I Am Begging You To Make Something Besides Cacio E Pepe

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I Am Begging You To Make Something Besides Cacio E Pepe
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Allow me, if you will, a moment of culinary pettiness. Though I am almost always a champion of cooking what you like, what you have, and whatever’s easiest, I am extremely tired of seeing cacio e pepe pushed on people over and over again by food media. (If you are in the habit of reading tons of food sites, you may have noticed this pasta’s dominance, but maybe I am extra sensitive to this kind of thing.) I would like to blame my grumpiness on “the state of things,” but I’ve been grumpy about this pasta since February, when I saw an article proclaiming it to be the “sexiest dish you could make for your valentine.”

It is, of course, a fine pasta—cheese and pepper make a good topping!—but it’s not sexy, it’s not my favourite “easy pasta,” and it’s not even that easy. Pecorino Romano is prone to clumping and, though there are ways around this, I’ve seen many home cooks discouraged by this supposedly simple dish.

If all you have is Pecorino and pepper, then great, please make cacio e pepe, but it is not the ultimate easy pasta so many say it is. There are several, if not many, pastas that are easier. And they also have the advantage of seeming novel by virtue of not being done to death.

For example, that Alison Roman shallot pasta

If there is a pasta that deserves the hype and virality, it is this one. It’s made entirely from cheap, shelf-stable ingredients, and it sets you up to feel good about your culinary abilities. I finally made this the other night, and yes, it is as good as everyone says it is, though you must have a fondness for anchovies. The most challenging aspect of this dish is chopping shallots, but you get two batches’ worth of the paste from one recipe, and the result is something that is so silky, and so intensely flavorful, you’ll feel downright chef-y. It’s a great pasta if you’re looking to break out of your marinara rut and come out feeling confident about your cooking skills, rather than despondent (due to clumpy cheese). (Also, if you don’t have that many shallots, know that I subbed in an onion and it was still very good. Add an extra clove of garlic if you do this.)

You can make something creamy without any dairy

A lot of people think the secret to rich, creamy pasta is cream or cheese, but it’s not. It’s starchy pasta water. That, emulsified with some sort of fat, gives you the noodle-coating, luxuriously creamy sauce you crave without any dairy. If you worry your water isn’t starchy enough, you can supercharge it by tossing some semolina flour in the pot. Besides pasta and its water, all you need for a full meal is some sort of fatty pork. (Use breakfast pork and top it with an egg for breakfast pasta):

To make this dairy-free dish (that serves two very hungry people), you will need:

  • 225 grams of some sort of fatty pork like pancetta, bacon, or sausage

  • 225 grams of dried pasta, any kind will work

  • 2.8 litres slightly salted water

  • 1/2 cup semolina flour

  • Fresh pepper

In a large stainless steel sauté pan, cook your salty pork product over medium-low heat to render out the fat and get it all crispy. (Start the pork a couple of minutes ahead of the pasta, you can always remove it from the heat if you’re worried about it burning.) While that’s cooking, bring your water to a boil and add the flour and pasta.

Once the pork is crispy and the pasta is just shy of al dente, dump a cup of your very starchy water into the pan with the pancetta, bacon, and/or sausage, and scrape up all the delicious burnt bits. Fish out the pasta from the pot with a set of tongs, and toss it in the sauce until it’s perfectly al dente and coated in a thick, glossy sauce.

Also, have you heard of carbonara?

Pasta carbonara was the first pasta dish I learned to make, and the last meal I cooked for my grandfather before he passed away. (He really liked the it! Being from northern Mississippi, the only pasta he had ever tried was something he called “Italian spaghetti” which was not very Italian.)

Anyway. I hadn’t really made it much since then, but something (the presence of eggs and bacon, I guess), moved me to make it the other night. A lot of recipes call for whole eggs, but I usually just use the yolks, which may not be proper or “authentic,” but is delicious. (Also, if you don’t like this all-yolk interpretation, I’m sure you can find something suitable with a search engine.) Use guanciale (jowl bacon) if you can find it, but pancetta or regular bacon will also work. To make it, you will need:

  • 450 grams spaghetti

  • 140 grams bacon, guanciale, or pancetta

  • 3 egg yolks

  • 3/4 cup grated parmesan, plus more for finishing

  • Fresh pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook your spaghetti according to the package instructions. Cut the pork into lardon and place in a cold pan, then cook over medium heat so the fat slowly renders out. While this is all happening, mix the yolks and parm together, grate in some pepper, and set aside.

Once the pasta is al dente, reserve half a cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the pan with bacon and toss to coat the noodles (about two minutes). Remove the pan from the heat, give the cheese and yolk mixture a final whisky, then add it to the pan with the pasta, tossing continuously to coat. Add a little pasta water to thin if needed, and top with more fresh pepper to serve.

Then there is my dirtbag pasta

My feelings for the Better Than Bouillon line of stock has been well-documented. I love them, and I think they make a pretty bomb base for a pantry pasta, cleaning out the fridge pasta, or—if you must—even dirtbag cacio e pepe. You can use any flavour, but my favourites are mushroom, roasted garlic, and lobster. In terms of add-inns, this is a great vehicle for leftover roasted vegetables, frozen peas, capers, shredded rotisserie chicken, or any sautéed allium you feel like sautéing.

To make your own amped-up pantry pasta, you will need:

  • 450 grams dried pasta

  • 6 tablespoons butter

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Better Than Bouillon or equivalent stock (any flavour you like)

  • Anything in your fridge or pantry you need to use up

Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, but reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining. Drain the remaining water and, while doing so, reduce the heat to medium, add the butter and stock to the hot pasta pot, and stir until the butter is melted and the paste is completely mixed into the butter. Return the noodles to the pot and toss with tongs to coat, splashing in pasta water as needed to create a silky sauce. Mix in whatever other add-ins you desire, and enjoy.

Enjoy other Italian classics

I do not have specific recipes for these, because there are literally hundreds (maybe thousands?) of them in cookbooks and on the internet, but spaghetti aglio e olio, spaghetti al limone, and even the (slightly more involved) spaghetti puttanesca are all low-effort pastas that require few ingredients. A quick google will reveal many results, so pick one and give it a try.

All of that being said (ranted), make cacio e pepe if that is what makes you truly happy, but I am begging you to try a new one every once in a while, just for fun. It’s fun to learn new things, and you can always add lots of Pecorino if you miss it.

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