Back then I used to put cream in it, but these days I opt for a purer and more authentic approach and use the starchy pasta cooking water as a basis for the sauce instead. A lot changes in 8 years, and so has my carbonara, too. The secret to this sauce is whisking some some of the starchy cooking water into the parmesan and eggs, before adding it to the pasta and gently cooking it over a low heat until it’s thick - much the same as the technique for making egg custard, or crème anglaise.
This dish is Italian cooking at it’s best; simple, quick and with an emphasis on quality ingredients. It can be deceptively tricky to perfect however; too much heat when adding the eggs can result in scrambling them instead of gently cooking them to get the desired silky smooth sauce. If you can, get a hold of some good quality spaghetti that’s been made with a bronze die, as it’ll hold the sauce much better.
- 75g pancetta, diced into lardons
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 180g spaghetti
- 2 generous pinches of cracked black pepper
- 2 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 30g parmesan, finely grated
- sea salt
- olive oil
Get a large pan of water boiling to cook the pasta in. Add a couple of generous pinches of salt.
In a frying pan or sauté pan, heat a glug of olive oil and place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the diced pancetta and fry until lightly caramelised. Turn the heat to low and add the chopped garlic, along with a pinch of cracked black pepper. Cook gently for 2 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic, then remove from the heat and set aside.
Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes less than it says on the packet’s instructions. This is because after draining the pasta we’re going to heat it again as we make the sauce, so it’ll continue to cook.
While the pasta is cooking, start to prepare for the sauce; place the eggs and egg yolks into a jug or bowl and add most of the finely grated parmesan (leaving some for garnish at the end), along with a small pinch of sea salt.
When the pasta is about 2 minutes away, drain it over another jug or bowl, making sure you reserve about 200ml of water. Whisk the eggs and cream together to make a thick paste, then pour about 4-5 tablespoons of the pasta water in, while still whisking. Now add the pancetta and garlic, pasta and egg mixture back into the pasta pan and place over a medium-low heat. Add about 100ml more of the pasta water and, using a plastic spatula, stir continuously, scraping the bottom of the pan until it’s the texture of custard. Be very careful not to overheat it as the eggs will scramble. If it gets too thick, add a little more water - you should have a nice sauce consistency that just clings to the pasta.
Divide into pasta bowls, garnish with the remaining parmesan and eat immediately.
Roast Chicken Leg with Coriander
A few years ago I posted recipe for confit chicken served with lemon dressing and pak choi. It was an adaptation of a home classic my mum makes on a regular basis, and the original dish, or a version close to it, is one of my go-to regular meals. This is a quicker and simpler version using coriander - both seeds and leaves - and it’s absolutely tasty.
It’s ready in less than an hour, so is a pretty good option for a quick weeknight dinner. The process is very simple: one chicken leg per person, fried in a pan until golden, then oven-roasted in the same pan (to retain all the flavour) with coriander, lemon, shallots and a little water. 30-40 minutes later and you’ve got chicken with golden crunchy skin, and a light but powerful sauce that’s packed full of flavour. It’s wonderful served with wilted greens and boiled new potatoes.
I have a cast-iron skillet that’s perfect for this. Any oven-safe frying pan will do though, or even a casserole dish. The dish should be big enough to comfortably fit the chicken legs in one layer.
- 2 chicken legs
- 1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 bunch coriander
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 lemon
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- vegetable oil, for frying
Heat the oven to 190C. Ensure you’ve got a skillet, frying pan or casserole that’ll comfortably fit the chicken legs in one layer. Place the pan over a high heat and add about 2 tablespoons of oil. Season the chicken legs all over with salt, and when the oil is hot, add the chicken legs, skin side down. Don’t overcrowd the pan; do them one at a time if necessary. Fry until light golden all over. They’ll go into the oven later to finish cooking and get really crispy.
