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The Chef in Charlotte: Cacio e pepe

Like much of the country, I woke up on Wednesday morning feeling pretty darn terrible. Not just because of the amount of rum I drank the night before, but also because what I witnessed Tuesday night made me just very sad for our country. After rehearsals, I knew I needed to cook up some comfort food to perk me up. Carbs are usually my comfort food of choice, so I dropped by the grocery store on my way home to grab some pasta.

Cacio e pepe is like adult mac and cheese. A classic Roman dish, meaning "cheese and pepper," it's simple combination of thick pasta, freshly cracked black pepper, and oh-so-decadent tangy, salty pecorino cheese. Deceptively simple, I'm afraid, since assembly of this masterpiece requires some practice!

A few things to remember––first, you should use a thick, long pasta. Bucatini is a particularly thick form of spaghetti, and is perfect for this dish. Spaghetti will do in a pinch, but you want something with a little more girth if you can find it, so that you get a perfect al dente. Second, ignore any cacio e pepe recipe that says you can use parmesan. Freshly-grated authentic pecorino Romano cheese is the only acceptable option––it is magnificently tangy and saline, and is the perfect complement to the black pepper. And finally, remember to use only fresh-cracked black pepper!

I like to use a microplane grater for this dish, because it grates the cheese very thinly in a way that facilitates the cheese melting into the sauce. I use about two cups of microplaned for a two-serving dish.

When cooking pasta, it's a good idea to get the water really salty! An Italian chef once told me that your pasta water "should taste like the sea." Bring it to a boil and add the bucatini. I do not recommend breaking the pasta in half––the long pasta somehow makes the sauce smoother and stick to the pasta better. You'll want to let the one side soften and force the rest into the pot without breaking it. Cook the pasta until al dente, and, in fact, a bit crispier than al dente so that the pasta can cook a bit more when forming the sauce and will still result in a perfect al dente.

Now, here is the trick––you need to save the pasta water! Pasta water is the magic ingredient for creating a creamy sauce that sticks to the pasta. I remove the pasta from the water, add a tiny bit of olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking together, and then pour the starchy pasta water into a vessel of some kind.

Once the pan is empty, add just a tiny amount of olive oil and reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Grind a generous amount of freshly-cracked pepper into the pan. The brief heat will release the flavor in the pepper. Pour a tiny bit of pasta water in to cool the pan slightly, then put the pasta in the pan, stirring to coat with pepper. Add a bit more pasta water and about a quarter of the cheese. Then, stir vigorously and constantly, allowing the cheese to melt into the warm pasta water and begin to form a thick sauce. Add the cheese and splashes of pasta water in batches. If the sauce looks like it's over-reducing, or if it's getting clumpy, add more pasta water. Stir stir stir until you have a velvety sauce that adheres to the pasta.

Once you put the pasta in the serving dish, top with more grated pecorino and cracked black pepper. You'll have a delicious, velvety, tangy pasta with the slow burn of black pepper. I like a lot of pepper, so that after the dish is finished, I still have a little heat left on the palate. Deeeeelish.

Beer to cook by: I figured I'd switch things up and profile a beer this week! Charlotte has a really prolific craft beer scene, and I have found some fantastic selections since I moved here. The bitterness of an IPA works nicely with this sauce, and I am a particular fan of citra hops, so I was drawn to an IPA called "Citraphilia" from Charlotte-local Lenny Boy brewing. Not as juicy as other citra-based IPAs, and with a healthy amount of bitterness. Worked fairly well with the pasta!

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