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This Smoky, Spicy Pasta is as Close to Carbonara as Vegetarians Will Get

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For the last few months, I've spent Thursdays and Fridays working in a pork-centric restaurant. I've been a vegetarian (albeit one who's dabbled in fish) for more than twenty years, but since I'm in the pastry kitchen, dealing with doughs, batters, and custards rather than cheeks, chops, and shoulders, my dietary choices have proven no trouble at all.

Well, until about 3 PM during nearly every shift, when the cooks in the savory kitchen start to prep for dinner service. Smoky, heavy smells of cooked pork and rendering fat are ventilated directly into the test kitchen, overpowering any of the fruity sweetness coming off the pots of burbling jam. Our little sugar hideaway is overtaken by pork—and the weirdest thing is, it kind of makes me hungry.

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Smoky, Spicy Vegetarian Pasta with Eggs and Mushrooms
Smoky, Spicy Vegetarian Pasta with Eggs and Mushrooms

But of all the pork dishes I imagine myself eating in some alternative universe, I dream not of porchetta or ragu, carnitas or banh mi—but of spaghetti carbonara, where the meat is more like the punctuation marks of a sentence than the letters themselves.

A salty, yolk-rich sauce clinging to long noodles, hiding crispy bits of something savory and smoky? Surely I could approximate that without the guanciale.

The Key to Making Killer Carbonara Without a Recipe

The Key to Making Killer Carbonara Without a Recipe by rachelaliceroddy

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Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara by Brette Warshaw

In this vegetarian recipe, the smokiness comes not from cured meat but from finely grated smoked mozzarella that gets whisked with the egg yolks, then softened with hot pasta water. The mozzarella won’t melt completely, which means you’ll get some strands of cheese in your final bowl of pasta. As long as those clumps aren’t pieces of scrambled egg, all is well (at least in my book).

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As for the crispy bits (the "guanciale"), you'll sauté mushrooms with garlic and chile flakes in a separate pan as the pasta boils. When I first made this recipe, I used somewhat-elusive black trumpet mushrooms, which are particularly smoky, but any type of wild mushroom (or even white button mushrooms) will do the trick. You'll add the mushrooms—and the spicy oil they've cooked them in—to the pasta once it's been coated in the eggy, cheesy sauce.

A tangle of noodles and a strong drink.
A tangle of noodles and a strong drink. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Finish the bowl with grated pecorino, a shake of chile flakes, and, if you're lucky enough to have a jar somewhere in your pantry, a fat pinch of smoked sea salt.

As someone who has never tasted carbonara, I cannot rightfully claim that this vegetarian recipe could challenge it—and dare we forget #carbonaragate? But I can say that our test kitchen chef Josh Cohen, who has eaten his fair share of carbonara, proclaimed this “really good"—and that's high enough marks for me.

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Smoky, Spicy Vegetarian Pasta with Eggs and Mushrooms

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Serves 2
  • 8 ounces spaghetti
  • 2 ounces (1 small handful) wild mushrooms, preferably black trumpet, cleaned with woody stems removed
  • 1 large egg + 2 large egg yolks
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup (4 1/2 ounces) finely grated smoked mozzarella
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed and roughly chopped
  • Grated Parmesan, for serving
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What the one pasta dish you turn to over and over again? Tell us in the comments below.