Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
~U.S. Constitution, First Amendment

Pasta al Cacio e Pepe…sophisticated simplicity yet not without soulful debate.

It is an understatement to say that basic debate skills are sorely lacking these days. Arguments are repeatedly uncivil, perforated with bumper sticker slogans, artless language, disingenous positions and inapt analogies. Sadly, these spats are bereft of intellectual or philosophical capital. Discussions devolve into rancor, rants and raves.

A recent example is the hysteria whipped up about banning a proposed cultural center/mosque near Ground Zero. Newt Gingrich, who markets himself as an intellect-historian-philosopher, entered the fray, offering this profoundly odd analogy: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.” Bizarre stuff. Just think of the syllogisms that could be crafted from this delusional reasoning. The scary part is that Newt sincerely expects his audience to find his inane comparison to be sagacious. To carry out his logic, Catholic churches could not be erected anywhere near an elementary school and Jews would be prohibited from donning yamakas on Christmas. By the way, Newt, Nazism was not a religion and there are already two mosques in the vicinity of the Ground Zero site. Shinto shrines are near Pearl Harbor and Christian churches have been built in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His demagogic inference that an Islamic mosque should be banned falsely presupposes that all Muslims are malevolent and that Islam is the “enemy.” He assumes that abjuring revered 1st Amendment principles in lower Manhattan would ultimately reward rogue extremists. He assumes guilt by religious choice. He directly correlates Muslims with Nazis.

An unfounded, prejudiced and illogical analogy clearly meant to engender irrational fears here all the while serving up a propaganda feast for extremists here and there. Newt’s islamophobic rhetoric sadly makes fanatics almost sound prescient.

“We are just going to have to agree to disagree” is one other phrase that resounds much too often. It is a check-out line merely meant to halt discourse ab initio and truncate critical thought. Despite my disdain for that overwrought phrase, here are two subtly disparate versions of pasta al cacio e pepe without revealing my preferences. Actually, they are both worth the trip.

The polemic? Some purists assert that this classic Roman dish should only be made from pasta, cheese, and black pepper. Others claim that the addition of olive oil and butter adds a sumptuous touch and is equally authentic. In either case, it is all about the right ratios which create a silky, creamy pasta flecked with coarsely ground black pepper. On the last point, everyone agrees.

LINGUINI AL CACIO E PEPE (LINGUINI WITH CHEESE & PEPPER)

1 lb. linguini
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper
1 C pecorino romano, finely grated
3⁄4 C cacio de roma, finely grated

Bring a large, heavy pot of cold water and/or chicken stock to a boil and liberally add salt.

Heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat until shimmering, but not smoking.

Add pasta to the boiling water (and/or stock) and cook until al dente, about 8–10 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving about 1+ cup of pasta water. Add cooked pasta to the skillet with the olive oil, adding some of the reserved pasta water and/or stock. (Take care, it may spatter.) Stir with tongs some and add butter, tossing over heat for 1 minute or so.

Add generous gratings of cheeses and ample coarse grindings of black pepper over pasta. Thoroughly toss with tongs until pasta is creamy and clings without clumping. If necessary add additional reserved pasta water and/or stock.

Transfer to serving plates and sprinkle with a touch more grated pecorino romano and a little more pepper.

Pourboire: If cacio de roma is inaccessible, simply substitute with more pecorino romano.

SPAGHETTI AL CACIO E PEPE (SPAGHETTI WITH CHEESE & PEPPER)

1 lb. spaghetti
1 C pecorino romano
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large, heavy pot of cold water and/or chicken stock to a boil and liberally add salt. Add pasta to the boiling water and/or stock, and cook until al dente, about 8–10 minutes. Drain pasta and place into a large, warm, glass bowl, reserving about 1+ cup of pasta water and/or stock.

Add generous gratings of cheese and then ample coarse grindings of black pepper over pasta. Thoroughly toss with tongs, adding reserved pasta water and/or stock by small ladles at a time until pasta is creamy and clings without clumping. The key to perfection is to attain the proper ratio of cheese and water/stock to form a creamy pasta. So, slowly add additional reserved pasta water if the pasta is too dry and more cheese if the pasta is too wet.

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Mint-Basil Pesto

August 25, 2009

As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits, as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.
~Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

This is a little follow up from an earlier pesto post…a variation on a theme.

A perennial flowering herb, mint (genus Mentha) belongs to the family Lamiaceae. Decidedly aromatic, with bright zest on the front end and a cool finish, mint is a culinary one man band—used fresh, but also in sauces, teas, beverages, cocktails, jellies, syrups, candies, and ice creams.

In Greek mythology, Minthe was a beautiful naiad (river nymph) who was obsessively charmed by Hades, the stern ruler of the Underworld and husband of the goddess Persephone. Minthe and Hades succumbed to their carnal urges and engaged in an illicit—but far from discreet—affair. The spurned wife took revenge on her husband’s mistress by savagely kicking Minthe repeatedly, transforming her into a pungently sweet mint plant. With each blow from Persephone’s foot, the plant countered by releasing her delightful aroma.

A garden caveat: the root growth of mint is aggressive, vigorous and expansive. Left to its own devices, mint will spread quickly and become a Medusa-like nuisance, so consider planting the starters in a can or bucket first before introducing it to your garden.

A beloved summer aside, mint-basil pesto mates especially well with grilled lamb, chicken and fish.

MINT-BASIL PESTO

2 C fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 C pine nuts or walnuts, lightly toasted
Pinch of sea salt

1/4 C parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1/4 C pecorino-romano, grated

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Put the mint, basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process in pulses into a paste. Add the olive oil and process further until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the cheeses and add more oil if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.