Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Carbonara and the Search for the Perfect Wine

"I judge a chef based on their roast chicken."

"The best way to judge a sushi chef is to order one piece of tamago, or omelet sushi."

I don't know who said those things, but I understand the idea. Skilled preparation of the seemingly simplest dishes is one of the marks of a great chef. Carbonara might be the roast chicken of Italian cuisine. It is a dish comprised of no more than 5 or 6 ingredients and even the unskilled cook can make a decent version of the dish. But good ingredients and good cooking, as with roast chicken, can elevate carbonara to something spectacular.

Carbonara is simple, on paper, and apparently there is an argument about virtually every aspect of the preparation. Spaghetti? Bucatini? Egg yolks only or whole eggs? Onions or no onions? Guanciale or pancetta? Parmegiano or Pecorino? Good lord...

I've had spaghetti alla carbonara three times in the past week, and that's equal to the number of times I've had it in the past decade. So why now, with the carbonara? A good pal invited me to his out-of-town house for Memorial day weekend and he knows that I have a line on the good meats so he asked me to bring some guanciale, or cured pig's jowl. He had been working on his carbonara and wanted to make it for me during the weekend. Nice. I brought a bunch of wine for the weekend and tried to include things that would pair with carbonara.

In general, my pal makes his carbonara like this:

-Salted water, bring to a boil.
-Slice guanciale, fry in a pan to render the fat.
-Pour off some of the fat, add a good glug of white wine and cook down.
-Crack two very fresh eggs, beat.
-Add a generous amount of grated Parmegiano and chopped fresh parsley, beat some more.
-Take the cooked spaghetti out of the boiling water, allowing some of the pasta water to come along, and add it to the egg mixture, tossing all the while.
-Toss, toss, toss some more so the egg doesn't cook, but instead forms a sort of glaze on the pasta.
-Add the cooked guanciale and some salt and cracked black pepper to taste.

Our eggs were super fresh - local hens popped them out that very morning.

The guanciale was heavily seasoned and had a thick layer of fat. He sliced and chopped it into small thin pieces without removing much of the seasoning.

He beat the eggs and mixed in a handful of parsley from the garden. Some high quality grated Parmegiano too.

We curdled the eggs just a little bit when we mixed the pasta into the bowl. You can see this - the small solids in the picture above. This first version tasted quite good but it was not perfectly balanced. Too much black pepper and salt - we should have rinsed or maybe even soaked the Guanciale first. Still, it was delicious. I imagined a bright and acidic white wine would work well and opened something I'd been greatly looking forward to - 2001 Prager Riesling Smaragd Achleiten. This is a beautiful wine, fresh flowers on the nose and lovely delicate flavors, all carried through the palate on a wave of mineral and acidity. But it was simply no good with this carbonara. The pungency of the dish dominated the wine, there was no fruit at all and this dish needs a little fruit, and the acidity was too strong. We had to kind of set it aside, eat our pasta, and then come back to the wine.

Later in the weekend my friend made another carbonara and this one was perfect, to my taste. He rinsed off some of the curing seasonings before cooking the guanciale and added no black pepper or salt.

He managed to toss the pasta in the egg mixture with no curdling at all this time.
It looked beautiful and smelled great. He poured off most of the rendered fat this time too, freeing the aromatic porky pungency of the cured jowl meat to shine through unobstructed.This time I opened a bottle of 2007 Stony Hill Chardonnay. It was a much better pairing. The wine has good fruit that balances the acidity, and is fuller in texture than the Riesling. It's not a better wine, but it was a way better pairing with the carbonara. And yet, I was not convinced that I had found the best pairing. More research was needed.

So, when Peter and a few others came over for dinner earlier this week I knew that carbonara would be one of the things I would make. And I wanted to try another kind of wine. But what? I decided to ask friends for advice, friends who know something about Italian food and wine. Jeremy Parzen said that a slightly chilled Cesanese del Piglio, a peppery red wine, would be ideal. "It has just enough meatiness to complement the egg and lardons and its natural spice is great with the heat of the dish," he said. Jeremy also said that if I wanted to drink white wine he would recommend a Frascati, a Lazio Bianco, or an Orvieto. "Acidity obviously is a must but the wine needs some spiciness to go with the freshly cracked pepper of the carbonara," he said.

