By now just about everybody on the planet knows and loves carbonara, the most famous of Roman pasta dishes. Perhaps less well known, however, are its variations. As delicious as the original dish is, I do like to mix things up a bit every once in a while. And in the spring, I particularly enjoy carbonara di carciofi or Artichoke Carbonara. It makes excellent use of what might be my favorite spring vegetable. Artichokes and eggs have a natural affinity, and this dish is a perfect example.
There are two main versions of carbonara di carciofi, one entirely meatless and one with a bit of pancetta. Both have their charms, but the meatless version is my preferred one, as it makes for more of a change from the classic recipe. To start, the artichokes are sautéed briefly in a simple shallot soffritto, then splashed with white wine and braised until tender. Pasta, typically spaghetti or less often rigatoni, is cooked al dente then briefly simmered with the artichokes and finally, off heat, tossed with the usual mixture of eggs and grated cheese. And lots of pepper, of course.
I can’t think of a tastier way to welcome the spring.
The main recipe in this post uses frozen artichoke hearts, a compromise that I’m sure many Italians would consider anathema. But as I’ve mentioned before, given the abysmal quality of the artichokes I can usually find where I live, it’s often the lesser of two evils. I suspect a lot of our readers are in the same boat. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where you can find truly fresh artichokes, then check out the instructions in the Notes below.
- 500g (1 lb) spaghetti or rigatoni
- 500g (1 lb) frozen artichoke hearts, cut into thin wedges (see Notes if using fresh)
- 1-2 shallots, finely chopped
- Olive oil
- white wine
- 6 egg yolks
- 250 g (1/2 lb) freshly grated pecorino-romano, or a 50:50 mix of pecorino and parmigiano-reggiano
- Salt and pepper
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) pancetta, cut into cubes (optional)
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, minced
If using the pancetta, brown it lightly in olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan and remove.
If not using pancetta, start with the shallots and let them gently sauté in olive oil for a minute or two until soft. Add the artichoke wedges, season with salt and pepper, then give them a turn. Drizzle on some white wine and let it evaporate. Add some water and let the artichokes braise until tender, usually just 5 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, put a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente.
Also whisk the eggs and grated cheese together in a small bowl. Season generously with freshly grated pepper.
When the pasta is done, transfer it to the skillet, along with a ladleful of the pasta cooking water and, if using, the reserved pancetta. Toss well and let the pasta simmer for a few moments to let the flavors meld. Turn off the heat, making sure a bit of liquid is left in the skillet.
Immediately add the egg and cheese mixture and stir very vigorously just until it has thickened enough to coat the pasta.
Serve right away.
Like the classic version, the tricky part of making a carbonara di carciofi is the final tossing of the pasta with the egg yolks and cheese. You want to mixture to thicken up enough to coat the pasta but without scrambling the eggs. For this you need to be mindful of the temperature as well as how much liquid is left in the pan.
If you check out my post on classic carbonara, you’ll see some useful tips. There, I suggest keeping the pasta over the barest flame to get the temperature just right. But here, since the pasta will be plenty hot after its brief simmer with the artichokes, you’d do best to take the pasta off heat.
And make sure there’s a bit of liquid still left in the pan as well. The liquid helps loosen the egg and cheese mixture so it coats the pasta more easily and produces a creamy sauce. You could also whisk some of the pasta water directly into the mixture just before you add it to the pasta. This is a popular and effective ‘trick’ when making classic carbonara. But here, since you’re braising the artichokes in liquid, I find leaving liquid in the pan easier. In either case, don’t overdo it, or your pasta may turn out runny.
It’s also critical to serve the dish right away. The sauce loses its creaminess quite quickly and doesn’t reheat well.
Like classic carbonara, carbonara di carciofi is usually made with spaghetti or, rather less often, rigatoni. But you can feel free to use other pasta shapes and types as you like. I actually think this rather more delicate version of carbonara lends itself nicely to fresh egg pasta like fettuccine.
