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This Near-Perfect Pasta Hinges on Two Ingredients
Standout peppercorns and pecorino Romano can lead to classic cacio e pepe
Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).
We’ve been talking about gadgets at The Bittman Project, especially since we’re having an all-subscriber gadget discussion on Friday. Back when we first started brainstorming, Mark mentioned in passing a company that makes a $300 pepper grinder. As a person who uses a mortar and pestle to grind pepper, my first question was, why?
Perhaps this shows how excessively practical I am, but isn’t a pepper grinder like a wine key — something you needn’t spend a mint on?
I thought I’d ask one of our favorite spice importers, Ethan Frisch of Burlap and Barrel, his thoughts about pepper: Not just how to grind, but about the spice itself, specifically his Zanzibar black peppercorns. With their intense lemony fragrance and assertive flavor, it can lead to one of those food-epiphany moments — THIS is what black pepper is supposed to taste like.
I started by asking Ethan what makes these peppercorns so great, and learned a lot about today’s spice trade, the impact of coronavirus and the Suez Canal blockage, and more.
As far as what makes this peppercorn so interesting, Ethan says, “It’s a combination of many things: the growing and harvesting, the terroir, the skill of the farmer, how it’s handled post-harvest.”
Oddly enough, in the case of these peppercorns, they’re harvested on a northern island in the Zanzibar archipelago, “exactly the wrong environment for black pepper. “It’s too hilly, too dry, and too coastal and sandy,” he says. Peppercorns tend to grow on farms in lush, humid rainforests. “Its intense lemon-zest aroma could be exactly because it’s growing in a challenging environment,” he says. (The same could be said of Piennolo tomatoes, grown near Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius.)
Ethan notes that Burlap and Barrel is one of the only companies, if not the only one in the U.S., exporting spices out of Zanzibar, “which is crazy when you think of the spice trade historically,” he says. It’s in part because it’s hard to get there: While most of his spices are shipped by sea, Zanzibar requires air shipping. The upside is that you can get stuff that’s been harvested three weeks ago rather quickly; the downside is it’s more expensive.
Delays from Covid and the Suez Canal backlog have also driven up prices globally, he says. “It’s a ripple effect.” Every day’s delay in shipping costs the company around a grand.
Instead of growing on a farm, as is usually the case, these peppercorns grow in an agroforestry environment, harvested by a cooperative of nearly 30 farmers called 1001 Organic, whose primary export is cloves.
This year, Zanzibar peppercorns are late, and the clove harvest took a hit because of global warming. The rains came late or not at all. “Farmers are really struggling this year,” he says. The peppercorns are usually harvested right after cloves; In the past, they’d be arriving about now, but this year, they’re not expecting them until sometime in May or June.
From here, Ethan directed my attention to commodity peppercorns, the kind you’d get in any grocery store, '‘where prices are insanely low,” he says, pointing to the high-yield, low-pay model that “pushes farmers into a corner.” Burlap and Barrel is paying the coop $10 per kilo, “so farmers are incentivized to care for their crops, to learn more,” since they’re getting a higher wage.
As for whether he uses a super fancy peppermill? Ethan says he grinds all of his spices in refillable mills. “The point is not how you’re supposed to grind; it’s what is most comfortable and most familiar to you.”
If you’re not getting pepper from Burlap and Barrel — you can get it from The Spice House, Penzey’s, or wherever you may shop for better spices: It’s worth paying a bit more and learning a bit about products: You will taste the difference.
Stronger, Saltier, and Sharper Than Parmesan
Twice in the early ‘90s, I was lucky enough to find myself in Parma — and Bologna, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and various other towns.
Both trips were about food, and both required stops in Rome, not for the airport, but to see my friend Andrea, without which to me a trip to Italy felt incomplete. The focus was food, but the micro-focus of one of them was parmesan.
Parmesan, actually called Parmigiano Reggiano, legally made only in the Reggiano region, and properly made from two separate milkings, brined in saltwater after forming, aged a year or more, is the one cheese you’d want on a desert island, not only because it’s so versatile, but because it lasts more or less forever, even without refrigeration.
Of course, Grana Padano is made nearby and in precisely the same way, but it’s not as consistently wonderful, and it rarely reaches the same heights.
There is another cheese that’s made similarly to parmesan but is completely different, though equally wonderful in its own way. That’s pecorino Romano: sheep cheese from around Rome, which is brined and aged like parmesan. It’s not as consistent, and it’s never quite as regal, but man: The real deal is great stuff.
I’ve done a lot of work on cheese over the years, and as time went by, I realized that if you had to generalize — if you had to — you might say that sheep cheeses are overall better than cow cheeses. (You might not say that, too, and that’s OK. We don’t have to make these judgments.)
Sheep milk is harder to come buy than cow’s milk, it’s richer, and it tastes really good, as does almost every cheese made from it. You can’t say that about cow’s milk, and you certainly can’t say it about goat’s milk, from which it’s almost impossible to make really world-class cheese.
Manchego is sheep’s cheese; so is Roquefort: Most sheep cheeses are no less good, just less well-known.
Pecorino (pecore is Italian for sheep) can be any cheese made from sheep milk: Camembert-like, Gouda-like, Gruyere-like, or parmesan-like. And the parmesan-like one, essential for cacio e pepe, is invaluable. On this one trip to Italy, when I’d had my fill of parmesan, I was semi-kidnaped by some Roman cheesemakers and whisked down to the suburbs of Rome, where I was “subjected” to a tasting of a number of versions of pecorino Romano.
Probably because most of New York’s Italians are from Rome and southern Italy, where pecorino is more common than parmesan, I’d grown up eating this stuff without even knowing it. It’s stronger, saltier, and sharper than parmesan, so to some people, it’s strictly a grating cheese, but I and many others find it delicious to snack on. There are many dishes in which it’s preferable to parm, or where a combination is better than either alone.
You might ask why I’m writing this: It’s because I find myself in a house where I haven’t been, where no one’s been, for months, because of Covid. In the fridge is a piece of pecorino Romano, bought in a terrible supermarket where you can’t even buy real parmesan if you want to. Still, you can find a piece of pecorino. It’s not very carefully wrapped in plastic, and it’s not that hard, and it’s really delicious. How many real foods, how many cheeses, keep for months and remain so good? Not many.
And most of this occurred to me as I was finishing my quite perfect cacio e pepe.
Cacio e Pepe
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 20 minutes
This is both one of the simplest and best pasta recipes I can think of. Rather than cooking a sauce, you just vigorously stir everything together in a big bowl. Good all the time (even for breakfast), but especially at midnight.
1 ½ cups finely grated pecorino Romano, plus more for dusting completed dish
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, plus more for finishing the dish
¾ pound tonnarelli or other long pasta like linguine or spaghetti
Good olive oil
1. Put a pot of salted water on to boil. In a large bowl, combine the cheeses and black pepper; mash with just enough cold water to make a thick paste. Spread the paste evenly in the bowl.
2. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta. The second before it is perfectly cooked (taste it frequently once it begins to soften), use tongs to quickly transfer it to the bowl, reserving a cup or so of the cooking water. Stir vigorously to coat the pasta, adding a teaspoon or two of olive oil and a bit of the pasta cooking water to thin the sauce if necessary. The sauce should cling to the pasta and be creamy but not watery.
3. Plate and dust each dish with additional pecorino and pepper. Serve immediately.