I know, I know, one should never mess with an Italian classic. And here I am with a big ol’ bowl of this Green Carbonara just begging you to come at me, bro! Many people consider Italian cuisine to be hallowed ground and, despite all appearances to the contrary, I agree with them. The beauty of Italian food lies in its simplicity. There’s nowhere to hide when your culinary tradition is ingredient-centric. Quality produce takes center stage with a minimal flourish and few enhancements. The restraint is admirable, but apparently, I can’t handle simple elegance.
No, I’m the uncultured jerk who decided to take one of Rome’s most iconic and beloved pasta dishes and play with it. And boy, do people have opinions about their carbonara! Nothing like strolling into a lion’s den wreaking of jerky. But here I am, flaunting my unsanctioned pork meatballs and you may be asking yourself, why? Well, I embrace my controversial Green Carbonara for a very simple reason: it’s freakin’ delicious.
Tell me, has this ever happened to you. You wake in the morning with a very specific craving. It’s not appropriate for the time of the day and, if you’re me, it may not, in fact, exist…yet. Last Saturday at 7 am only dolmades from a Greek place down the street from me would do. And the weekend before that, this Green Carbonara strolled into my head and refused to vacate the premises. Fine. That’s cool, I figured, I guess I’ll just have to make it. And I did and I liked it and now I’m sharing it with you.
Now, as I mentioned before, the subject of carbonara is often accompanied by a host of powerful opinions. But everyone seems to agree a good carbonara needs a pork product of some sort, a lot of cheese, and eggs. It seems simple enough but it’s not. There are as many arguments for using whole eggs as there are for using only yolks. Disputes over whether to use Parmiango Reggiano or pecorino or a combination of both. And the pork. Oh, the pork, it seems to be the most divisive of the divisive subjects. The general consensus is guanciale is the most traditional and respected pork product to include in one’s carbonara. But many people opt for pancetta or (the horror!) regular ol’ bacon.
For the uninitiated, guanciale is cured pig jowl and the few times I’ve had it it has been magical. But I have yet to find a solid source for guanciale here in Toronto. If you have the hookup, please let me know in the comments below. The next step down the pork ladder is pancetta, and while it is easy enough to find, I already had bacon in my fridge. And since the likelihood of winning more Italian friends with this Green Carbonara was already slim to none, I selected bacon as my pork product of choice. Might as well secure the coffin with that final nail.
So, with my Green Carbonara firmly outside the realm of “traditional”, let’s finally talk about the “green”. The green comes from sauteed spinach. The spinach is sauteed in the same pan that caramelizes the apples and fries the bacon. So, yeah, the spinach is mostly a vehicle for bacon and apple juices. If you were holding out for a “healthy” version of carbonara, I am so sorry to disappoint.
The spinach is pureed and added to the egg mixture that dresses the pasta. Honestly, aside from the apple-studded pork meatballs and spinach, this Green Carbonara comes together like any other carbonara. Nothing particularly difficult, just keep tossing the pasta until the sauce reaches a creamy, not slimy (!) consistency. Anybody else firmly opposed to egg slime? If you are, you know what I mean by “egg slime”.
A word about cream. Some people add it and some people don’t. I don’t really have a stake in the fight. But I gather Italians and pasta purists are firmly opposed to adding cream. It does, however, appear that American and Canadian Italian versions of this dish frequently call for a splash of cream to finish. I did not include cream in the recipe below. I figured the pork meatballs and sauteed spinach and fennel put me in enough hot water. But if cream speaks to you, add a 1/4 of a cup at the end and live your truth.
So, that’s a wrap on this Green Carbonara with Pork Apple Meatballs. It’s creamy, silky, sweet and salty. It’s everything you could possibly want and possibly have in a bowl of spaghetti.
Green Carbonara with Pork Apple Meatballs
Pork Apple Meatballs
- 4 strips bacon
- 1 apple peeled and cut into wedges
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 454g (1 lb) ground pork
- 1/2 cup pecorino shredded
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp breadcrumbs
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 142g (5 oz) baby spinach
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup pecorino shredded
- fresh ground pepper
- 500g (18 oz) dried spaghetti
- 1/2 bulb fennel sliced thin
For the Meatballs
- Place the bacon in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Fry the bacon until crisp, then transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain. Set aside.
- Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon grease from the skillet and return to the heat. Add the apple slices and fry until golden on both sides. Lower the heat to low and add the butter. Continue to fry until the apple slices are golden and crisp on the edges. Transfer to a plate and set aside to cool slightly.
- Place the remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Crumble the bacon into the bowl. Dice the apple wedges and add them to the bowl as well. Using a clean hand, mix the ground pork mixture until cohesive.
- Form the pork mixture into meatballs using a heaping tablespoon as a guide. Place the finished meatballs on a baking sheet and repeat until the meat mixture is gone.
- Heat the skillet once more and add half of the meatballs. If the pan is getting too dry, feel free to add a little olive oil to prevent the meatballs from sticking. Start the skillet over medium-high heat to brown the meatballs on both sides. Wait until the meatballs release from the pan easily before flipping them.
- Once the meatballs are browned on both sides, lower the heat under the skillet to low and slowly cook the meatballs, alternating sides until cooked through, roughly 3-5 minutes each side. Transfer the meatballs to a plate and set aside. Add the remaining meatballs to the skillet and repeat.
For the Green Carbonara
- Return the skillet to medium heat. Add the spinach and a pinch of salt and saute until wilted. Transfer the spinach to a food processor and blitz until smooth.
- Place the spinach puree in a large bowl and add the eggs, cheese and ground pepper. Whisk to combine and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Liberally salt the water and add the spaghetti. Cook the pasta according to the package's directions.
- While the pasta is cooking, return the skillet to medium heat and add the fennel along with a drizzle of olive oil if needed. Fry the fennel until lightly caramelized on both sides, about 5 minutes each side.
- When the pasta is al dente, transfer it to the skillet along with 1/2 a cup of the pasta water. Pour the egg mixture over top of the pasta and turn off the heat. Using tongs, toss the pasta until the egg lightly cooks and coats the pasta to form a creamy sauce. Immediately toss in the pork meatballs and toss to distribute.
- Divide the pasta between four bowls and top with additional shredded pecorino. Serve immediately.