There should be quite a lot of fat in the pan; don’t discard it. Cut the lemon in half and fry it, cut side down, until caramelised. Remove from the pan and set aside. Turn the heat to medium. Cut the bottom 3 inches of stalks from the bunch of coriander and roughly chop them (reserve the leaves for later). Add the chopped stalks to the pan along with the chopped shallot, coriander seeds, a generous pinch of salt and a pinch of cracked black pepper. Cook gently for 5 minutes until soft, then add the chicken legs and caramelised lemon. Everything should be sitting quite snugly in the pan. Now add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the chicken. Place in the oven for 35-40 minutes, until the skin is crunchy and golden.
Remove the chicken legs from the pan and set aside. Use the back of a spoon to press the lemon halves and squeeze out all of their juice into the pan. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve into a saucepan. You should have a thin, richly flavoured sauce. Skim any fat that’s resting on the surface, then add the coriander leaves and stir.
If you’re serving this with spinach (which I highly recommend), use the pan you cooked the chicken in to cook the spinach, and you’ll retain any flavour left in the pan. Serve the chicken legs and pour the sauce over.
Bacon and Pea Risotto
The risotto remains one of my regular weeknight meals. It’s quick to prepare and, to make a plain risotto bianco, requires only a few basic ingredients. It’s what I call a “store cupboard” meal, meaning that the ingredients it comprises all keep for a long time, either in the fridge or the cupboard, so you can always keep them in stock, waiting to be made into a delicious risotto at a moment’s notice.
My winter risotto was essentially just a plain risotto with some cavolo nero added. I’ve taken a similar approach here, but with peas, to keep it seasonal. I’ve added some crisp bacon lardons for good measure. The salty savouriness of the bacon compliments the sweet peas perfectly and it provides a lovely colour contrast, too.
- 140g risotto rice
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 glassful dry white wine
- 60g parmesan cheese, finely grated
- 40g unsalted butter, chopped
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 200g garden peas, fresh or frozen
- 150g streaky bacon, cut into lardons
- 1 litre chicken stock
- vegetable oil, for frying
The secret to a good risotto is to stir it continuously as the rice is cooking. This is the only way of getting the ultimate glossy and thick texture. You won’t have time to do any prep at the same time so be sure to measure all the ingredients out and get everything chopped before you start.
Place a medium sized frying pan over a medium heat and put in about ½ tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, add the lardons and fry until crisp. Remove the lardons from the pan and set aside in a bowl.
Now to start the risotto. Place a medium high-sided pot or pan over a medium high heat and add the olive oil. Wait until the oil is hot, about 1 minute, then add the onion and garlic along with a pinch of salt. Immediately turn down the heat and cook slowly for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and sweet. This is the soffrito.
Now turn the heat to high and add the rice. Stir vigorously for about 30 seconds to coat the rice in the flavour of the soffrito, then add the wine. Turn the heat to medium-high and continue to stir until all the liquid has gone. From this point the risotto will take about 15 minutes.Continue to add the chicken stock, 1 ladleful at time, stirring continuously to massage and coax the starch from the rice. This creates the thick sauce of the risotto.
After about 15 minutes, the risotto should be ready. When you taste a grain of rice, there should be a slight bite to it. If it’s still quite hard, continue cooking for a bit longer. Turn the heat off, then add the chilled butter and parmesan gradually, whilst beating the risotto to emulsify it into a lovely creamy texture. If it seems too thick, add a bit of stock. As Giorgio Locatelli says “It should ripple like waves on the sea”. If you run out of stock, just use boiling water.
At this point, add half of the peas to the risotto and stir through. Portion the risotto into bowls and garnish with the remaining peas and lardons. Finish with some parmesan shavings.
This isn’t the first time I have extolled the virtues of sourdough bread. I find great satisfaction in cultivating my own supply of fresh, wild yeast, extracted from thin air! It’s a rewarding process; after feeding the sourdough every day for a week or more, the resulting product is a tangy, mature starter that will lend your bread a superior flavour and texture. The bonus is that if you use a mature sourdough starter to make your bread, you don’t have to knead it quite as much as regular bread to get a great texture because a complex gluten structure is already in place.
