Chicken Cacio e Pepe is a peppery stripped-down grown-up mac and cheese mixed with roasted chicken and vegetables.
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What is cacio e pepe?
Cacio e peppe translated from Italian means cheese and pepper. To make Cacio e Pepe, pasta is tossed with olive oil, butter, freshly ground pepper, starchy pasta water, and traditionally Romano cheese although Parmesean cheese is often used as well.
Adding roasted chicken and vegetables makes this a delicious and more balanced meal.
Chicken Breasts: Juicy roasted chicken breasts add protein to make this a complete meal.
Olive Oil and Butter: Olive oil is traditional but I like to add butter as well for extra flavor and creaminess. It also encourages the cheese to melt rather than clump together.
Cherry Tomatoes and Zucchini: Adding a couple of vegetables brightens the dish. I love adding cherry tomatoes and zucchini at the end of summer when both are plentiful. Make sure to chop the vegetables into small bite-sized 1-inch pieces. You could also swap out the tomatoes and zucchini for many other vegetable combinations.
- Broccoli and Carrots
- Asparagus and Peas (Fresh or Thawed): Don’t worry about roasting the peas first. They are so small they will cook once added to the sauce.
- Butternut Squash and Brussels Sprouts
Short Pasta: Classic cacio e pepe is made with spaghetti or bucatini, but with the addition of chicken and vegetables I think a shorter pasta works better. Use a short pasta like penne, gemelli, rotini, or shells.
You will notice that the recipe starts cooking the pasta in cold water rather than boiling water. There are several great reasons to start cooking the pasta in cold water:
- It takes less energy to heat. Since we are using less water, the water will start to boil faster.
- The pasta will be done faster. When pasta is cooked it isn’t only the heat that softens it. Pasta also absorbs water as it cooks. As the pasta hydrates, it softens. This is also why it is important to salt your pasta water. As the pasta absorbs water it also absorbs salt seasoning it from the inside out.
- The pasta water is more concentrated. This dish relies upon starchy pasta water to give it a silky, creamy texture. By cooking the pasta in less water the starch content is more concentrated.
Starchy water: Save a cup of the water the pasta was cooked in. This starchy pasta water will create an emulsion with the oil, butter, and cheese to create a creamy, rich sauce.
Freshly Ground Black Pepper: Avoid using preground pepper. Once the pepper is ground it begins to lose flavor. Freshly ground peppercorns will provide the most flavor. There are several great methods for grinding pepper.
- Use a coffee grinder. I have a coffee grinder that is used just for grinding spices. It is the fastest and least labor-intensive way of grinding fresh spices.
- Mash them up with a mortar and pestle.
- Use your favorite pepper mill.
Romano Cheese: Traditional recipes use Pecorino Romano but many recipes use Parmesan although Romano cheese is more flavorful. Both kinds of cheese are reluctant to melt due to their age and dryness.
This means it is important to grate the cheese as finely as possible (a Microplane works great for this). Be sure to add the cheese off the heat to help prevent clumping.
Note: Freshly grated cheese is best. Don’t use the pre-grated stuff in the green can or your sauce will be gritty and clumpy.
Fresh Herbs: I always have a surplus of fresh herbs growing in my garden. I like to finish cacio e peppe by topping it with a mixture of freshly chopped herbs. Some of my favorites include thyme, parsley, oregano, and basil.
- Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and line a sheet pan with foil or parchment paper.
- Drizzle both sides of the chicken breasts with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper. Place the chicken in the center of the sheet pan.
- In a large bowl, toss the tomatoes and zucchini with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt.
- Arrange the tomatoes and zucchini around the edges of the sheet pan.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooking time may vary based on the size and thickness of your chicken. After roasting the chicken, slice it into bite-sized pieces.
- While the chicken and vegetables are roasting, add the pasta and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt to a large pot. I really like using my enameled cast iron dutch oven. Add enough water to cover the pasta by one inch. Cover pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
- When the water boils, uncover and reduce the heat to medium to maintain a simmer. Stir occasionally to prevent the noodles from sticking and simmer for about 4 minutes and 30 seconds or until al dente.
- Remove the pasta with a spider strainer and set aside. Reserve one cup of the pasta water.In the same large pot that you used to cook the pasta, melt the butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add 3/4 cup of the pasta water into the pan and let it boil. This will create an emulsion.
- Remove from the heat and add the drained pasta, vegetables, and sliced chicken to the pot. Use tongs to coat everything with the sauce. Sprinkle in all but a handful of the cheese. Continue tossing until the cheese has melted adding additional pasta water if necessary to create a creamy sauce. I like using these tongs because I know the silicone won’t scratch my enamel-coated dutch oven.
- Garnish with fresh herbs and the remaining cheese. Serve immediately.
Storing and Reheating Leftovers
While cacio e pepe is best eaten immediately, leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. Reheat for a couple of minutes in the microwave.
More delicious dinners from Raspberries & Kohlrabi
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