I’ll admit it, I was a doubter. Despite listening to Andy and Adam rave about the wonder that is cacio e pepe (a pasta dish starring exactly four ingredients), I remained highly skeptical. And at the root of my skepticism was a bone-deep feeling that you cannot eat a giant pile of starch and call it dinner. There are no veggies or meats making cacio e pepe more of a meal. It is pasta, spices and olive oil. And while that sounded tasty enough, there’s a rather large part of me raised on meat-potatoes-and-veggies that wants my meals to feel nutritive, nourishing for the body as well as the soul, and I couldn’t accept that cacio e pepe would achieve that for me. (Why didn’t it occur to me to eat something along with my pasta, you ask? Fuckoffwitcha, I say.)
But the other night, I was hungry, there were green beans in the fridge that I could steam on the side to make this meal less likely to fucking kill me, and I didn’t feel like engaging in a production just to have dinner. I knew we had pasta (we always have pasta). So I turned to Adam and Andy’s recipes, combined them, eliminated the bits that grossed me out, and made cacio e pepe my way.
You guys, this is some seriously good shit. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that toasting pepper in oil, basically the same thing I do when I make four-pepper chicken for use in pasta, is delicious and familiar, but when the smell hit my nose I was actually quite pleased and startled. (Pattern recognition: I am still working on it.) So here’s how I made it. Hat tips to Adam and Andy for getting me here, and hat tip to myself for going the rest of the way. Also: it’s vegetarian! I know. I’m shocked too.
Also, guys, hear my plea: if you’re going to make this, please, please make a vegetable on the side. Care for your nutrition. This is isn’t bad for you – any old Sicilian can talk your ear off about the health benefits of olive oil until you are actually dead – but no matter how tasty, it feels kinda nutritionally void. Steaming vegetables could literally be done by a cat. You don’t even need thumbs, so don’t be coming to me with “I caught my thumb in a band saw and now I can’t steam vegetables.” You can.
For cacio e pepe for two with some left over, you need:
1 lb. pasta
Make the pasta. Use more salt in the pasta water than you normally would. (Adam says add salt until it tastes like sea water, but I personally prefer not to taste boiling water to check.) Cook until just a little too al dente to eat.
While you’re doing this, put some olive oil on the stove over medium heat. Be generous with how much oil you use – this is your sauce. Also, learn from my mistakes and use a pan with enough space to stir in so you don’t get sauce all over the stove even while stirring slowly and carefully. Anyway, heat a generous amount of olive oil over a medium flame, add lots of fresh-ground pepper (I probably used 15 – 20 grinds) and watch it with your nose. It’ll start to smell real nice. Do not, at this point, leave it until it starts to smell like burned popcorn. The good news is that if you do that, you can dump it out and start again. Heating it until it smells good takes like four minutes.
So when it starts to smell good, turn the flame down to medium-low, take your trusty 1/3 measuring cup and scoop out that much pasta water. Add this to your tasty-smelling oil and begin whisking briskly. You are trying to make an emulsion. Never fear if you can’t. I can’t. Just whisk and whisk and whisk. The pasta will take care of the rest. Once the pasta is at the stage I mentioned above, a littl too al dente to eat, drain it and throw it in the pan. We are now gonna make like the fancy people tell us to and finish our pasta off in the sauce.
Stir until all the pasta is pretty well coated. Now is when we add our grated pecorino romano cheese. How much, you ask? Enough to thicken the sauce and make it coat the pasta nicely. Then we taste it. If it tastes right, we eat it. If it doesn’t, keep adding stuff until it does.
Seriously, this tastes about fifty times more ace than I can explain to you or than you probably believe. Try it and see!