I’ve got instructions for how to make a sourdough starter here:
There is one caveat to using sourdough; the leavening power of the wild yeast is not as strong as that of pure fresh or dried yeast that you buy from the shop. Because of this, I find that my pure sourdough bread is somewhat denser than my regular loaves. There’s a trade-off though; to use dried/fresh yeast instead of sourdough will give you a lighter loaf, but it also means that you won’t have the depth of flavour and texture of a sourdough loaf. After some amount of experimentation, I eventually decided to go for a hybrid loaf. This recipe uses a generous amount of sourdough starter, and supplements it with a little dried yeast to give it a lighter texture. The result is a beautifully crunchy loaf with an aerated, bubbly texture.
When I make this at home, I mix the dough 1 day in advance, and prove it slowly in the fridge. This is just more convenient for me when I’m at work all day. I can come home the following evening, microwave the dough briefly to bring it up to temperature, and bake it immediately. It’s a great time saver.
To create a proper crust on the loaf, you need steam. The easiest way to achieve this is to throw a cup of boiling water into the bottom of the hot oven immediately after putting the bread in. I put a roasting tray in the bottom of the oven for this purpose; unless the bottom of your oven is really clean you won’t want to throw the water directly onto it. You’ll also need a wide baking sheet or stone, and a baker’s linen or kitchen cloth to prove the bread in.
- 450g strong white flour
- 350g sourdough starter, at least 5 days old
- 220g tepid water
- 1 tsp dried yeast
- 3 tbsp fine quality rapeseed oil
- 13g salt
Pour the sourdough starter into a large bowl. Add the flour, salt and yeast on top, and mix briefly without disturbing the sourdough underneath.
Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture, and add the water and rapeseed oil. Using a sturdy wooden spoon, mix everything together thoroughly until you have a wet, sticky dough. Continue to mix for about 5 minutes. The dough should have become slightly elastic. Cover lightly with a cloth or cling film, and leave in a warm place to rise for 1 hour.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and pat into an approximate rectangular shape. Take the two right hand corners, stretch them outwards, then fold back in to opposite corners. Repeat this with the left side, then turn the dough over, pat into a rectangle again and repeat once more. Place the dough back in the bowl, cover and leave in the fridge overnight.
In the morning, repeat the folding and stretching process from Step 3, then cover and place back in the fridge for about 8 hours.
Turn the oven to 220C and put in your baking tray to get it nice and hot. Also place your roasting tray in the bottom to catch the water and create the steam. Dust your baker’s linen or a thick kitchen cloth with flour, and place on a large chopping board or tray. Take the dough from the fridge and microwave at full power for 20 seconds. Scrape the dough onto a floured surface, place back in the bowl the other way up and give it another 20 seconds. The dough will now be warmed through, and rising nicely. There should be some visible air pockets forming. If you don’t want to microwave it, simply leave it to come up to room temperature for about 2 hours.
Turn onto a floured surface and pat into a wide baguette shape about 30cm x 15cm. Cut it in half lengthways to create two thinner baguettes, and place each on the floured cloth, creating a fold in the centre to separate them, and something to weigh the edges down to stop the dough from spreading out. Boil a mugful of water in the kettle.
Once the oven is up to temperature, place each of the baguettes onto the tray. You’ll find this easier if you can find a thin “transfer” spatula or paddle. A piece of thick cardboard would suffice. Using a sharp knife, score the baguettes across at an angle several times, then dust with a little flour. Place in the oven, then throw the mug of boiling water into the tray at the bottom and immediately close the door. Bake for 25 minutes, then turn around and give another 5 minutes. The loaves should be hollow when tapped underneath. Place on a wire rack to cool.