(This story first appeared on Tastebook, where I'm doing an occasional cooking column. Check 'em out.)
Cravings are funny creatures.
It’s scorching right now in New Orleans, where I live. We’re talking 90s—and that’s not including the humidity, which often pushes the mercury into the near-100s.
Daytime meals have been cobbled together from handy ingredients, assembled in a low-maintenance fashion using minimal—or no—heat. The stove and oven are being neglected. I would feel bad. But I don’t. At all.
Come nighttime, a Weber kettle grill is regularly put to fiery use. Any animal and vegetable in the house is thrown onto—or into—its smoky, concave belly. My boyfriend and I are then left with a boatload of leftovers, perfect for those impromptu daylight meals for subsequent days. (See above paragraph.)
The plan is solid, then my editor asks me what I think about cacio e pepe. I blink and gasp and know my sweat-free Deep South kitchen routine is temporarily suspended.
See, I love cacio e pepe. The famous dish from Italy’s Lazio region, where Rome is located, swaddles like the comforting butter and Parmesan spaghetti of my childhood. It’s a dish that chefs are gravitating toward lately. I’ve had it in New Orleans, at Alon Shaya’s Domenica, and at New York City’s Upland, where Justin Smillie twirls an especially fine version.
Instead of using parm atoms shaken from a green Kraft can, cacio e pepe demands a funkier cheese, like a sheep’s milk Pecorino Romano. This is not the generic Romano you see in most every grocery store. You need a cheese with an edge.
And speaking of edge, cacio e pepe is embolden with a whole lot of “pepe,” otherwise known as black pepper. Its tingly pop slices open the slippery richness of the pasta’s base of cheese and olive oil.
I am not demure with my black pepper. My recipe veers into a savory version of snap, crackle, pop. If you want to tamp down the tingle, use less black pepper. Do crack it by hand. You could use a mortar and pestle, should you own one. Or throw them into a sealable plastic bag and whack them with a heavy pan. The implement used doesn’t matter, as long as the peppercorns splinter into craggy bits rather than a fine powder.
There are lots of ways to make cacio e pepe. Some people swear that the only fat should come from the cheese itself; others use olive oil or even cream. My version relies on a sizable amount of olive oil, an approach I gleaned from a recipe from The Mozza Cookbook. The liveliness of extra-virgin olive oil complements the pecorino.
I never thought I would crave cacio e pepe during the harsh heat of a New Orleans July. Comfort, it seems, knows no seasonality.
Cacio e Pepe (Pasta with Cheese and Black Pepper)
- 4 quarts water
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 1 pound linguine or spaghetti
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 4 ounces pecorino romano, finely grated (about 2 cups) and divided
- 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (about 1 cup)
- 2 teaspoons good finishing extra-virgin olive oil
Bring water to boil in a large pot. Add salt, then pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente. Place a strainer or colander over a bowl or large measuring cup. Cook until the pasta is very close to ready. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 cup cooking water.
Meanwhile, add the ½ cup olive oil, black pepper and ½ cup of pasta water scooped from the pot to a very large skillet—at least 10 inches wide but wider is better. When the pasta is about one minute from being ready, put the skillet over a burner set to high heat. Add the drained pasta to the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for a couple minutes, tossing the pasta well using tongs. The sauce should stain the pasta and look slippery and slick. If it starts looking dry, add a small amount of cooking water. Remove the skillet from the heat and let sit for about a minute. (This helps the cheese melt instead of clinging.) Add 1 cup pecorino and all the Parmigiano and stir well, until the cheese is melted and evenly distributed. Drizzle with the finishing oil and toss well.
Divide among four hot plates or bowls and garnish each plate evenly with the remaining 1 cup pecorino. Serve.