Cacio e Pepe, Heretic Style (with Feta!)

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Solo pepe macinato fresco, per favore.

Cacio e pepe* couldn’t be simpler, right? It literally translates to “cheese and pepper.” But this is much like saying fútbol (or football or soccer, depending on your home) is simple; you just kick a ball into a net. People actually come to blows over whether to use Pecorino Romano, or Parmigiano Reggiano, or Grana Padano, or a blend of two or three of them, or one or more of them with a smidgen of Asiago. Not that I want to tar them all with the same brush, but if Italians didn’t invent arguing, they certainly perfected it.

Ultimately, you want a salty cheese that can (with a little of the pasta water) melt into the warm noodles to coat them in a creamy sauce, much the way the Day-Glo orange powder, along with some milk and butter, lovingly hugs Kraft Dinner. And, as it happened, I had such a cheese: Meredith Dairy Sheep and Goat Cheese, a Feta-like concoction from Australia. No idea where I got it; it sells for a positively jaw-dropping price on Amazon, and I won’t even link there because no sensible person would pay $14.99 USD + $12.99 shipping for an 11 oz. / 320 g jar, good though it is. [And you’re hearing this from someone who regularly uses chicken stock that sells for $7 USD per liter.] It’s possible that you might find something similar if you have a Greek market in your area, but it seems to be ridiculously expensive everywhere I’ve looked online. Fortunately, it is also stupidly easy to make, and I expect it will forthwith become a fridge staple, much like preserved lemons. Incidentally, some recipes will tell you to use your marinated cheese within two weeks. No need, especially if it is refrigerated. One blogger claims to have consumed some that was over four years old, and found it delicious. [Full disclosure: I just checked my jar, and the recommended “use by” date was December 2016. I promise to have my survivors update the page, should it kill me.] Not only does the marination process mellow out the Feta, but when you’re done with the cheese, the leftover oil can be used in a salad dressing. [What’s the analogue of “nose-to-tail” here? “Lid-to-base?”]

Bucatini is the ideal pasta for this dish, thanks to its toothiness. As with the other ingredients in this recipe, because there are so few, you ought to use the best you can reasonably afford. I even used filtered water for making the pasta, rather than just taking it directly from the tap.

INGREDIENTS
16 oz. / 454 g pasta (such as bucatini, egg tagliolini, or spaghetti)
11 oz. / 320 g marinated Feta (I used store-bought, but it’s easy to make at home)
1 tbsp. / 7 g freshly cracked black pepper, plus some for finishing (one recipe recommends 30 turns of the pepper mill at the coarsest setting)
1 cup / 250 ml pasta water, reserved
salt, if needed (between the salted pasta water and the saltiness of the Feta, I didn’t add any other salt)

DIRECTIONS
Make marinated Feta at least a day before.

Cook the pasta and drain, reserving 1 cup / 250 ml of the pasta water for later. Return drained pasta to the still-warm pot; crumble in bits of cheese, adding reserved pasta water a bit at a time to aid in the cheese melting. Combine by tossing with tongs. Add 1/3 or so of the pepper. Repeat process until cheese is melted and pepper is distributed. [NOTE: You may not need all the reserved pasta water; the sauce is intended to coat the noodles and cling to them. When you’re done serving, there should be virtually no trace of the sauce left behind, unlike with a marinara sauce.] Transfer pasta to bowl or plate; finish with a bit more ground pepper.

Serves 4 generously.

*[Why it’s not “formaggio e pepe” is a mystery to me. Perhaps someone fluent in Italian can lend a hand here.]

Lovely Little Lentils, BBQ- (and Vegan-) Style

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Unlike, say, in Ireland, the orange and the green go very well together here.

Unlike, say, in Ireland, the orange and the green go together very well here.

Much as I once was with beets (which is to say not a fan), The Bride used to be with lentils. I’ve long loved these little legumes, probably had my first infatuation with them as dal in the street food stalls of Mumbai (which was Bombay when I was there), and I brought it home with me. Sadly, it was not shared. Red, orange, green, yellow; I tried making all sorts of lentils for my then-girlfriend (now The Bride) in all sorts of ways, and to no avail. She said they all had an unpleasant aftertaste, and I figured that it must be some genetic thing, like people who find that cilantro has a “soapy” taste.

