"You kip if you want to."
Boris Johnson (2013)
I recently rediscovered this recipe in "The River Cottage Fish Book" by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher and was instantly busting to try it. The reason it caught my attention so much more than in past perusals of the pages is that I am currently able to buy fantastic kippers smoked in East Sussex by Martin Yorwarth and sold in the High Street Kensington farmers' market. The recipe can be found in the "Fish thrift and standbys" section of the book - I'm not sure whether this one qualifies as "thrift" or "standby" but it doesn't matter, it's a brilliant idea. The pork lardons are simply substituted for small cuts of skinned kipper flesh, crisped and browned in olive oil. The resulting dish is delicious, savoury, cheap and satisfying, and very quick and easy to make.
The recipe as written includes cream in the sauce with only the yolks of the eggs being used. I've tried it that way and it tastes absolutely great. But I did some reading up on the making of a traditional Carbonara and not only is cream absent, its inclusion is as good as frowned upon by champions of Italian cuisine. Indeed, I got in touch with an Instagram foodie-friend, @MyPinchOfItaly, and she was abundantly clear that cream does never involve itself in the making of a Carbonara. She also enlightened me that the dish, being a Roman one, should use Pecorino cheese, whereas Parmesan would only be used in the dire situation of it being unavailable. Not being one in a hurry to combine fish and cheese I did wonder whether a splash of cream would make up for the omission of the dairy contribution from the cheese but, having experimented with the recipe I have settled on here, it simply isn't needed. In fact, the foundations of the Carbonara sauce, in the end, do come from the website of My Pinch of Italy.
When it comes to the choice of pasta, my research, which included conversations with the ever-effervescent staff at my local Italian deli, Luigi's, leads me to believe that this is not a matter of much concern. However, I have taken guidance from the book of the legend that is Antonio Carluccio, "An Invitation to Italian Cooking", and used bucatini - a type of spaghetti that somehow manages to be formed with a hole through the centre of its length. In its absence our legend recommends a "thick" spaghetti, but I would happily go with linguini or tagliatelle, whilst My Pinch of Italy suggests even rigatoni.
Not only will I definitely be making this dish regularly from now on, I wouldn't be surprised if, come Christmas, I look back and decide this has been my favourite recipe of the year.
Bucatini has an advantage being that, while it is boiled, some of the cooking water inevitably enters its hollow core. This means that some of the liquid naturally makes its way into the sauce. However, if a little too much finds its way there, the sauce may become a little runny, so a brief return to the hob might be required to thicken it up to the creamy consistency aimed for, but do go easy on the heat or you risk the egg scrambling. Alternatively, and especially if not using bucatini, it may be that the sauce becomes a little thick and not "creamy" in consistency. For this reason I suggest siphoning off a little of the pasta cooking water with a small jug before draining as a splash of the liquid will help to loosen any excessive thickness.
Though the extent to which one's pasta is cooked may understandably be a matter of personal taste, I have to mention that pretty much every recipe I've looked at for Carbonara urges the pasta to be cooked "al dente". I mind this not one bit as it is my preference anyway but, for those keener on a softer texture, perhaps I can instead just suggest trying the pasta cooked a mere one minute less than you might otherwise cook it.
Seasoning is essential in a dish as simple as this one is. Though you might want to be cautious with the addition of salt - the pasta must be cooked in salted water and the kipper will have its own salt content - there is plenty of room here for pepper. Whether taking a departure from tradition or not, I really like to use coarsely (but freshly) ground black pepper that is achieved most satisfyingly through the use of a pestle and mortar. Equally, for the full Italian effect, a tall wooden pepper grinder at the table is a definite must for those wishing to add further peppery bite!
To balance the creamy egginess of this dish a green salad with a sharp dressing is perfect, all the more so if finished with chopped chives, but do serve the pasta as soon as it is ready.
Ingredients (Serves 2)
1 kipper or, equivalently, 2 kipper fillets
1 tbsp olive oil
150-200g pasta of choice, e.g. bucatini, linguine or thick spaghetti (see recipe intro)
2 egg yolks
Salt, to taste
Coarsely ground black pepper (see recipe intro)
Remove the skin from the kipper (fillets). Pull or scrape off any of the fine bones that will come away easily (smaller remaining ones will be barely noticeable once cooked) and slice the flesh into strips roughly 3 cm long and ½ cm wide (like bacon lardons).
Bring a large pan of well-salted water to the boil and cook the pasta until al dente.
Meanwhile, fry the kipper lardons in the olive oil for about 3-4 mins until crisp and golden. Remove from the pan and set aside on a plate lined with a sheet of kitchen paper.
Break the egg into a bowl and whisk to together with the egg yolks and the coarsely ground black pepper. If you wish to add salt, do so judiciously.
When the pasta has had the desired cooking time, siphon off a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid with a small jug, then drain the pasta through a colander and return it to the still-hot pan. Add the kipper lardons and egg mixture and stir continuously until the sauce becomes creamy. If it is too wet, return to a gentle heat for short while (see recipe intro), or if it is on the thick side, add a splash of the reserved cooking liquid. Serve straight away.
"The River Cottage Fish Book", Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher (2007), pp. 390: https://www.amazon.co.uk/River-Cottage-Fish-Book/dp/1408814293
"An Invitation to Italian Cooking", Antonio Carluccio (2002), pp. 74: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Invitation-Italian-Cooking-Antonio-Carluccio/dp/0747275904