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The finished dish… a bowlful of hot cacio e pepe

Pasta & cheese part 2: Cacio e pepe

A bowl of cooked cacio e pepe, with fork

This is the second article about the perfect partnership of pasta and cheese; the first being Macaroni (and) Cheese. If you though that sounded good and easy to make, just wait til you try this wee number!

I first read about the classic Roman dish, cacio e pepe, about ten years ago. I think it was in an old River Café recipe in the Guardian. I wasn’t convinced… it seemed just a little too simple and basic… but my curiosity was piqued and I knocked up a portion one lazy evening. I’ve not looked back since, and my fridge always has a small stash of pecorino in it; perfect for a quick bowl of this wonderfully life-affirming pasta dish. It really is the perfect fallback meal.

A bowlful of grated pecorino

Cacio is a local name for pecorino cheese from Lazio, and pepe is as in pepper; and that’s all you need to know in order to bring a bowl of pasta to life. I’ve tried it with fresh pasta too, but prefer the bite and feel of dried pasta, as the cheese sauce works brilliantly with its smoother surface texture. I particularly love bucatini, with its thick, hollow tubes which flex and bow with just the right ‘bite’. I read somewhere bucatini’s the correct pasta for this dish, but it works equally well with linguine or spaghetti too.

A fistful of dry bucatini pasta

The basic components are dead simple, the preparation time is a shade over ten minutes, and it’s a forgiving recipe which anyone can tackle. Bring a good amount of water to the boil in a deep pan. Salt it well – good pasta always deserves a decent dollop of salt to cook it with – and add a generous fistful of pasta per person. I invariably make too much of this for one person, but it always mysteriously disappears as soon as it hits the plate. You just need to cook the pasta as you would expect, until it’s slightly al dente. When it’s done, be sure to reserve a little of the cooking liquid before you drain it (I’ve absent-mindedly tipped it all out on more than one occasion, so now I scoop out half a cup or so to make sure I keep it, before draining). The starch in the cooking water is important, as it helps to soften and melt the cheese.

As for the cheese, in Rome this would be made with the local pecorino Romano. I prefer the stronger taste of pecorino Sardo if I can get it, but either way, the sheep’s milk in pecorino is perfect for melting, and the salty umami flavour compliments the warmth of the pepper perfectly. I’m not sure about quantities of cheese… i grate up enough for a generous helping. Some recipes call for a mix of Grana Padana or Parmesan, and I find this mix doesn’t melt quite as well, but tastes even better than straight pecorino.

Pour a bit of the reserved water back into the pan over a medium heat, stir in the cheese, and watch it melt. It should quickly become a very pale, almost white stringy consistency, bubbling on the base of the pan. At this stage you’ve got to remember two things: this dish needs to be made and served HOT, and served FAST. Stir in the pasta, keeping everything moving quickly, and grind in black pepper.

Starting to melt the pecorino

This is important, you really need the fieriness of freshly ground black pepper – don’t use anything pre-ground –  it needs to glow and sparkle with the heady aromatic notes of freshly ground peppercorns. Again, I tend to subscribe to the principle of twist and grind until you think you’re done, then give it a couple more turns for good luck. Give it a bit of welly: your eyes may water but you’ll be grateful for the punch of pepper against the mellow salty smoothness of the cheese. Sometimes I add a twist of mixed peppercorns over the top of the plated dish: the floral pink and green peppercorns give it a lighter, more playful finish.

Get this onto a plate, pronto, and eat it while it’s still piping hot. A slice of good rustic bread on the side is always a plus, to mop up those last errant smears of cheese and pepper., and I can guarantee you’ll have the cleanest plates after this meal. Quality pecorino is a bit like Clint Eastwood: hard, salty, and matures with finesse, so as long as you wrap it properly in waxed paper, and keep it carefully placed in the fridge, it’ll always sit patiently ready for an emergency callout for cacio e pepe.

It’s one of the easiest dishes you can make in a shade over ten minutes… just water, pasta, cheese and black pepper. Magnifico!

The finished dish… a bowlful of hot cacio e pepe

Chilli Cool, King’s Cross

I have officially been bitten by the Sichuan bug. Less than a week after my visit to Ba Shan I found myself suggesting a trip to Chilli Cool to some friends to quell my new found cravings for chilli, peppercorns and pork…

Having heard great things about Chilli Cool from various people including the lovely Helen at Food Stories who voted it her joint favourite restaurant in London last week, it wasn’t difficult to round up an eager table of four fellow diners and make our way to this unobtrusive part of King’s Cross in search of Sichuan spice.

