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Monday, November 14, 2016

Pasta Therapy - Eating my feelings and Cacio e Pepe

In the aftermath of last week’s election result and the reactions to it, I have been struggling with how to approach my blog. I wasn’t sure if it was OK to write about food (as I write this I am still not sure). Could I even have the clarity of thought to write anything coherent (much less appetizing)? I was, and still am, overwhelmed.

As a son to a mother, brother to a sister, a survivor or sexual assault and a gay man, the result was a disappointing and troubling blow. To many others though, the outcome and the reactions from both sides of the ideological spectrum, were more even more traumatic than I can ever conceive.  Centuries and layers upon layers of oppression were thrust into the headlines and laid bare for raw, often careless, public discourse and dissection. Deep wounds to identity were ripped open anew, groups that had been making incremental progress were knocked back into the battle trenches, and for many, their future in this country is now in peril. I am heartbroken.

I will continue to process, to mourn, grieve, seethe, plan and to listen. This is only the beginning and my response, the action I take, will be a careful and deliberate process.

We all need to think, but we also need to eat, and I need to cook, which is why I decided to write.

Food is nourishment at its most base and a carnal pleasure at its heights. Cooking is meditative and transcendent. It is an escape from the weight of reality, an opportunity for creative expression and emotional release. It is a way to explore and connect with cultures that are not one’s own and share and celebrate in our own. Food offers a way to commune with family, friends, neighbors, and relate to others in an authentic and essential way.

Preparing and sharing a meal is how I give and receive that is what I will write about...

Mark and I spent the weekend following the election in New York City, an attempt at some semblance of return to normalcy. It was kind of a blur. We hung out with friends, shopped, spent time with his family and watched a beautiful dance production in which his sister performed (Rules of the Game). The entire time there was a palpable weight to the mood in the city. People were glued to their Iphones rapt with the flood of articles and images on social media. They either sought out human contact, smiles and eye contact lingering just a little longer than usual or they anxiously avoided interaction all together, downcast eyes and walking with a quicker than normal clip (even for New Yorkers). We passed by and stood with the protests several times. I was struck by the sheer numbers, and immediately my thoughts and emotions were kicked back into overdrive. After the exhausting weekend and 3-hour drive back to our beloved Baltimore, I was drained and out of F’s to give when it came to dinner. Add to it the Sunday scaries and dread of work looming on Monday, I would have eaten anything salty, fatty and starchy and felt good about it. I was on the verge of ordering takeout when I realized I could achieve my salty, fatty, starchy comfort food goals by my very own hand. I would be my own therapist through the preparation and then eat my feelings with Mark by my side.

When I was studying abroad in Rome I became addicted to a very simple, yet decadent and satisfying dish called Cacio e Pepe. Cacio e Pepe is quintessentially Roman and has been around for centuries. I would argue it was the original Mac & Cheese in its ubiquitous comfort food status. Anthony Bourdain so reveres this dish that he’s touted it as the “greatest thing in the history of the world.” I tend to agree with him on most things; this is no exception.

“Cacio” is a general term for cheese throughout Italian culinary tradition, but is also the name of a semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese from the Roman countryside, and “Pepe” means, you guessed, it Pepper. “Cheese and Pepper” is the perfect combination of pasta, sharp and salty Italian cheeses, and butter, intensified by a healthy dose of fresh ground pepper. It’s not ooey-gooey like an alfredo, but more like a carbonara, a thick and even coating of cheese sauce envelopes the pasta and delivers all the flavor. Traditionally, Cacio e Pepe is prepared with a long, thin spaghetti, but one can use anything like egg tagiolini, bucatini, or vermicelli. Over the weekend, I dragged Mark to Eataly, one of my favorite places to get culinary inspiration. Due to the ridiculous weekend crowds that plague that place, I only had a few minutes before he was overwhelmed and insisting we leave, but it was just enough time to snag some Cacio di Roma from the cheese case, and pick up a pound of extra-wide fettucine made with farro, the newest addition to the ancient grain trend (see what I did there?). Little did I know at the time but I had the makings of a delicious dinner in hand. The fettucine would be ideal for Cacio e Pepe, the ample surface area for sauce coverage and flavor delivery. The chestnut color of the pasta would not only look beautiful on the plate but it is also indicative of the caramelly and nutty tones that the farro brings to the flavor of the pasta. The sweet notes would play perfectly with the savory Cacio and requisite Pecorino Romano to come.

The preparation of Cacio e Pepe is very straightforward, again, perfect for my post-election-Sunday mood. I brought some salted water to a boil. While the water warmed, I ground 2 tablespoons of black peppercorns in my KRUPS spice grinder. I spread the ground pepper in the bottom of a large sauce pan and turned on the heat as I dropped the pasta in the water. Heating the dry peppers is called toasting and allows the oils to release and the fragrance and flavor to intensify. Another approach would be to “bloom” the ground spices by doing the same process but “wet”, with the addition of oil or butter. Blooming is a great way to bring out additional flavor while mitigating some of the risk of scorching your spices, which is easy to do when toasting. Either way, blooming or toasting, it is worth the extra effort for the flavor the process imparts, just don’t forget about your spices on the heat.

I cooked the pasta for about 5 minutes then drained, reserving some of the cooking liquid. I added butter to my toasting pepper and turned up the heat, allowing the butter to melt into a paste. Then I added the reserved cooking liquid and brought it to a simmer. I stirred in the grated Cacio de Roma I bought in NY and some of my favorite Pecorino Romano from Whole Foods (it’s sinfully salty and addictive), then immediately added my cooked pasta. I turned the heat down and continuously tossed the pasta until it was evenly coated, the starches in the water helping bind the cheese to the bands of fettuccine. I plated on my bright white dinner plates for the maximum color contrast and it was prettier than I imagined, the deep brown, almost chocolately tones of the pasta looked luxurious and downright radiant following their butter and cheese bath.

Mark and I savored our dinner together. While we ate I explained the history behind the dish, how it is a symbol of american traditions born of immigrant pasts, affirming we are stronger (and more delicious) together. I regaled him with memories of my precious time in Rome and made plans for our trip next fall when I hope to share my most cherished places and things. We reflected on the pleasures of the weekend and the challenges and tragedies of the week, and ate until we could no longer move. I am no closer to any resolution on the gut wrenching events unfolding, nor do I expect to be, but I am grateful for Cacio e Pepe, for an evening shared with the man I love, friends and family with whom to celebrate and commiserate, and the wonders of pasta therapy.

Cacio e Pepe as Therapy  

  •          1lb Fresh farro fettuccine (or equivalent portion egg tagliolini, spaghetti, bucatini or similar)
  •          2/3 Cup grated pecorino romano
  •          1/3 Cup Cacio de Roma or parmigiano reggiano
  •          1 + 2 tablespoons salted butter
  •          2 tablespoons fresh ground black peppercorns


Bring salted water to a boil in a large pasta pot. Grind peppercorns and spread in the bottom of a large non-stick sauce pan. When water is at a rolling boil, drop in pasta. While pasta cooks, approx. 5 minutes, toast the peppercorns dry over medium flame, being careful not to scorch or smoke. When pasta is cooked drain in colander but reserve ½ cup of the cooking liquid and set aside. Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the peppercorns and turn up the heat. Cook until the butter melts and the fragrance of the pepper corns fills the air (I love this part if you can’t tell). Add the reserved cooking liquid and bring to a simmer. Stir in the grated cheese and add cooking pasta immediately. Toss continuously with tongs until the pasta is evening coated, serve immediately. Finish with a pinch more pecorino romano.

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