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SERIOUSLY SIMPLE: Spaghetti with cheese and pepper

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When a chef friend suggested we make a simple dinner of cacio e pepe, I was there. This ancient Roman dish includes pasta, pecorino Romano cheese, cracked black peppercorns and some of the pasta water. While it sounds simple to make, especially with the minimal ingredient list, it requires a bit of skill incorporating the ingredients. Since that first dinner I have reworked this dish numerous times.

Some would say it's heresy to add olive oil or butter, but I found it just made it taste that much better. So call me a heretic. I will tell you that this dish depends upon your choice of ingredients for its success. Use a good quality Italian pasta. I prefer spaghetti, but you could also use linguine, tagliolini or bucatini.

The cheese must be an Italian pecorino Romano. I like to shred it coarsely on a grater just before adding to the pasta. This sheep's milk cheese has a very evocative flavor; some people like to add a bit of freshly grated Parmesan along with the pecorino to tame the flavor. I've added it in the recipe. That's up to you and your particular taste.

I urge you to use fresh black peppercorns. If you don't have a peppermill that can go from fine to very coarse, you can buy inexpensive ones at the market with the peppercorns inside the grinder. The coarser the grind, the better. That's because a coarse grind replicates crushing the peppercorns with a mortar and pestle, as in the classic Roman recipe.

Spaghetti with cheese and pepper (Spaghetti Cacio e pepe)

Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 22 minutes
Servings: 4 main course servings, 6 first course

Ingredients:

1 pound spaghetti, linguine, tagliolini or bucatini
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 1/2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper, plus more to taste
1 1/2 cups finely grated pecorino Romano
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan

1. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente, 8-10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups cooking water.

2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until hot. Add the pepper; cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add 3/4 cup pasta water. Increase the heat to medium-high; heat to a boil. Transfer pasta to skillet.

3. Sprinkle all of the pecorino over the pasta; toss well, creating a sauce, until the sauce clings to the pasta, about 2 minutes, adding more pasta water as needed. Arrange on serving plates; sprinkle with the Parmesan .

Nutrition information:
Per serving (for 6 servings): 522 calories, 22 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 36 mg cholesterol, 58 g carbohydrates, 25 g protein, 614 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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