I've recently decided to turn my life into a simulated reality show, in which I pretend that every single thing I do is actually an intense competition, with fame and fortune as the reward. I want you to be a part of it. So, you have three seconds to answer my first-ever Culinary Mind-Crush Challenge: What is carbonara?
If you said a Roman pasta sauce made from eggs, cheese, pork, and black pepper, you just won the episode! You can stay...for now.
Now, contestants, gather close, because it's time for the Bonus Sudden-Death Question: What else is carbonara?
If you said a topping for roasted squash that just happens to be inspired by the famous pasta sauce, you just won 50,000,000,000,000 Danny-points and are hereby declared the winner of EVERYTHING.*
Just kidding, you won nothing, and I am not responsible in any way for any prize you think you may be owed. Life sucks sometimes, doesn't it? Now step aside, this is my island.
Okay, now that we're done with that phase of the competition, I'm going to give you a pro tip for future challenges: Whenever you're put on the spot to come up with something new, just riff on something old. Let's use that roasted squash carbonara as an example.
The other day, when I started this new reality-show life, I was searching for a simple and easy squash dish to make within the one-hour time limit I'm arbitrarily applying to everything I cook (because arbitrary time limits are obviously the ideal way to determine who's the best). But I also wanted to make sure it'd be interesting enough that an imaginary panel of celebrity judges would laud me endlessly in front of an equally fake audience of millions. With the clock ticking, I dashed to my fridge and pulled out whatever I could find, which just happened to be some winter squash and leftovers of all the ingredients I'd recently used to test my spaghetti carbonara recipe. And then I had the epiphany that would guarantee I'd keep my knives for at least one more week: I could use those carbonara building blocks to make an amazing topping for roasted squash.
I sliced up my squash—red- and green-skinned kabocha, though butternut would have worked, too, assuming the faux judges don't have anything against phallic vegetables—tossed it with olive oil, and threw it in a 425°F (220°C) oven until it was tender and browned.
I diced up my pancetta as quickly as I could while trying to ignore the incessant commentary of the Nerd-God voice-over in my head. I crisped it in a skillet with some olive oil, then added a splash of fresh olive oil to that when I was done, along with some red wine vinegar and minced herbs, creating what was essentially a warm pork fat and olive oil vinaigrette. "Warm pork fat and olive oil vinaigrette" is a phrase that's bound to win me thousands of theoretical audience SMS votes.
Meanwhile, I had some eggs boiling in water, which I pulled out after exactly 11 minutes—just enough time for the yolks to be set—and transferred to an ice bath. You'd be amazed how impressed some folks are at the sight of a properly boiled egg. As soon as they'd cooled, I shelled the eggs, halved them, and scooped out the yolks, crumbling them into a small bowl like Funfetti. What about the whites? As I saw it, this was a critically important made-for-TV moment in which to establish myself as the undisputed fan favorite: I looked into the lens of the camera I'm pretending is following my every step, said, "Cook's privilege," then gave a cheeky smile, winked, and popped them into my mouth.
To finish it all off, I arranged the squash on a platter, spooned the warm vinaigrette on top, and scattered my yolk-fetti all over. A handful of grated Pecorino Romano and/or Parmigiano-Reggiano, a grating of black pepper, and it's all set.
If this isn't enough to get me crowned the Chef-Champ, I'll fall back on my Plan B: Trying to survive a full week in Central Park with a woman I've never met, both of us naked and afraid of the squirrels we'll be trying to steal acorns from.