When I first made classic pasta cacio e pepe – with cheese and pepper – I referred to a recipe by Mario Batali in Molto Gusto, which calls for 1/4 cup black pepper to sauce one pound of spaghetti.
Whoa, baby! I like it hot, but turns out that was too much pepper for me. It felt harsh; like my tongue was sweating and my throat burning like a white hot piece of smoldering charcoal.
While I was moving things around on my spice shelves in search of black pepper, an avalanche of other containers came raining down. I started to put everything back when my hand landed on a jar of green peppercorns. They’re such a pretty color, unlike the color you usually find in a basic black peppercorn, and I rarely find myself needing to put green peppercorns in anything.
Why not? It was one small Eureka! moment in a sea of not so many. I located some whole white pepper to make a trio of color, along with fennel seeds. The mix turned out much more palatable; perfect for the pasta I was planning to make with roasted parsnips.
I love orecchiette pasta, “little ears’ in Italian. Their cute shape serves as a cup to hold whatever they’re sauced with; in this case chunks of crusty, caramelized parsnips in peppery-sharp, creamy sauce.
The fennel seeds in my peppercorn rainbow remind me a little of the crunchy pepper biscuits I find in bakeries when I visit home in Rhode Island. I’ve made taralli that came close to duplicating their flavor; minus the black pepper. I always find myself packing bags of pepper biscuits to take back with me, stashed in the freezer to tide me over until my next visit.
Cacio e pepe is a dish with deep roots in ancient Rome; the production of Pecorino Romano cheese dates back more than 2,000 years and black pepper was a commodity in the early days of the spice trade.
Fun fact: It’s said that Attila the Hun demanded over one ton of black pepper as ransom while he ransacked the city of Rome. You kind of get the feeling he’d have gladly tucked into a super-sized plate of spaghetti, seasoned with a pound of pepper. If only spaghetti had existed yet.
orecchiette cacio e pepe with parsnips
Yield 4 servings
- 2 or 3 small parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ pound orecchiette pasta
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon each whole green and white peppercorns (or use an additional teaspoon black pepper)
- 1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus additional for serving
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
- Lacinato or Tuscan kale leaves; about a handful, torn into pieces
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
- Put the parsnips on a rimmed baking sheet and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roast until tender and lightly browned, 15 -20 minutes.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add 3 tablespoons kosher salt and the orecchiette; cook until al dente.
- While the pasta is cooking, put all the peppercorns in an electric spice or coffee grinder and pulse until coarsely ground (if you don’t have a coffee grinder dedicated to spices, crush the pepper in a manual pepper grinder or a mortar and pestle – it will build up some muscles).
- Place a large sauté pan over medium-high heat; when the pan is hot, add the peppercorns and whole fennel seeds and toast until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the butter and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir together until the butter melts, then remove from the heat.
- Drain the pasta, reserving 3/4 cup of the cooking water in a heatproof measuring cup. Add the pasta to the sauté pan along with the parsnips and both cheeses; toss it all together. Add some of the reserved water, a few tablespoons at a time, until the cheese melts into a creamy sauce; you might not use it all.
- Stir the kale leaves into the hot pasta to wilt them. Serve with additional cheese on the side.