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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ruffled Feathers

We are preparing to move...again, and I don't like it.
I keep asking Steve, so, doesn't it seem like just yesterday that we were moving?
General household disarray...half-packed boxes...scattered clutter.  It all ruffles my feathers.

There's also a cooking hiatus.  The kitchen is starting to get boxed up...the cookbooks too.  I will have to chill out for a bit and this just somehow adds to my irritation.

It's never a good sign when I pull Little Women off the shelf, seeking comfort in its familiar chapters.  (Odd, what gives us consolation, I know.)  It's been this way since I was a child.  Whenever I don't feel well, or am unsettled don't rub my head or make me tea.  Just leave me alone with my Louisa May Alcott and I'll be okay.

So there's the Little Women thing and luckily, another source of comfort.


It begins with a box of dry spaghetti.

The phrase 'comfort food' gets thrown around quite a bit these days, but it usually refers to things I think of as heavy.  Meat loaf.  Mashed potatoes.  Macaroni and cheese.  Don't get me wrong, on a good day, I love all that stuff, but it seems a bit much if you're truly in need of comforting.  I feel like in addition to being distressed, you're going to have this big, heavy pile of food just sitting in your stomach.  Not helpful. 

My own version of comfort food has evolved over the years.  For a good long time, there was spaghetti with butter and cheese.  (The quality of the cheese has improved as the years have gone by...and yes, I first started out with a few shakes of the legendary green can of Kraft Parmesan Cheese.  You know the one.  It reassures you on the label that it is "100% Real Parmesan Cheese".) Now that's comfort food.  Simple to prepare, with staples that are pretty much always on hand.  My spaghetti with butter and cheese always felt perfectly consoling.

A while back I started to add a tiny bit of chopped Italian parsley.  It added a cheerful bit of zip.  This advance probably coincided with the discovery that most herbs will keep, for weeks, in the refrigerator if stored like a vase of flowers.  Bingo.  Parsley available at all times, hence it started to appear in almost everything I cooked.

Then, several years ago, on a business trip to Italy (read:  stress...nerves...anxiety) I ordered a bowl of cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta)  for dinner one night and it rescued me.  No long list of ingredients.  No fancy stuff.  The pasta was clearly the dried stuff from a box.  Yet, it calmed me in a way that I was intensely grateful for.  The sauce, more of a creamy coating than a sauce really,  was fragrant with Pecorino.  The black pepper provided a warmth that radiated throughout my being, restoring my spirits.  Well, there was also a glass of red wine.  That helped.
 

So, of course, I had to find a way to recreate a proper cacio e pepe at home.  There was plenty of investigation. Restaurant versions here in the U.S. were hit or miss...mainly miss.  Almost always there was an overwhelming amount of olive oil.  Spaghetti swimming in oil is not my idea of comfort.  I searched.  I experimented.  We ate many sub-par versions of cacio e pepe.  The perfect recipe remained elusive. And I kept wondering...how can just oil, pepper, cheese and pasta water create the creamy mix I remembered?  Many, many batches later, multiple sources contributed to what I think is the ultimate combination:  SAVEUR magazine (make sure to toast the pepper in the hot oil) with a bit of Batali (add pinch of Parmesan and butter) and a splash of Tyler Florence technique (something called burro fuso, which means cold butter simmered in starchy pasta water).

Tadahhhh...perfect cacio e pepe!
This, my dear friends, is comfort in a bowl!


The pantry has yet to be packed.  The boxed pasta is ready for the stressful week ahead.  That, and my beat up childhood copy of Little Women discreetly stashed by my bedside. 
I think it's all going to be okay.



Cacio e Pepe (Cheese and Pepper Pasta)
Serves 4

1 lb.  dried pasta, (spaghetti is good, but I like bucatini or perciatelli as well)
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper (I like a mix of 1 tsp. ground with a mortar and pestle so it's coarse and the remaining 1 tsp. from the pepper grinder.)
4 tbsp. cold butter
1 1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano (heresy, I know...no true Roman would stand for it)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Cook the pasta until al dente (about 8-10 minutes if you're using spaghetti.) 
**Make sure to set aside a cup of the starchy pasta water before draining the pasta.

Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it shimmers and add the pepper, toasting it in the oil until fragrant (about 1-2 minutes). 
(This pretty much lifts your spirits immediately!)


Ladle 3/4 cup of the pasta water into the skillet with the oil and pepper.  (There will be a big, noisy commotion when the water hits the pan...prepare yourself not to freak out.) 
Bring this mixture to a boil and add the butter, which will melt and then simmer for 3-4 minutes until the sauce thickens. 

When your pasta is ready and has been drained, transfer it, using some tongs, to the skillet with the water/oil/pepper/ butter mixture and add the cheese, (I mean this...no lazy stirring here!) to combine. 


Continue to stir over heat until the sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta, about another minute or two, adding some of the remaining starchy pasta water if it begins to look too dry. 
Transfer to bowls and serve immediately.

Mangia! and feel better...

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