Here’s a weeknight dinner formula that has never let me down: rigatoni with cheese and peppers plus whatever vegetables are in season. In spring, this means asparagus or ramps. Summer, it’s tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes. And, from fall to winter, it is a very hardy pumpkin.
But first, we must cover some cacio and pepper bases. Its translation, literally cheese and pepper, tells you most of what you need to know about this simple Roman sauce. The creaminess does not come from the cream (don’t you dare!), but from the cheese that is emulsified with the starchy and salty pasta water.
Often said cheese is Pecorino Romano. But a lot of chefs also like to add Parmesan cheese, think of it as an added umami, and I’m one of them. The problem with both is that they are reluctant to dissolve into younger, softer varieties like mozzarella and goat cheese. This means you’ll need to encourage the melting as much as you can, particularly by grating the cheese as finely as possible (a Microplane works wonders here), adding butter to mark the path (“Follow me, I’ll show you!” he yells), and turning off the heat before add the cheese (to avoid lumps).
If you’re thinking that 2 teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper sounds like a lot, well, great, because it is. And that is the point. Brown the black peppercorns in a coffee grinder, crush them in a mortar, or beat, grind, beat with a pepper mill, whichever method you prefer. Just don’t swap out the pre-ground black pepper; its flavor is non-existent in comparison (like water next to coffee) and that peppery heat is key. To amp up its spiciness even more, we’re going to bloom it in some sizzling butter.
Now about that pumpkin. Yes, I’m calling it three times finer than pasta by weight, and no, that’s not a typo. While roast is my default setting during the colder months, I make a handy exception here. We are already boiling the pasta in salted water, why not add it to the pumpkin? You may recognize this two-for-one method from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ Genius Pasta and Pesto. As Kristen Miglore writes, “This shortcut is quicker than cooking the vegetables separately and also improves the flavor of the pasta, since the noodles absorb some of the flavor of the vegetables as they cook.”
Sure, you could play around with the type of squash (say, butternut, kabocha, or red kuri) and the shape of the pasta (like penne, radiatori, or fusilli). You’ll just have to adjust the cooking times accordingly, so they cook at the same time. —Emma Laperruque