As a longtime resident of Rome, carbonara is one of my very favorite pastas, but in the warmer weather it can be a bit heavy. One way to lighten things up is to make a vegetarian carbonara: substitute the pancetta (Italian bacon) with a vegetable, typically zucchini, which has a natural affinity for eggs, as we’ve seen before in our posts on zucchine cacio e uova and zucchini frittata. You proceed almost exactly like a classic carbonara; the only difference is you add a bit of garlic or onion to sauté along with the zucchini to add a bit of savor. While not exactly dietetic, the result is delicate but full of flavor.
- 400-500g (14-16 oz) spaghetti, rigatoni or other pasta of your choice (see Notes
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed, or half a yellow onion, finely minced
- 250g (8 oz) zucchini, cut into slices or cubes
- Olive oil
- 4-5 medium eggs
- 250g (8 oz) grated pecorino romano cheese (or a combination of Parmesan and pecorino)
- Salt, to taste
- Lots of freshly ground black pepper
Cook the pasta in abundantly salted water until al dente.
While you are cooking your spaghetti, whisk the egg with grated pecorino cheese and lots of freshly ground pepper. (For most palates, if you salt the pasta water sufficiently and given that pecorino and pancetta are already quite salty, you probably don’t need to season the sauce.)
Separately, in a skillet, sauté the garlic until it is just slightly brown. (If using onion, let it sauté very gently until it is perfectly soft and translucent, without browning.) Then add the zucchini and continue over moderate heat, seasoning with a pinch of salt, until the zucchini is cooked and just lightly browned. If you’re using young, tender zucchini, this should take 5 minutes or less.
Once the pasta is cooked al dente, drain them (but not too well) and pour them into the skillet over very low heat. Make sure there is a bit of pasta water clinging to the pasta; if not, add a ladleful from the pasta pot. Mix well and then add your egg mixture and mix again. Keep mixing until the eggs just being to thicken and form a creamy sauce that clings to the pasta. If you prefer (and these days I tend to like my carbonara this way) or if you are worried about contamination, you can continue a bit longer until the eggs actually set. In either case, remove from the heat as soon as it just bit less done than you want, as the eggs will continue to cook from the residual heat of the pasta.
Serve your vegetarian carbonara immediately in warm pasta plates, with additional pecorino and ground pepper for those who want some.
The ‘baby’ zucchini you can find in some fancy markets works particularly well in this dish, but isn’t a must. But do look for the youngest, smallest zucchini you can find. Zucchini tend to become a bit fibrous and less flavorful as they grew older and larger. And avoid zucchini with blemished skin—that’s a sure sign they’ve been sitting around too long. The zucchini can be sliced crosswise into rounds, but I rather like cutting them into cubes to imitate the look of pancetta—a kind of inside joke.
Carbonara is typically made with spaghetti but, as we explained in our post on the classic version, it lends itself well to a variety of ‘stubby’ pastas like rigatoni and penne, too. My our mind, that’s particularly true of this vegetarian carbonara.