Sunday is a strange day. On the one hand, it’s a day without work, which equals awesome. On the other hand, it’s directly adjacent to a day with work followed by four subsequent days with yet more work. So yeah, not great. This is why I struggle with the concept of Sunday night dinner. Given the work marathon that awaits the vast majority of us in the AM, is Sunday really the night to pull out all the stops and whip-up a table-cloth-worthy dinner? I mean, I get it from a scheduling standpoint. Most people have Sundays off and togetherness is important, so saving the big meal for a day when everyone can make it makes sense. But man, this is just not my reality. Most Sundays I just can’t even. And for Sundays like that there is this Cacio e Pepe with Shaved Asparagus Salad and Honey.
The best thing about this dish is it is simultaneously approachable and classy AF. Oh, and did I mention it takes all of 30 minutes to put together? Well, more like 40, if you value your fingers. Take the time to shave that asparagus right. Sure, they may seem purely ornamental, but it takes injuring a pinky to respect a pinky. So please, shave with caution.
But precarious asparagus activity aside, this Cacio e Pepe is a snap to make and to some, it’s as nostalgic and comforting as Mac and Cheese. And when there is a Monday in the offing, comfort is key. But although it’s simple and familiar, this particular Cacio e Pepe is still a little unexpected. I don’t know about you, but every plate of Cacio e Pepe I’ve ever eaten was made with either Grana Padano or Parmesan. So, you can imagine my shock when I found out the dish is traditionally made with pecorino. It’s not that I hadn’t encountered pecorino in my Cacio e Pepe but it was usually a finishing flourish. I quite like pecorino, so that’s the only cheese I used. You can, of course, sub the pecorino for parm, but I like the sharp acidity of pecorino in this dish. It just keeps thing interesting.
But perhaps we should rewind a bit. Although Cacio e Pepe has been making its way onto an ever-growing number of menus, there may still be people who are unacquainted with the dish. Well, this dish is the cornerstone of Roman cuisine. We grew up on mac and cheese, Roman children grew up on Cacio e Pepe. The name literally means “cheese and pepper”. This is essentially the length of the list of ingredients used in this dish. It represents beautiful simplicity. But as with most things bare bones and simple, it’s easy to get wrong.
Yes, today’s Cacio e Pepe is all about balance. Finding the perfect ratio of cheese to pasta water to butter is a delicate process. You really have to know what you’re looking for in terms of texture. You want a sauce that is silky and thick enough to coat the noodles but definitely not clumpy. It’s about temperature control and timing. And, to be honest, eating a bowl of this Cacio e Pepe is all about timing too. Everyone should be poised to chow down the moment this pasta hits the table. Once the sauce starts to cool that magic texture starts to disappear. So, it’s best to save the toasts for the end of the meal.
Now, this Cacio e Pepe is pretty much devoid of nutritional value other than a healthy dose of calcium, so I thought something light and green was in order. Enter the Shaved Asparagus Salad. I’ve always had an odd taste for raw asparagus, I quite like the texture, but there is something very unrefined about gnawing on a raw stalk for asparagus. Something about it just screams impatient. So, I shaved the asparagus into ribbons and dressed them in a simple lemon vinaigrette and served it atop the pasta. The light astringency of the raw asparagus and the sharp acidity of the lemon acted as a sort of palette cleanser between bites of cheesy pasta. Try it together, it’s totally worth it.
One final note about this Cacio e Pepe: I added honey. This may be a controversial move to some of you, but I’m going to have to put my foot down and call it mandatory. Finishing this pasta with a kiss of honey really makes the dish. I know it may seem odd, so allow me to provide some context.
You know when you’re in one of those f*ck off fancy restaurants and they have a cheese plate on their dessert menu? Well, have you ever ordered one that didn’t come with honey? No, no you haven’t. Well, I’m a huge fan of the dessert cheese plate and when my plate arrives, my first move is to douse a slice of aged cheese with a questionable amount of honey. I’m basically doing the same thing to my Cacio e Pepe. See? Not so crazy.
So, that’s it for this Cacio e Pepe with Shaved Asparagus Salad and Honey. Honestly, it is so simple and good, I urge you to make it at your first opportunity. And if you’re able to track down truffle-infused pecorino like I was, so much the better.
Cacio e Pepe with Shaved Asparagus Salad and Honey
Shaved Asparagus Salad
- 1 bunch fresh asparagus ends removed
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- Juice of 1/2 a lemon
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Fresh ground pepper
Cacio e Pepe with Honey
- 500 g 18 oz dried spaghetti
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup pasta water
- 1 1/2 cups pecorino shredded
- Drizzle of honey
For the Salad
- Remove the tops of the asparagus and toss them in a large bowl. Cut the asparagus stalks into ribbons using a vegetables peeler. Place the ribbons in the large bowl and set aside.
- In a small mixing bowl, combine the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, salt and pepper. Pour the mixture over the asparagus and toss to coat. Transfer the salad to the refrigerator until ready to serve.
For the Pasta
- Cook the spaghetti according to the package's directions. In the last 3 minutes of cooking, melt the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium heat until frothy. Add the garlic, pepper, salt and red pepper flakes and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Turn the heat to low and transfer the al dente pasta from it's cooking water to the skillet and toss to coat in the butter. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water and give the pasta a quick stir. Slowly incorporate the cheese, while stirring, until a silky sauce forms and coats the pasta. If the sauce gets too thick or clumpy add a little more pasta water.
- Divide the pasta amongst four bowls and top with a large spoonful of the Shaved Asparagus Salad. Garnish with additional fresh ground pepper, shredded pecorino and a drizzle of honey. Serve immediately.