Even though I was born in San Francisco and spent much of my life living in and around the Bay Area, I still love visiting, so when an opportunity recently came up to house-sit for some friends, B. and I jumped at the chance. Even though it wasn’t going to be a $35 week, I still wanted to keep costs down, which meant I was going to have to cook in a strange kitchen. I learned an important lesson back in June while trying to cook an elaborate arroz con pollo dish at a house in Costa Rica that turned out to be stocked with one pot, one wooden spoon, and some expired achiote paste: Keep it simple, stupid. Even though my friends cook often and had quite the array of equipment—nice equipment that, unlike mine, didn’t look like it had been through three wars and a subway fire—I still didn’t want to go overboard in unfamiliar territory. So, cacio e pepe (“pepper and cheese”). Why? It’s super-quick and simple, I saw Anthony Bourdain eat a bowl of it in Rome on a recent episode of The Layover and it looked reeeeaallly good, and the co-op in my friends’ neighborhood had really good cheese.
Oh, and did I mention it’s damn good in an upscale Italian restaurant way, NOT in a kids’-bowl-of-buttered-noodles way?
This recipe is so unbelievably simple it would take nothing to scale up or down, but the below amounts are for 2 people.
• 1/2 lb. spaghetti: 50 cents
• 4 oz grated Pecorino Romano: $2.14
• 3 T butter: 18 cents
• 1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper: 1 cent
• Kosher salt: 1 cent
TOTAL: $3.11/2 = $1.56/serving
Grate the cheese and crack the pepper in a pepper mill, mortar and pestle, or under a heavy pot.
Bring a pot of salted water (with enough salt for it to taste like seawater) on to boil. In a large skillet or saute pan, melt 2 T of the butter over medium heat. Add the pepper and swirl to coat. (OK, maybe my friends had ONE pot that looked like it had seen heavy artillery fire. Of course, that’s the one I chose to use.)
Once the pasta is about 2 minutes from al dente stage, add about 1/2 cup of the starchy pasta cooking water to the pan with the butter and bring to a simmer.
When the pasta is al dente (pliably firm, but not so firm it’s crunchy), save about 1/4 cup more of the pasta cooking water, drain the pasta, and add the pasta to the pot with the butter and remaining cooking water. Stir in the remaining T of butter, then about 3/4 of the cheese, stirring and lifting with tongs to coat the noodles and evenly distribute the cheese. Add more pasta water if it starts to become dry; it’s OK if there are a few lumps of cheese, but the sauce should be creamy. Remove pan from heat, stir in the rest of the cheese, and serve.