Friday, February 12, 2010

spaghetti with cheese + black pepper

black pepper and cheese spaghetti

Alex and I had an accidental date a few weeks ago, accidental in that we set out to take a walk but the conversation quickly turned to “I wonder if we could get a table at Lupa.” The answer, by the way, should be no. One can never get a table at Lupa. They don’t take many reservations, they’re not very big and just about everyone in New York City loves to drop in there for a meal. It is for this pile of reasons that we’ve never been. Or we never had been. Because that evening, there was exactly one eensy little table free and there we were, having an impromptu dinner out on a weekday night, something that would have been nothing out of the ordinary, say, five months ago but as parents to a young dough ball, it was nothing short of earth shattering.

lots of freshly, finely ground black pepper
finely grated romano

I ordered a beer and the spaghetti, well, the bavette or linguini fini, but for the purpose of this story, it will be spaghetti because it was just that humble. When I trust that a place won’t disappoint, I have a tendency to order the plainest thing on the menu, hearkening back to my deep-seated belief that great chefs make you wonder why you’ve wasting so much time with gimmicky sea salts and foie anything when you could be eating a perfect bowl of spaghetti. And this cacio e pepe? It sang to me. Well, sang and then admonished, as food often does in my presence, “seriously, lady, why haven’t you made this yet?”

spaghetti, al denteish

Now, a little bit about cacio e pepe, which I have spent the last few weeks obsessing over and even auditioning a overpriced, lackluster version at a nearby restaurant named after the dish: someone who lived in Rome would probably laugh at the idea of using a recipe. It’s just grated Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly ground black pepper and pasta water. Many would argue that fat (such as oil or butter) doesn’t belong in it and you probably don’t want to know what they’d think of a Cooks Illustrated version that includes heavy cream. And mentally, I fought the dish because water and cheese? How does that gel together? It could not, it would not emulsify, no matter which method I auditioned.

cacio e pepe

And then I just let it go. I fell in love with the dish at a Batali restaurant, I looked up Batali’s recipe and in it, he does not tell you to miraculously merge oil and water, he tells you to throw it all together and let it happen. And so I did. And it did. And now I don’t have to pray for the extraordinary confluence of babysitters grandparents visiting plus a free table at Lupa to have it anymore. But I could go for a few more impromptu Wednesday night dates that involve beer.

i was bested by suggested portion size

One year ago: Toasted Coconut Shortbread and Devil’s Chicken Thighs + Braised Leeks
Two years ago: Seven-Yolk Pasta Dough and Best Chocolate Pudding

Spaghetti with Cheese and Pepper [Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe]
Adapted very loosely from Mario Batali

As I’ve mentioned, for something with such a simple ingredient list this dish manages to fall all over the map. Some versions use just oil, no butter, some use neither oil of butter; some stud the sauce with large, barely cracked peppercorns and half-melted pebbles of romano; some opt for a smoother cheese, cacio de roma, which I located, auditioned and discovered I liked the saltier and more accessible Pecorino Romano better. There are a lot of ways to approach the dish and people who will find something inauthentic with each of them. I say ignore them all and just enjoy your spaghetti.

Serves 4 as a main, 8 as a first course

1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound dried spaghetti
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
1 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
Salt (optional)

Cook spaghetti in well-salted water to your al dente tastes in a large, wide-bottomed pot. (You’ll have fewer dishes to wash if you use this pot to assemble the dish as well.) Drain spaghetti, reserving 1 1/2 cups of pasta cooking water.

Dry out your pot, then heat the olive oil over high heat until almost smoking. Add drained spaghetti and 1 cup of reserved pasta water and jump back, this will splatter mightily, also known as “I made this three times, and never once learned my lesson. Do as I say, not as I do.”

Add butter, 3 ounces cheese and ground pepper and toss together with tongs. Taste, adding more pasta water, cheese, pepper or salt (which should not be neccessary, as Romano is very salty) to taste.

Serve immediately, sprinkling with reserved cheese and an extra grind or two of black pepper.


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