Now, let’s get this out of the way first, the name of this dish is likely to cause consternation with Italians – Romans, in particular. Obviously, the only true carbonara is an actual carbonara. But I was faced with a dilemma: what do you call a pasta dish that utilises the basic components of a carbonara, but which actually uses courgette instead of pancetta (or guanciale)? Carbonara sans meat? Courgette pasta? Spring rigatoni? Nah. I’m just calling this like I see it – this is a courgette carbonara.
By the way, you won’t miss the crisp chew of pancetta nubs in this. You can take my word for it – I have a true and lasting love for anything that even remotely resembles bacon. Lardons (yes). Pancetta (yes). Actual strips of bacon (hell yes). What I can’t abide, incidentally, are those freeze-dried bacon bits that somehow keep finding their way into jacket spuds. I mean, come on. There are so many better things to put inside a fluffy spud: baked beans and cheese, creme fraiche and caviar, leftover ratatouille. But crunchy chunks of something that may have been bacon in another life but now dwells in the twilight of a plastic pot? No.
Back to the pasta. The sauce is light and velvety soft. The little tangles of julienned courgette have the briefest hint of a bite left, but are otherwise buttery smooth. And the basil lends the whole dish the most compelling pepperiness, which blends fantastically with the sweetness of the courgette and the creaminess of the sauce.
And, it’s easy. Definitely one to have in your back pocket when you need something fresh, but deeply nourishing.
A word on courgettes. The thinner the better – they’re younger and sweeter than their chunkier counterparts. But if the latter are what’s available, don’t fret. I was lumped with some impressively sized ones myself, and it didn’t fundamentally alter the dish. All that changed was I gave them a little longer to cook down.
So grab yourself some courgettes, eggs, parmesan, basil, and your choice of pasta and get cooking. I opted for rigatoni, hoping that the little tangles of courgette would get lost within the pasta’s tubular middles. I was not disappointed.
250g courgette, julienned
1 shallot, sliced into thin half moons
2 egg yolks
200g rigatoni, or other pasta
small handful of basil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
To get started, julienne the courgette using a mandoline, or use a knife to cut it into fine matchsticks. Slice one shallot into half moons.
Grate 30g of parmesan (basically a small hunk) into a bowl with 2 egg yolks. Some freshly ground pepper here wouldn’t go amiss. Whisk gently to combine.
Start cooking the pasta to packet instructions, remembering the cardinal rule of pasta cooking: use a large volume of really salted water (it should taste “like the sea!”) that lets the pasta move a lot as it boils.
Using a large, heavy-bottomed pan (it should be big enough to mix all the pasta in later), melt a tablespoon of butter and add the olive oil over a medium heat. Just note you might use more or less than this depending on the size of your pan – you’ll want to coat the bottom of it. Add the shallots, followed by the courgette, moving them gently around the pan.
Cook the vegetables for 10 minutes or so. You want them to soften, but not colour or disintegrate into mush. If in doubt, try a bit of courgette – ideally you want it to have a bit of bite.
While you’re cooking the courgette, take 2 tbsp of starchy pasta cooking water from the pan and add it to your egg and parmesan mixture. Stir to combine. It should make a loose paste.
Drain the pasta once it’s a minute or two off the way you like it – you’ll be adding it to the pan of courgettes and cooking it slightly to bring the sauce together next – making sure to reserve some of the pasta water. Either take a small cupful while the pasta’s cooking, or position a bowl underneath the sieve when you drain it.
Pour the drained pasta into the pan with the courgettes. Turn the heat way down – it should be really low. Stir to mix the pasta into the courgettes and add a tablespoon or two of the reserved pasta cooking water. Pour over your egg and parmesan mixture, stirring quickly again.
If it looks dry, add another splash of pasta cooking water to bring it all together.
Then season to taste and dish up! Scatter fresh basil leaves over the pasta, and take it to the table, along with another hunk of parmesan to grate in situ.