Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cacio e Pepe

Italian food can be brilliant in its simplicity. That is when the finest ingredients shine. Take Italian spaghetti, sharp Pecorino Romano, smooth Grana Padana cheese and toss it together with coarsely, fresh ground pepper to create the sublime. Cacio e Pepe, simply pasta with cheese and pepper, is found on many menus in Rome. This can be deeply satisfying when started with tender, sweet vine ripened melon wrapped in thinly sliced, salty prosciutto. Finished with a gelato it is transporting. Or by itself, it's just simply delicious. I'll take it either way. It is a dish that chefs are measured by and stirs up heated discussions on nuances of the few ingredients. Some will never add butter and some will use only one type of cheese. Most agree on the method of preparation making a velvety sauce with the cheese and a little bit of pasta water. You can leave those variations up to personal taste. The important thing is to add the right amount of the pasta water to have the cheese turn into a sauce that just coats the pasta and no more. Use your favorite extra virgin olive oil. Right now I using an olive oil that I got in an open market in Rome. It is right around the corner from our hotel in a small piazza and is a market by morning and filled with tables by day and evening for dining. I take a short cut and skirt through a narrow opening by this ancient column.The olive oil has no label and only has a metal bottle cap to seal it. I don't think there is a middle man involved, it's straight from the countryside. The closer to the grower you are, the closer you are to your food. And this dish is like a close, warm hug. Buon Appetito!

Cacio e Pepe

8 ounces Italian spaghetti
1/2 cup grated Grana Padana cheese
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons coarsely grated black pepper
pasta water
freshly grated cheese for serving

Boil the pasta until 2 minutes before it is al dente. It will cook a little further in the skillet.
While the pasta is cooking, add the olive oil to a large skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the pepper and stir for about a minute or less, until the oils release from the pepper. Turn off heat and drain pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Add the cooked pasta into the skillet, being careful since the oil and water will spatter. Toss together and then add the cheese while still tossing. Gradually add pasta water a tablespoon at a time to make a light sauce that just coats the pasta, and no more. Finish by tossing the pasta with 1-2 tablespoons butter. The cheese is salty, but salt to taste if you want more. Divide into 4 pasta bowls and top with freshly grated cheese and even more pepper, if you want.

Serves 4.

Now, if I only had a little gelato!
Cutting board by Ann at Thibeault's Table.

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