I asked Alfonso Cevola what he thinks is the perfect pairing for carbonara. "Something white and simple," he said. "Maybe a good Frascati or a Verdicchio like Bucci or La Monacesca. Coenobium is a bit out there but I'd try that for an exotic choice. From Abruzzo La Valentina makes a nice Trebbiano (not to be confused with the more expensive Valentini). Something interesting from Apulia is the Masseria Li Veli Askos Verdeca." Some similarities with Jeremy's recommendations, and although most of the wines these guys are recommending are unknown to this Italian wine ignoramus, I began to understand what they were getting at. "Essentially one needs something light with good acidity to cut through the fat of the dish, not too sweet but not lacking in fruit either, and not too dry," Alfonso said. Okay, makes sense.

The problem is, I own literally two bottles of Italian white wine and they are both from Friuli and made mostly of Friulano, and they are richer, more herbal wines. Not what those guys described. So I thought about my cellar. What do I have that is simple, fruity, and with good acidity, but not too much of either? Something dry, but not too dry. Something that would stand up to pungent guanciale and also be easy drinking.

Friends, I'm here to tell you that I served a Provence rosé with my first ever attempt at Carbonara. The incredibly reasonably priced and very delicious 2012 Domaine les Fouques Côtes de Provence Cuvée de l'Aubigue. And it was a very good pairing. WAY better than the Prager Riesling, which is a far better wine, objectively speaking. A better pairing also than the Stony Hill.

My carbonara wasn't bad either, although my friend's was better. I rinsed my guanciale well, removing almost all of the seasoning.

I sliced it too thickly though and it crisped up in the pan before all of the fat could render. Still, it was tasty and I managed not to curdle the eggs when tossing the pasta.

We ate our pasta and my friends were happy. While we ate I asked Peter, who knows a lot about all wine and food, what he thinks is the best wine to pair with carbonara. Now this is a guy who at home drinks almost exclusively white wine - Champagne and Sherry. "Carbonara is a good red wine pasta dish," he said. He has a friend out west who loves carbonara and who loves to open old Nebbiolo to pair with it. "Now that's good," Peter smiled.

Clearly, more research is needed. And by the way, does anyone know a good Brooklyn cardiologist?


Do Bianchi said...

BrooklynGuy, that looks so entirely awesome. Carbonara is such an interesting dish because of the ways it inspires food lovers and cooks all over the world and it continues to be a sine qua non dish of Rome where it all started.

I can't find any Cesanese, sadly, in the Texas market. So we've been pairing Tracie P's carbonara (I hope you'll taste it someday) with rosé from Negroamaro, which is, pretty much, one of my all-time favorite wines to drink at the dinner table.

You're pairing sounds equally delicious.

Thanks for the shout out and please come visit us in Texas one of these days! I'll see you this fall in NYC.

Anonymous said...

This seems like an interesting question of whether the wine is intended to support the carbonara (Italian whites) or pull it along (Nebbiolo), with maybe the rose doing a bit of both.

Great post as always, BG.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Hi BG-
thanks for the shout out - all of this looks good - that's the thing about wine and food pairings - if something doesn't work, try something else. Sure beats digging ditches, eh?

see you on the wine trail, hopefully, sooner than later...


Anonymous said...

Mother's way to do it rules here: yes onions, finely diced and translucent; pancetta, smaller bits, super crispy; and egg yolks only (who needs the whites anyway?). Lots of parmigiano, surely enough... Even though I acknowledge that pecorino would work better. Just don't tell my mom.

Lars Carlberg said...

Fred Plotkin's Authentic Pasta Book is an excellent reference. For Spaghetti alla Carbonara, he uses just olive oil, butter, pancetta, eggs, salt, black pepper, and freshly grated parmigiano.

Anonymous said...

