Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A meal at hand.

Having a few dishes you can whip up from your pantry is really important. Even people like me, who plan each meal for the week Saturday morning and keep a ridiculous spreadsheet so no ingredient is forgotten and I never come home thinking, "What was I going to cook today?" need some meals that can be made with pantry staples. Recipes go wrong, produce goes bad more quickly than expected, grocery shopping is delayed and sometimes you come home from vacation with little in the fridge but starving from the trip.

Keep a (reasonably) well-stocked pantry and you will be ready for these little emergencies.

I have a few of these dishes in my repetoir, but I'm just going to tell you about the newest and most favorite today. I will tell you that most of them involve pasta because you can keep a good stock in your cupboards at all times and it doesn't go bad. I like DeCecco and Barilla because I think they cook more predictably which means I run less risk of serving mushy noodles, and I like that. Buy it when it's on sale, assorted shapes and sizes, and you'll always have a meal at hand.

My new favorite pantry dish is cacio e peppe, which means "cheese and pepper" in Italian. The ingredients are really simple:

Pasta (spaghetti, linguini, fettuccine, bucatini, whatever you have), butter, pepper, pecorino romano, and parmigiano reggiano. Okay, the latter two ingredients come from the fridge, not the pantry, but they you can keep them for weeks and I always have them around. This recipe is an Italian classic, but I was inspired to make it after reading the May 2011 issue of Bon Appetit ("The Italy Issue"... need I say more? It's fantastic.). The issue is full of helpful tips and for this recipe they suggest crushing the peppercorns with a heavy skillet instead of the grinder and it really makes all the difference.

I'm not even a huge pepper-lover, I only taught myself to appreciate pepper a few years ago, but this is really special. Spicy, floral, creamy, salty... the ingredients really sing. Throw together a salad and you have dinner on the table in minutes even when you think, "There's nothing in the house!"

Cacio e Pepe
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2011
Serves 2

Note: I use a microplane grate for the cheese, which produces beautiful wisps of cheese but you can just use the finest grater you have. Obviously, the stuff in the green can won't cut it here.

6 oz pasta
3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, cubed and divided
1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/3 cup grated Pecorino

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes short of the cooking time listed on the box. Reserve 3/4 cup of the cooking water and drain the pasta.

2. While the pasta cooks, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the pepper and cook, swirling the pan until the pepper smells floral and toasted (approximately 1 minute).

3. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta water to the skillet and bring it to a simmer. Add the pasta and the remaining butter. Turn the heat down to low and add the Parmigiano, tossing with tongs until it has melted. Remove the pan from the heat and add the Pecorino. Again, toss with tongs until the cheese has melted, the sauce coats the pasta, and the pasta is cooked (al dente), adding more pasta water if the pasta seems too dry.

4. To plate the pasta, lift it with the tongs and twirl, then place it in the bowl and give it one more twirl. It sounds odd, but it gives your dish a restaurant look which I prefer. Serve immediately.

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