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.