Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara

Don’t freak out, I haven’t become a vegetarian (not that there’s anything wrong with that). While I am trying to cut down on the amount of meat I eat, this recipe was borne of necessity: I was out of pancetta.

To be precise, it was 6:30 PM and Martine and I were pooped and hungry after a 20+ km bike ride. Unusually, I had not planned anything for dinner that night, so I had to come up with something quick using available ingredients. I knew there was a pile of cremini mushrooms that were asking to be eaten, so I thought I’d bang up a quick spaghetti with mushrooms, garlic, and olive oil, along with a bit of Parmesano Reggiano. Quick, simple, and tasty,

As I was getting the stuff ready, I found myself thinking of spaghetti carbonara and wishing I hadn’t run out of pancetta. Then it occurred to me; if I added eggs, I would essentially be making spaghetti carbonara, minus the pancetta and plus the mushrooms.

But here’s the thing; the mushrooms in this dish are not intended to imitate pancetta. That would be a hopeless ambition. However, I wanted to make sure the mushrooms were as unctuous as possible so as to at least put them in the same neighbourhood, a sort of umami that would not be found by merely sautéing the mushrooms. That meant I had to literally brown the mushrooms.

So what, you might say. Browning, sautéing. What’s the diff? Well, most people never actually brown the mushrooms that they think they’re browning. If you load up the pan with mushrooms and then sauté them (which means to cook them quickly while stirring or tossing) they will cook but they won’t really brown.

To properly brown the mushrooms you need to follow Julia Child’s classic and sage advice; don’t crowd the pan and don’t stir them too much. Crowding the pan causes the mushrooms to steam instead of brown. You need the pieces far enough apart so that the steam dissipates without blasting the other pieces. Take away the steam and you get a nice Maillard reaction, which is a fancy way of saying “browning.”

You’ll probably have to brown your mushrooms in two or three batches, depending on how many you’re browning and how big your pan is. I used a 10-inch skillet and it took two batches to brown a dozen mushrooms cut between 5 and 7 mm thick.

raw mushrooms

So here’s the deal; to brown the mushrooms, put a thin coat of olive oil in the pan and heat it up until it’s shimmering. Then put the mushrooms in the pan, one by one, until the pan is full of mushrooms with a good half centimeter distance between each. This distance will increase as the mushrooms give off their liquid. If you’ve sautéed mushrooms before you’ll know that when mushrooms give off their liquid the pan usually gets very moist. You want to avoid this, and by not overloading the pan you will.

frying mushrooms

Don’t move the mushrooms as they cook. Let ’em sit there, browning. You can lift the pan and swirl it around if there is oil or mushroom moisture accumulating somewhere, but don’t stir the mushrooms.

After a few minutes you’ll see the edges browning. At that point, flip them. I recommend using tongs and doing it one by one. (Using a spatula is frustrating because when you flip them they always land browned side down.) By the way, think in advance and add the raw mushrooms to the pan beginning at one side and moving towards the other (I go from left to right). That way, the timing works when you individually flip them following the same pattern.

At the end of this process you’ll have a nice dish of properly browned mushrooms. Julia would be proud.

bowl of browned mushrooms

Below, then, is my recipe for vegetarian spaghetti carbonara, which I’m going to call Blork’s Spaghetti alla Funghonara. This is adapted from Blork’s Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

the final result

Blork’s Spaghetti alla Fungonara (for two)

Ingredients:

  • About a dozen crimini mushrooms, thickly sliced.
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, minced.
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese (more if you’re using a fine microplane grater*).
  • 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romana cheese (more if you’re using a fine microplane grater*).
  • 1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk (ideally, eggs should be at room temperature).
  • 180 g of spaghetti.
  • 3 tbsp olive oil.
  • Salt to taste.
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Method:

  1. Brown the mushrooms in 2 tbsp olive oil over medium heat until they are nice and browned. (See above for notes on browning.) Set aside in a bowl tossed with a bit of salt.
  2. Lower the heat, add more olive oil to the pan, and sweat the garlic for a couple of minutes until it’s translucent. (Unlike with the mushrooms, you do not want to brown the garlic). Add the translucent garlic to the mushrooms and mix well.
  3. Mix the egg and egg yolk in a small bowl with a tablespoon or two of water (you don’t have to beat it like crazy, just mix it up a bit).
  4. Mix 3/4 of the cheese in with the eggs.
  5. Boil the pasta until it is al dente. (Set aside a bit of the cooking water.)
  6. When the pasta is ready, strain it in a colander and dump it back into the warm pot.
    (Tip: let the pot cool for a minute before you put the pasta back into it: you want it warm but not blazing hot. Rinse with a tiny bit of cool water if necessary. Optionally, put the pasta in a warmed bowl instead.)
  7. Toss the egg-cheese mix into the hot pasta and stir it up so the heat of the pasta cooks the egg and everything gets nicely integrated. It should create a nice velvety sauce. If it’s a bit too thick or dry, slosh in a spoonful or two of the hot pasta water, but be careful! Too much will break the sauce.
  8. Scratch in a lot of freshly ground pepper and add the mushrooms along with some or all of the pan drippings and toss. If it tightens up, slosh in another spoonful of pasta water and stir it up.
  9. When everything is sufficiently mixed, divide into warm bowls and top with the rest of the cheese. (No salt is needed – between the salted mushrooms and the cheeses, it’s plenty salty.)

Enjoy!

* When you use a fine microplane grater (the kind that’s also use for zesting) you get a much higher apparent volume of cheese per gram because there’s a lot more air mixed in. If using such a grater, you’ll want a loose cup of each kind of cheese.  (Next time I make this dish I’ll try to remember to weigh the cheese, which will give a much better idea of the appropriate amount.)

[Update: Since the original publication of this recipe I have stopped using a microplane grater for Parmesan and pecorino cheeses that I want to melt into a sauce. I find that the microplaned cheese tends to melt too fast, causing lumps. I’m back to using a regular fine grater.]