One evening, we were dining at a now-shuttered, much-missed restaurant, Zax in Brentwood, when they served lentils cooked in duck confit, and I ordered same, prepared to eat them all myself, if necessary. To my way of thinking, one could probably cook the contents of an ashtray in duck confit, and it would be at the least palatable. [I might be stretching the truth a w-e-e bit there.] Long story short, she had them and loved them. Yay! At first I thought that some chemical compound in the confit might have bound itself to whatever was triggering her (thankfully absent) aftertaste. But I also asked the waiter to query the chef (former Top Chef runner-up Brooke Williamson) on whether they had done anything special to prepare the lentils (other than the confit, of course): blanched them first, soaked them in brine overnight, something that I hadn’t thought to do. The answer: “No, nothing at all.” But she did mention that they had used Le Puy lentils.

Le Puy lentils, much like Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, may only be produced in a specified region, according to national law (and international custom, even though some disreputable sparkling wine producers call their product “Champagne” and some non-Italian cheeses claim – falsely – to be Parmigiano-Reggiano). They’re grown on the mountain plateau around the French town of Le Puy en Velay in the Haute-Loire region, whose climate and volcanic soil impart a particular flavor to the humble legume. In fact, they were the first French foodstuff, apart from wine and cheese, to be awarded the famous “Appellation d’ Origine Contrôlée” designation of quality and assurance of origin.

Above and beyond their terroir, Le Puy lentils are their own species (Lens esculenta puyensis), as distinct from other lentil species as a tasty Portobello mushroom is from the poisonous California Agaricus. Le Puy lentils tend to be comparatively expensive in America (generally $7 – $10 USD per pound/half kilo, though domestically grown versions may go for a little less), but they’re tasty, and The Bride likes them, so what’s a few extra bucks? That said, this recipe can be made with virtually any variety of lentil. Have a care, though; some varieties cook much more quickly, and some don’t hold their shape, turning somewhat mushy (though still tasty).

The original recipe from which this one was inspired came from an excellent cookbook by Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine, In the Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes from Our Year of Cooking in the Real World. It chronicles two twenty-somethings on a tight budget trying to make tasty and inexpensive meals in their tiny kitchens. It’s a great starter cookbook for someone who’s getting their first apartment, but it also has some recipes that really resonated with me as well (I encountered it as part of a piece I wrote for the LA Review of Books a couple of years ago). I haven’t changed it much, although this version makes a double batch and adds kale, because California law requires kale to be an ingredient in every vegetarian recipe (just kidding, but it almost seems true).

If they don't say "Le Puy," they're just not for me.

If they don’t say “Le Puy,” then they’re just not for me.

BARBECUE LENTILS WITH SWEET POTATO AND KALE
Serves 4-6

Ingredients
1 cup / 200 g Le Puy lentils
4 teaspoons / 20 ml olive oil
2-3 teaspoons / 11-17 g salt
4 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 2 whole
1 onion, diced
1 small sweet potato or yam, diced
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon / .75 – 1.5 g dried chipotle pepper powder (or cayenne pepper)
1/8 teaspoon / .4 g ground ginger
1/2 cup / 120 ml ketchup
2 teaspoons / 10 ml Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons / 60 g brown sugar
2/3 cup / 160 ml balsamic vinegar
dash or two Worcestershire sauce (optional, leave it out for Vegan version)
1 small bunch kale, shredded

Maybe 6-8 stalks; not a whole lot. Probably 3 cups when chopped.

Maybe 6-8 stalks; not a whole lot. Probably about 2-3 cups when chopped, maybe a little less.

Bring the lentils to a boil with 3 cups (or 700 ml) of water and the two whole garlic cloves. Simmer 30-35 minutes, uncovered, until lentils are soft but still hold their shape. Toward the end of cooking, add 1 teaspoon (5.5 g) salt.

Wash kale, pat dry and shred, removing stems. (If you wish to include chopped stems in the finished dish, you’ll add them at the same time the lentils are added; otherwise, you can discard them.) Set shredded kale aside.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Add the onion and minced garlic and sauté until soft and slightly brown. Add the sweet potatoes and cook until softened, about 5-8 minutes. Stir in the chipotle pepper and ginger, coating the vegetables, then add the ketchup, mustard, sugar, vinegar, and remaining 1-2 teaspoons (5.5 – 11 g) of salt (taste after adding the first teaspoon!), and bring to a simmer. Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking water, and add them and about 1 cup of cooking water to the pan. [This is also where you add the chopped kale stems, if you are using them.] Simmer until the sauce coats the lentils and is fairly well thickened. Taste for seasoning, adding Worcestershire sauce and sugar or vinegar if necessary. Somewhere around 15-30 minutes prior to serving, stir in the shredded kale, making sure to coat it all; give it time to soften to desired consistency, then serve.

FUN LENTIL FACT: The words “lens” and “lentil” both share the same Latin root, and it’s because a biconvex lens (like the one in your eye or a typical magnifying glass) is shaped like a you-know-what.