My instructions to my West Coast friend, about to journey to the South for a convention, must have seemed absurd. It was the early 1990s, we were living in Reno and I needed some country ham.
“When you get to a grocery store go back near the meat department.”
“Now, look for a wooden stand.”
“A wooden stand?”
“Yes, the country ham is on the stand.”
“Wait, it’s not in the meat case?”
“No, it’s unrefrigerated.”
“Unrefrigerated? Are you sure? Is that safe? That doesn’t sound safe.”
“Trust me, there’s enough salt in country ham to kill a horse. Just get me some.”
In the South, there are two kinds of ham. Country ham and city ham. Country ham is what you want 90 percent of the time. Deliciously salty and chewy, it demands attention and respect. One of the pig’s highest purposes, after bacon. We love it simply fried in a little butter with the addition of black coffee to make red eye gravy. It’s kind of like prosciutto, but cheap.
Hugh Acheson, owner of Five & Ten in Athens, Ga., and author of A New Turn in the South, is a Yankee. (Actually, he’s from Canada and once you cross the border maybe you can’t be a Yankee. I don’t know.) But it takes fresh eyes to pair country ham and collards with spaghetti carbonara, a tremendously successful combination.
One word of caution. This does NOT reheat beautifully. So make just enough to serve. I cut the recipe in half and between Mark and I we polished off every last bite. Also, don’t be squeamish about raw eggs. The hot pasta cooks the egg into a delicious custard.
Hugh Acheson’s Southern Carbonara
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup minced onion
¼ pound thinly sliced country ham or prosciutto
1 cup finely minced collard greens
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound spaghetti
2 large eggs
¾ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Place a large of water over high heat.
Place a large frying pan over medium heat and add the olive oil. When the oil gets hot, add the onion and sweat down until golden, about 3 minutes, then add the country ham and the collard greens. Cook or 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, then turn off the heat.
When the water is rapidly boiling, add the salt and the spaghetti. Stir well and cook the pasta until al dente, usually 9 or 10 minutes. While the pasta is cooking, in a small bowl whisk together the eggs, ½ cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, pepper to taste and the parsley.
Drain the spaghetti in a colander, reserving about ½ cup of the cooking water just to moisten the pasta later if needed. Place the pasta back in the warm pot and add the onion, country ham, and collards. Working quickly, add the egg mixture to the pasta. Stir well with tongs by picking p the pasta and turning and then letting go. O are trying to coat all the pasta with the egg and also tempering the heat by stirring, which will create a custard rather than a scramble. Place in a large bowl to serve at the table and finish with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano.
(Note: As you all now know, the way to cook pasta is not in a big pot and does not require boiling water. Please click here for the easier way. I’m sure Hugh would thank me for this.)