Mac & Cheese, the Roman Way

Guys, I’m drowning in some of the tastiest fruits and veggies I’ve ever met. So naturally, today is all about pasta, butter and cheese (emphasis on the cheese). Let me explain.

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One of the incredible things about Italy (tasty coffee aside) is its regional variation. Though the country is less than half the size of your average Canadian province, in Italy you’re never more than a short train ride away from feeling like you’re in a new country: new landscapes, history, architecture and, of course, food.

(A bit different from my home province of Alberta, where regional variation manifests itself as the presence or absence of mountains and a preference for one of two hockey teams. Said only with fondness.)

While you’ll find pizza, pasta and gelato pretty much anywhere you go, each region – and often even individual cities and towns – has distinct food traditions of its own, shaped by climate, culture and history. Rome, my home base for the summer, is no different. 

Upload from May 07, 2012So, to start things off right, I figured I’d better pay homage to the place and share with you guys something traditionally Roman

While I’ll get more into the nature and history of Roman food once I’m better acquainted with the stuff, suffice it to say for now that super-traditional dishes here are based around fried seasonal veggies, pastas in simple sauces, and meat dishes made from the underused bits of sheep, cows and pigs (think tripe, oxtail and pig-cheeks). As a vegetarian with a fear of boiling oil, things like fiori di zucca (fried, cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms, oh yum) and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew, not so yum) are, alas, out.

And so we arrive at pasta. And though even here Rome remains pretty meat heavy – you’ll find pancetta alongside eggs in carbonara, and guanciale (unsmoked pig-cheek bacon) alongside tomato sauce and pecorino cheese in amatriciana – one option remains! 

Upload from May 07, 2012

Friends, meet cacio e pepe. The name refers to its two key components, sheep’s milk cheese (that’s the cacio) and cracked black pepper (the pepe). I’ve heard the dish called Rome’s version of mac & cheese, and for good reason: it’s super-speedy to throw together, and guys, it’s everywhere.

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As with any regional specialty, everyone has their favourite way of making the dish, with ingredients and techniques varying with the cook. In the version below, black pepper is toasted until fragrant, then combined with pasta, butter, starchy pasta water and two types of cheese – pecorino romano (the traditional cacio) and another firm, salty variety – to make for a tangle of noodles coated in a creamy, spicy sauce. 

You need to add the cheese to the pan while the pasta’s still super hot to ensure that the sauce will be creamy rather than gloopy, so have everything ready to go from the start. Use the best ingredients you can find and don’t be tempted to bump up the quantity of pasta, and you’ll be minutes away from Roman happiness. Just make sure you eat some veggies, ok? 

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Cacio e Pepe
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves 2

Ingredients
Sea salt
175 grams dried pasta (tagliolini, bucatini, spaghetti or other long, skinny pasta)*
3 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into three equal pieces
1-1.5 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese**
1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water seasoned with 1 tsp of salt.
About two minutes before the pasta reaches a tasty al dente, drain it, reserving 3/4 of a cup of the pasta water. 
While the pasta’s cooking, melt two of the three pieces of butter in a large skillet set over medium heat.
Once the butter’s melty, add the pepper and toast for a minute or two, swirling occasionally, until the pepper is fragrant.
Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water to the skillet and bring the mixture to a simmer. 

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Reduce heat on the skillet to low, and add in the pasta and remaining piece of butter, tossing it all together to coat.
Dump in the larger quantity of cheese (that’s the Parmigiano or Grana Padano) and toss again until the cheese has melted. If the sauce is looking too thick at this stage — it should be melty and creamy enough to coat the pasta without globbing — add in a bit more of the pasta water.
Remove the skillet from the heat and add in the Pecorino, tossing again to melt the cheese and coat the pasta.
Serve while hot! 

Upload from May 07, 2012*You can also substitute in fresh spaghetti, bucatini or tagliolini, which cook a whole lot faster than their dried counterparts. If you do choose fresh, up the amount of pasta that you use by a handful or two (you want no more than 250 grams in total).
**Either cheese will do just fine, though a bit of reading tells me that the less expensive of the two, Grana Padano, will melt better. I used Parmigiano Reggiano with success though, so go with what suits you best!

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