Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

March 17, 2016

Start to finish: 15 minutes
Hands on time: 5 minutes

Are those chive tips I see already peeking out of the ground? Spring is sprouting in Ohio and the first sight of those bright green shoots has me craving simple, clean flavors for dinner. After a wintry season of hearty stews and soups, I’m ready to exchange heavy winter meals for lighter fare.  But not too light.  Dinner still has to include enough heft for my significant other, right?

Enter cacio e pepe, Rome’s answer to what’s for dinner when the cupboards are bare and you are not, I repeat, not going to brave the aisles of the grocery store. If you have pasta, Peccorino Romano and pepper you can make this dish for dinner on those nights when you’d really rather not cook; but, you will be so glad that you did.

Cacio e pepe has a few rules. A dish this straightforward needs impeccable seasoning so salt the pasta water until it tastes like the ocean then drop in the pasta and cook it a minute or so less than the directions tell you. Because you will cook it for another few minutes with the cheese and pepper, it’s best to leave it a little underdone so it can finish cooking there. I’m all about scads of crushed black pepper so if you don’t have a setting on your peppermill to make them coarse, crush the peppercorns on a dish towel with the bottom of a heavy skillet a few times. This dish is at its most charming when you get a pop of pepper when biting down on those peppery bits.

The other essential is Pecorino Romano, Parmesan cheese’s country cousin. A little saltier, it adds depth and flavor to this poor man’s dish. I always have Pecorino in the fridge for pasta and also to top salads, risottos and potato dishes. It definitely deserves the space.

You may be tempted to add things like bacon, peas, roasted pepper, olives, cherry tomatoes, or even those sprouting chive tips and you could. Really, you could incorporate them beautifully. But that’s another dish entirely. Much like your favorite little black dress, there’s something about the simplicity, hominess and bare bones essence of this dish that delights. As we transition from winter to spring, I hope you’ll find cacio e pepe a craveworthy addition to your dinner repertoire. It definitely works for me.

It’s that easy: This simplest of pasta dishes requires the best of ingredients, so use a nice imported pasta, good cheese and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Even though it takes a minute longer to prepare, resist the urge to buy cheese that’s already grated. You can never be sure of the quality or if fillers have been added. Besides, everything always tastes best fresh. Right?

2 tsp salt plus more for sprinkling
8 oz [230 g] thin spaghetti, broken in half (so it fits in the pan)
1/2 cup [40 g] grated Pecorino Romano cheese plus more for garnish
1/4 tsp red chili flake
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper or to taste
1 Tbsp minced flat leaf parsley
Bring 2 quarts [2 liters] of water to a boil in a 3 quart [2.8 liter] saucepan over high heat. Add the salt and the spaghetti and cook according to the package directions until al dente (usually a minute or so less than directed so check it!).

Reserve 1/2 cup [120 ml] of the cooking water and then drain the pasta in a colander in the sink. Return the pasta to the hot pan and pour in about half of the pasta water, the cheese, chili flakes, and black pepper. Return the pan to low heat and stir until a creamy sauce is created. If the pasta is dry, add more of the pasta water, if it’s a little too wet, add more cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more salt, pepper, or chili flakes.

Mound the pasta onto individual heated plates, sprinkle with extra cheese and parsley and eat fast.

Extra hungry:  Keep it simple. Add a little salad of sliced tomatoes, arugula, cucumber, a splash of balsamic, a glug of olive oil and salt and pepper to go with this classic dish.

In the glass: A red wine is definitely in order. Stick with an Italian theme and drink a glass of Ruffino Il Ducale, a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot.

In my ears: No Words



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