No pun intended, but I don't trust anyone who thinks an "authentic pasta" book can be made :)

Being a Northener, and thus feeling not very authoritative on the matter, I asked my friend Marco from Rome. He sent me some serious material on the issue. I'll share two (in Italian, but you'll spot the words pecorino and parmigiano, guanciale and pancetta; tuorlo = yolk; uova = eggs).

1) Lots of support to Mother's approach here: (mom, you nailed it!)

2) And a further prove that "authentic" is a very arguable concept when discussing traditional Italian dishes here:

The bottom line? Thanks for keeping a complex matter complex, BG :)

Doug M said...

Did you find an odd saline taste to the 2012 Fouques Cuvee de l'Aubigue? I remember an earlier vintage that was a go-to provençal rosé for me, but this year it seemed off, and I wondered if I just got a bad bottle.

Giacomo said...

I make carbonara all the time. I use Boccalone guanciale which doesn't have much too much spices.

I cut the guanciale into small cubes since that retains better mouth feel. I learned this from Locanda, an osteria in The Mission (SF).

While I use parmigiano with pecorino romano most of the time, I don't feel it's ideal. The cheese should reflect the dish's rusticity. Parmigiano is too fertile and "cow-y" being from Emilia-Romagna. Pecorino Romano is too singularly sheepy. In my mind, the ideal cheese is pecorino stagionato from toscana though I've never made it that way.

I find the sauce works better without egg whites. The whites dilute the binding power of the yolks, forcing you to use more cheese. A greater concentration of yolks promotes better balance.

I never throw away the rendered fat. The whole point of the dish is to express the sweet essence of pork and nowhere is that better expressed that the rendered fat.

I don't use wine or parsley. This is purely personal preference.

It's also worth noting that the handling of the sauce differs greatly depending on how many servings of pasta you are serving. For one serving, often the pasta doesn't have enough thermal mass mass to make the sauce bind. You may have to borrow a little residual heat from the burner. For two-three servings, tossing in a warm bowl works well. For greater quantities of pasta, the thermal mass is so high that it often curdles the sauce. One wants to adjust the timing/tossing based on the quantity.

Finally, nebbiolo is my favorite wine, but I would never have thought of pairing it with carbonara. I won't say that it's bad since I've never had it, but it makes no sense to me, geographically or theoretically. Nebbiolo is the king of tannin and carbonara is nothing if not peppery. I can't see those two playing well. In my opinion, a simple white is the most logical pairing.

Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka said...

I smiled all the way through this post and the comments (as well as Jeremy's response to yours). I love how passionately people embrace this dish and argue for the best presentation of it as well.

Peter's friend's idea of pairing it with an old Nebbiolo is one I'll have to try. With enough age on it, and the right quality, the tannin will have smoothed beautifully, of course.

Next time you're in San Francisco--there is a beautiful little Roman pasta place across the street from the Trans America tower called Chirascuro. He makes some of the best Carbonara anywhere. Wonderful. Nice easy wine list too. A place recommended to me by Gianpaolo, the Wine Director at Acquerello, a Michelin star restaurant in SF also worth visiting.

Thanks for providing a forum for discussion of various ways to make the dish too. I've enjoyed the various comments quite a lot.

Wayne said...

"The problem is, I own literally two bottles of Italian white wine and they are both from Friuli and made mostly of Trebbiano, and they are richer, more herbal wines."
So much wrong in this sentence! Biggest problem is you only have 2 Italian whites... Next time I'm in NYC we are going to meet up and I'm going to show you some great ITalian whites and convince you to get rid of some of that French plonk to make space for some Friulano awesomeness!
Second... What Friulian wines are made from Trebbiano? Trebbiano is not a typical grape from here...
Being a "grows together-goes together" kinda guy, I can't imagine pairing Carbonara with anything other than ITalian wine, but I like how you're thinking!

Brooklynguy said...

Wayne - you're right, I meant to say "made mostly of Friulano..."

I corrected it in the post, thanks for pointing it out.

And thanks for the comments all.