Choosing and prepping your artichokes
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve largely stopped buying fresh artichokes these days. Where I live, the artichokes you’ll usually find in stores are mostly well past their prime and so big they’ve lost their tenderness. And they’re ridiculously expensive. Occasionally, I find baby artichokes that can be rather nice. But, unless I’m very lucky, I turn to frozen artichokes. No, they’re not as tasty as good quality fresh, but still a better option than poor quality fresh. Canned or jarred artichokes, on other hand, are not a good substitute for fresh, as they are invariably packed in brine, with alters their flavor radically.
Speaking of which, bear in mind that you should cut the artichokes into thin wedges. You can be a bit more lax in the case of rigatoni and other tubular pastas, but with long pastas like spaghetti, slice them into very thin wedges, almost slivers.
If you do have access to good fresh artichokes, a few points to bear in mind:
Perhaps most typical for making carbonara di carciofi are the spiny purple variety of artichokes much loved by Italians but, as far as I know, impossible to find elsewhere. Certainly not where I live. That said, the more common globe artichoke will also work.
The usual rule of thumb for making carbonara di carciofi is one artichoke for every 100g of pasta. But this rule assumes you’re using the smallish artichokes you’ll find in Italy, which you then trim. If you’re using a globe artichoke, then one artichoke will do for 200g or even 300g of pasta, depending on its size.
Whatever size you’re using, fresh artichokes need trimming of the tough outer leaves and fibrous chokes. See this post for detailed step by step instructions with photos. You will probably need to braise them a bit longer, perhaps 10 minutes rather than the 5 mentioned in the main recipe.
While there are all sorts of taboos around classic carbonara, since this dish is a bit heretical to begin with—in its use of garlic and herbs, not to mention the artichokes—you can feel free to play around with the recipe.
Let’s start with the cheese. As for traditional carbonara, pecorino is the usual cheese of choice. And while I’m a big fan of pecorino in traditional carbonara, here the sharpness of the pecorino tends to overwhelm the rather delicate flavor of the artichokes. A 50/50 mix of pecorino and parmigiano-reggiano may be a better option.
As with traditional carbonara, there are those who use whole eggs (typically one egg per 100g of pasta or a little less), while others use only yolks or a combination of both. Yolks provide for a richer carbonara, of course, and seems to be de rigueur these days. For today’s recipe, I’ve gone with yolks only but feel free to improvise. Again, you can find more details in my post on traditional carbonara.
For a lustier flavor profile, use garlic rather than shallots, as many recipes do. The parsley is optional and heretical for classic carbonara, but it works well here; some recipes call for other herbs such as thyme. You can use the usual guanciale instead of pancetta. And I’ve even seen recipes where you use pancetta affumicata, or smoked pancetta, similar in flavor to bacon.
In one particular lovely variation on vegetarian version of carbonara di carciofi, you take some of the artichokes, sliced very thin indeedd, and deep fry them until crisp. You then use these to top your pasta. It strikes me as a nice way to get some crunch into your dish without the pancetta. And it lends tremendous eye appeal. You can check out this video on YouTube illustrating the technique.
Carbonara di carciofi
- 500g 1 lb spaghetti or rigatoni
- 500g 1 lb frozen artichoke hearts defrosted and cut into thin wedges
- 1-2 shallots finely chopped
- olive oil
- white wine
- 6 egg yolks
- 250g 1/2 lb 250 g (1/2 lb) freshly grated pecorino-romano or a 50:50 mix of pecorino and parmigiano-reggiano
- salt and pepper
- 100g 3-1/2 oz pancetta cut into cubes
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley minced
- If using the pancetta, brown it lightly in olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan and remove.
- If not using pancetta, start with the shallots and let them gently sauté in olive oil for a minute or two until soft. Add the artichoke wedges, season with salt and pepper, then give them a turn. Drizzle on some white wine and let it evaporate. Add some water and let the artichokes braise until tender, usually just 5 minutes or so.
- Meanwhile, put a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente.
- Also whisk the eggs and grated cheese together in a small bowl. Season generously with freshly grated pepper.
- When the pasta is done, transfer it to the skillet, along with a ladleful of the pasta cooking water and, if using, the reserved pancetta. Toss well and let the pasta simmer for a few moments to let the flavors meld. Turn off the heat.
- Immediately add the egg and cheese mixture and stir very vigorously just until it has thickened enough to coat the pasta.
- Serve right away.