When I read books I tend to read every title by a particular author in sequence. Perhaps this is an OCD condition or perhaps there is virtue in fully absorbing the life's work of a talented scribe. Whatever the case, it feels very rewarding to have a theme to guide me. In food, it is not much different. For many years I was a pasta whore (and continue to be an enthusiast). I sought out every possible recipe and ate pasta night after night. Thank goodness for my metabolism and genes. I couldn't pull that off today! There may be no other vehicle that inspires chefs as much as pasta. The myriad of variations and interpretations is staggering. One could easily make a life's mission out of studying pasta in all of its forms. That person would likely be obese. Yet, for all of the variations and interpretations, it is often the simplest creations that elicit my awe. I've given you my perfect spaghetti with tomato sauce which uses subtle techniques but is ultimately incredibly simple . I'm gonna drop some super easy ricotta gnocchi on you before the summer is up. But today we're going really lo-fi: Roman-style Caccio e Pepe.
One of my favorite non sequitors of all time came from the documentary "When We Were Kings", which chronicled the 'Rumble in the Jungle' fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. George Plimpton was musing about Ali's genius as a poet and said:
Here he was delivering a lecture, senior class day with these 1,000, 2,000 Harvard graduates, and...he had these little cards in front of him. He gave this wonderful speech about he hadn't had the opportunity but they had and they should use that to make the world a better place. It was moving and funny, and a great roar of appreciation at the end. Then someone shouted out, "Give us a poem!" And everybody quieted down. Now, the shortest poem according to Bartlett's Quotations is called "On the Antiquity of Microbes" and the poem is "Adam had 'em." Pretty short. But Muhammad Ali's poem was "Me, whee." Two words. I wrote Bartlett's Quotations and I said, "Look, that's shorter." It stands for something more than the poem itself. "Me, whee." What a fighter he was. And what a man.
What I love about this tidbit is how much punch comes from such a small package. It says so much about Ali, his character and his fierce intellect. To me, Caccio e Pepe pays homage to the "Me, whee" mentality. In it's simplest form, it says look, I am pasta, but what a pasta I am!
I may be painfully repetitive, but I must restate for my new readers that my recipes are concepts versus strict directions. As you get familiar with the ingredients and objectives, you may find there are better paths to the results. Luckily, this is as easy as it gets.
First let's start with the pasta. Caccio e Pepe is one of the rare forms that lends well to both fresh or boxed pasta. I will always advocate for a high-quality variety if you're using boxed. I prefer fresh with this. The best I've ever had is a place in Rome called Roscioli. It's really sublime. Also, the shape is flexible. The traditional Roman style is with a thick spaghetti, bucatini or chitarra (I like to make my fresh chitarra on this device). But you can also get away with just about any form or shape.
Boil the pasta in a large pot of heavily salted water. Don't be shy, salt in water = flavor in pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente. This means don't be afraid of a little bite or crunch - a lot in fact. You'll continue to cook the pasta in the sauce so go for a solid 'to the teeth' feel. It's hard to express what al dente means to a neophyte, but there really is no other way to enjoy pasta. The crunch provides a textural contrast to the sauce. It's just proper. Don't dump your water, as we'll need a little.
When the pasta is ready, transfer it to a saute pan with a little of the pasta water, a small ladle or so. Here the gluten in the pasta shines through and blends well with the fats. Add about half of the planned fresh cracked pepper and a gradually add cheese over a low flame. The objective is to create an emulsification between the water and the cheese. Here is another point of preference. Pecorino Romano is the tradition in Rome, but might be a little sharp for some. You could easily substitute Parmigiano Reggiano or create a mix of both. The objective is to get some nuttiness and creaminess, that plays right against the spicy pepper.
Keep adding cheese and cooking until the pasta is al dente and the sauce emulsifies. Take a warm dish and swirl a pile of the spaghetti nice and high. Grate a nice pile of cheese on top and then top that with a good shot of more cracked pepper. That's it! As you can see it's really all about the cheese, the pepper and the pasta. If done properly, you'll get a balance of flavors that all play well together but each brings a distinct present to the party. Nutty, spicy, creamy, bitey, rich, yet light - it's an everyman dish. Simple, yet complex. Me, whee!
Just for shits and grins, I'm gonna send you off with my favorite Ali poem:
I done wrassled with an aligator, tussled with a whale, handcuffed lightening, thrown thunder in jail, Just last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I'm so mean I make medicine sick.