One of my pet peeves in restaurants is the dish that could perfectly well be vegetarian, but the chef insists on putting in bacon or pancetta. I’ve been to restaurants where every single dish had some kind of meat in it, even the salads. I understand the argument that in some dishes, there’s no substitute for a certain flavor, and cured meats are certainly loaded with flavor. But a good chef knows that excellence comes from balancing fat, salt, sweet, acid, and umami, not from the use of a specific ingredient.
Spaghetti carbonara is a classic case of a dish that relies on bacon or pancetta for that hit of salty umami. I have made carbonara and simply left out the bacon. It’s not bad–a bit bland. But this time I decided to substitute some tempeh “bacon.” I used the Lightlife brand, and browned the strips in a frying pan beforehand.
Lightlife smoky tempeh is flavored with vinegar, evaporated cane syrup, natural smoke flavor, beet powder, dried onion, salt, and “spices.” The fermented soybeans themselves have a slightly savory kick, but as with real bacon, most of the flavor comes from the additions. It’s tasty, but not thin and crispy like bacon.
Since I was monkeying with the recipe anyway, and wanted to cut back on the dreaded carbs, I reduced the spaghetti and replaced it with a big bunch of pencil-thin, steamed asparagus. This stands in for the fresh peas that often appear in carbonara recipes and gives the finished dish a “green” flavor.
Asparagus Carbonara (serves 2)
Half a package of thin spaghetti
1 bunch thin asparagus, trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces, and steamed 3 minutes
1 package “bacon tempeh,” browned, or substitute of your choice
3 eggs from happy chickens, beaten
1 T butter
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
finely grated romano cheese or other hard Italian-style cheese
salt and pepper
Cook the garlic in olive oil in a frying pan, without letting it brown.
Start to boil the water for the spaghetti. When it gets to the simmering point, put the eggs and about 1/4 cup of the cheese in a stainless steel bowl and whisk them over the hot water, as in a double boiler, until they lose the refrigerator chill and start to warm up. Set aside.
Put the asparagus and tempeh in the frying pan over low heat and toss with the garlic and oil until everything is warm. Add the pat of butter, cut into bits, so it melts over the mixture.
When the spaghetti is done, turn off the heat on the frying pan.
Drain the pasta well and quickly dump it into the pan, then pour the eggs over.
Toss gently to coat all the ingredients and cook the egg. There must be no direct heat from the burner or the eggs will scramble, so if it’s still really hot, take the pan off the burner.
Keep tossing until the eggs form a nice silky coating. Add salt and pepper to taste, and more cheese if desired.
Is there a way to make this vegan? That’s a good question! It might be possible to do something with cashew butter that has the rich mouthfeel of the egg sauce. Miso and shiitake mushrooms would definitely yield a satisfying umami flavor. Here’s a version with tofu and miso.
Lisa @ cheergerm said:
I will have to try adding an ‘umamiish’ tempeh to a carborana one day for the Yak. Sadly, lots of the flavoured varieties aren’t gluten free. Love the addition of asparagus in this.
That is a shame–why would they need to add something gluteny??? Tempeh absorbs flavor well, so you could make your own, but that adds to the work for something that’s supposed to be a quick weeknight meal.
Paul S said:
Carbonara is one of my “kitchen sink” dishes. I tend to add whatever is floating around in the larder/freezer – green peas? great throw them in! Half a bag of spinach? In it goes.Asparagus sounds like a good addition.
It is always beautiful to see a pasta recipe that respects the principals of Italian cuisine; including the one that pasta should be served immediately. Timing is everything with this dish so I always try to cook Carbonara when everybody is already sitting at the table!
Very true, Paul–I make sure that the Long Suffering Husband is not wandering off to fill the bird feeders right before I dish it up. I also agree with the “odds and ends” approach. That’s why this is such a great dish–it’s flexible and everything tastes good.
Oh yes great recipe! The Quorn bacon is an ok substitute – we don’t seem to have many alternatives actually.
We have a quite a few alternatives, since Americans are obsessed with bacon, but I won’t buy anything with factory farmed eggs. For meat analogues in the US, I have to stick to the vegan choices. Still I used to enjoy Morningstar Farms veggie bacon strips, which are shockingly similar to the real thing, even down to the crispy texture, just not as greasy.
Seems to be the texture they miss on
(Rest of comment…) on the alternatives here. Had some vegetarian scampi which was good, Linda McCartney’s brand.
Oh yes, Linda has been very inspirational. I bought one of her cookbooks!
Ooh also..try the Quorn fishless fingers! 🐟🐠🐡
I will, if they have a vegan version. Quorn does have some vegan products now, which I enjoy. But the standards for egg production here are very lax.
Yes…I don’t eat eggs much, unless I’m 100% sure where they’ve come from. Quorn is extending its vegan range which is really good news.
We get our eggs from a small farm, and I try not to eat them otherwise. Unfortunately that means I can’t eat the macarons they have in our supermarket. But maybe that is a blessing in disguise!!
You could make your own… !
Macarons? They are devilishly hard to make. But maybe I should experiment a little…
Ah go on…I keep having to repeat bake biscuits…just can’t seem to get them right..! 🍪🍪🍪🍪
Well, I am off baked goods for the moment but maybe I will tackle them after I get back from London. I would like to try a “diet” where the only sweets I’m allowed are the ones I have baked myself. It might work.