This is a recipe inspired by the traditional Roman dish of cacio e pepe, as well as the Linguine with Meyer Lemon recipe from the Franny’s cook book. Cacio e pepe translates literally to “cheese and pepper”, but don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity. This dish, a perfect poor man’s meal, gets it magic from the starch in the reserved pasta water. Combined with a small amount of butter and a heap of parmesan, the starch in the reserved water serves to bind the cheese to the pasta, creating a silky, divine, simplistic sauce. Often hailed as a simpler version of mac and cheese, cacio e pepper is a dish that, once you master it, you can throw together quickly with ease and pair with any green vegetable you happen to have on hand. I’ve topped with with crispy oven broiled kale, steamed broccoli, roasted asparagus, and even sautéed broccolini. Just don't forget to finish the dish with some more parmesan!
It's a dish that Anthony Bourdain, in his Rome episode of No Reservations, said "could be the greatest thing in the history of the world", even going to far as to say he'd trade having ever read Catcher In The Rye and having his first sexual experience just to eat it. As he put it, "what a bleak, meaningless existence we'd have without this."
Like cooking a perfect egg, cacio e pepe can be a polarizing topic among chefs, food writers, and home cooks. I can't imagine the way any Italian nonna worth her salt would react to the fact that I add lemon juice to the reserved pasta water, or zest to bring out more of a citrusy zing. But this is my kitchen and when life hands you lemons, make exquisitely simple pasta and/or, I don't know, maybe fix yourself a drink.
The reason I wanted to begin with this recipe is that it's so often what I make myself for lunch or a quick dinner, when time has escaped me and I know with certainty that I almost always have these kitchen staples on hand: butter, lemons, parmesan, dry pasta. It comes together in about the time it takes to boil water and never ceases to feel satisfying and warm, never feels any less special or magic. Below is exactly how I made the dish for myself today for lunch, after skipping breakfast and allowing the onset of coffee jitters to remind me to eat. You can adjust to your taste every element of this dish: add more cheese, skip the lemon, add more pepper, etc. Enjoy!
Lemony Cacio E Pepe
1 cup dry pasta
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup of reserved pasta water
½ cup to 1 cup of fresh grated/micro-planed parmesan or pecorino romano
Zest of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon of fresh cracked black pepper
Pinch of salt
1. Bring a pan of water to a boil. In most cases you do not want to crowd your pasta in a small amount of water, but in this case, since we're relying on the starch in the water, I find a smaller pot is acceptable.
2. While waiting for the water to boil I suggest getting your mise en place. I use a microplane to grate the zest from the lemon and use it again to grate the parmesan. The sauce step of this recipe happens very quickly, so be sure to have everything ready to go.
3. Boil your pasta until it is just near al dente and not a moment over. You'll finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, so be sure not to overcook it. When it's close to being done, use a pyrex or measuring cup to remove a half a cup or more of the pasta water before draining. Set this aside and drain your pasta.
4. To the empty pot add 1 tablespoon of butter and place the heat on a low simmer.
5. Add half of the reserved pasta water and the tablespoon of olive oil to the butter. Get this to a simmer and add in the cracked black pepper and lemon zest. It might seem liquidy, but the pasta and cheese will help it cohere.
6. Toss the pasta back into the pot and coat in the butter/water/oil mixture, still simmering.
7. Quickly stir in the parmesan, keeping the pasta moving until the cheese dissolves. If your mixture is looking a little dry, add more of the reserved pasta water to loosen it up. If it looks wet, keep stirring over medium heat until it becomes a silky cohesive sauce.
8. Add a pinch of salt and allow to simmer for maybe a minute longer, or until a satisfactory texture is achieved. The pasta will continue to soak up the sauce even after the heat has been turned off.
9. That's it! Serve immediately and top with more cracked pepper and fresh parmesan.