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Lately, in The Secret Ingredient, I’ve been more inspired by using everyday items, like the bottom half of the maple syrup bottle or the butt ends of vanilla beans, that I already have in new ways. One thing I always have on hand is a big bottle of whole black peppercorns, that I siphon into my pepper mill once every couple of weeks to keep things hot and interesting. And while in some ways black pepper is always a secret ingredient, always that spot of heat in the back of your throat, it never really gets given a standing ovation, never gets to play the lead. In the three recipes this month, the food would be nothing without that tip-of-the-tongue pep that only black pepper can give. Forget a couple of twists on the pepper mill–we are adding whole handfuls.
Cacio e pepe is a simple pasta dish, named after its two biggest flavors: pecorino and black pepper. Salty, and pepper. In my version, I play up the pepper by adding shards of spicy baby arugula. Multigrain pasta not only adds some health to the dish, but also a great nutty flavor and significant texture. I have to admit, this is not a new application for me. When I used to intern at Serious Eats, I would make a version of this in my tiny apartment kitchen after I got off the uptown subway. It’s so easy, but the flavors are deep, spicy, and bold. I love eating a huge bowlful after work, or, for a big dinner, serve it as a side next to simple seared steak or roasted jumbo prawns. Whatever you do with this dish, you won’t miss the black pepper. It’s finally shaken off its shy side, and stepped into the limelight.
- 1 pound multigrain spaghetti (recommended: Barilla Plus)
- Kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup coarsely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 2 full handfuls baby arugula, roughly chopped
Cook the spaghetti in a pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining. Grind the peppercorn in a spice grinder or coffee grinder.
Put the empty pasta pot back on low heat. When it is dry, add the pepper to the warm pot, and toast for 15 seconds. Add the butter, half the pasta water, and the pasta. Top with most of the cheese and the arugula. Toss to combine, and add the rest of the pasta water if needed to create more of a sauce. Top with the remaining cheese, and serve as dinner in itself, or on the side of simple seared sliced steak or roasted jumbo shrimp.
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