Small, Good Things: Needs Must

By Joe Dizney

Cabin fever reared its frosty head a bit earlier than usual this year. With single-digit temperatures, negative wind-chill factors and drifts of sugary snow to beat back, even the dog refused to go out.

Comfort food is in order for situations like this, but with the pantry stripped bare after the long stretch of holidays, and an icy drive preventing a trip to the market, you have to make do with what’s on hand.

Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) is a humble and underrated Roman recipe that exemplifies cucina povera, the cuisine of exigency. Or, as the Brits say, “needs must,” i.e., necessity compels.

Although simple to the point of almost sounding boring, a bowl of pasta coated in silky cheese and bright pepper is a nearly universal contentment. After all, what is macaroni and cheese but the Americanized version of this archetypal meal?

Cacio e pepe is the mother recipe of at least three culinary inventions: pasta gricia (pasta with cheese and guanciale, which is cured unsmoked pork jowl); cacio e uovo (pasta with cheese and egg); and the most familiar, pasta carbonara (“pasta in the manner of the charcoal makers,” a creamy combination of cheese, eggs and pork).

Cacio e Pepe: the original macaroni and cheese (Photo by J. Dizney)

Each dish was the result of making the best of what was on hand. (It has been suggested that pasta carbonara came about after Allied troops shared their rations with Roman cooks.) The other salient feature of these dishes is the speed with which the hungry cook can whip them up. Outside of grating and grinding, dinner can be on the table in under 30 minutes, as opposed to hours-long, simmering meat sauces.

 “Authentic” Roman recipes call for spaghetti or bucatini, sharp-salty Pecorino Romano sheep’s milk cheese and enough grated pepper to color the sauce. Common variations include the substitution or combination of milder and nuttier Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana-Padano cheeses, which offer a smoother contrast to the pepper.

Butter is a no-no, except when it’s not. Same with milk and cream. You therefore also have permission to add peas (cacio e pepe e piselli), as a friend does when she needs to sneak vegetables into her children, or asparagus, should it appear. Whatever you like. Comfort food should be, above all, accommodating.

Pasta with Cheese and Pepper (Cacio e Pepe)

Four servings

1 pound dry pasta (spaghetti, bucatini, thin linguine)
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly ground (medium to coarse) black pepper
¼ cup olive oil
3 cups Parmesan or Grana-Padano, grated fine (or a mix of 1½ cups Pecorino-Romano and 1½ cups Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana-Padano)

Have all ingredients on hand. Bring 5 to 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot for the pasta. Salt generously. (It should taste like the sea.) When the water is ready, add pasta and cook as per directions (about 11 minutes), stirring regularly.

In another small pan, over medium heat, toast the ground pepper for about 45 seconds until fragrant. Add the olive oil and about one cup of the pasta water and bring to a simmer, whisking to combine.

When pasta is done, reserve about two cups of the pasta water and drain pasta. Transfer the pepper sauce to the pasta pot over low heat and add drained pasta. With tongs, toss the pasta in the sauce to coat, slowly adding the cheeses in batches to melt evenly. Once all the cheeses have been incorporated, add more pasta water to maintain a saucy consistency.

Serve immediately in bowls with more cheese and pepper at table.

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