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Ba Shan: Sichuan tastes for a peppercorn rent…

I make it a slightly gluttonous habit to meet friends once a week for tea and cake. This is often preceeded by a dose of culture to make me feel more cosmopolitan. This week’s destination was The Ministry of Food at the Imperial War Museum to get a taste of rationing during the Second World War. Slightly despondant after the thought of Woolton Pie and the reliance on margarine seen at the exhibition, we left in search of cake made with real egg at Konditor & Cook at the Curzon Soho.

Yet somehow we found ourselves turning off Shaftesbury Avenue and onto Romilly Street and straight in Ba Shan, seeking little meaty dumplings and jasmine tea instead. I’m not quite sure how this change of carb craving took place so quickly, but I am very very glad that it did…

Ba Shan is lovely inside, all sleek dark wood and surprisingly airy with well sized tables that just cry out to be piled high with plates and dishes of deliciousness. It specialises in Sichuan cuisine like its sister restaurants Bar Shu and Baozi Inn along with the less oil-infused but equally spicy Hunanese cuisine and if either of those are anything to by, we were in for a real treat of spicy porky goodness like no other.

We were momentarily taken aback by the enormous gaudy menus with their slightly lurid photos of all the dishes. It seemed more in keeping with the all you can eat buffets near Leicester Square tube, but a craving for soft juicy dumplings overtook us and we got choosing. Ba Shan offers both full sized dishes and more dim sum-esque small eats on the menu at all times and it was the small eats that tempted us since you can try more that way.

First choice were the irrestistable sounding Shaanxi flatbread sandwiches or jia mo stuffed with stewed pork. I’ve never seen bread in a Chinese restaurant before and I was eager to see what the texture and taste would be like. Our dumpling craving was sated by the choice of both potstickers and boiled dumplings stuffed with minced pork. An attempt to eat some of our five a day was filled by the exquisite sounding potato slivers with chili and Sichuan pepper and dry fried green beans. The hint of spice and the cleansing jasmine tea we ordered with it were just the ticket for the heat of the day outside.

Our jia mo flatbread sandwiches arrived quickly and comprised soft, chewy slightly sweet bread like a thicker version of pitta bread well filled with tender stewed pork and crisp crunchy lettuce. They were terrific, the sweetness of the meat and bread working perfectly together in flavour and texture. The compact size stopped them from being too heavy and I could have eaten twice as many of them as we’d ordered. I want someone to open a jia mo stall somewhere so I can gorge on these regularly!

Next up were the potstickers. Crisp and fried on the top with the crust just waiting to be shattered to expose the soft succulent dumpling beneath stuffed with minced pork and herbs, they provided excellent mouth feel with the contrast of crunch and juiciness. We had the plate emptied in a trice and were very happy to see the dumpling love continue with our boiled pork numbers arrive soon after.

These were accompanied with the potato slivers and the dry fried green beans, making an excellent main course of sorts. The unbelievably fresh slivers of blanched potato with the aromatic kick of dried chili and heavily scented Sichuan peppercorns enlivened the slightly stodgy meaty dumplings perfectly while the dry fried beans had real umami flavour thanks to the finely minced salted pork cooked through them. We felt smug that we had ordered so well. But if you don’t eat pork, Ba Shan wouldn’t be so easy to navigate!

Greed got the better of me when I used my improved chopstick skills to snaffle up the last few slivers of potato and bit into a Sichuan peppercorn. This was my first experience of these little firecrackers and to say they took me by surprise would be an understatement. My tongue spent the next five minutes going numb and yet fizzing like I’d mainlined popping candy by the handful in a strangely enjoyable fashion.

I think that stray peppercorn and Ba Shan have given me the Sichuan bug. I can’t wait to come back and try some of the main dishes  such as the spiced tripe and the stewed ducks’ tongues for more savoury spicy fun very soon. Our dishes were the perfect amount for a late lunch and while I have no idea how much them came to thanks to my most generous friend who insisted it be her treat, everything seemed reasonably priced on the menu. Calm and unhurried service, along with mouthwatering food, make Ba Shan feel like a real treat in Chinatown.