Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Spaghetti alla gricia

Two weeks ago it was my birthday; I finally turned the grand old age of 30. In an attempt to trick time and escape reality, Katie and I hot-footed to City Airport and jumped on a plane to spend a lovely long weekend in Rome. It was the perfect getaway; blue skies and temperatures approaching 30 degrees made for perfect square and balcony lounging. Sure we saw the Colosseum and the Forum, but let’s face it, this was always going to be an eating trip, and we encountered these places en-route to dinner. 

I hadn’t visited Rome or the surrounding Lazio region before, and I was excited to try the local specialities. One of my favourite things about Italian food and cookery is the diversity, which changes dramatically from North to South, from state to state. In Rome, I was more than happy to discover, it is all about the pizza and the pasta. Happy days. We walked miles across the city in search of wonderful pizzas, and were rewarded with crispy, thin bases and rich tomato topping.
When it comes to pasta, Rome is renowned for rich, creamy sauces such as carbonara. But whilst there, I really fell for the carbonara’s even simpler counterparts; cacao e pepe and spaghetti alla gricia. It was amazing how just some good pecorino and freshly cracked black pepper could create something so delicious. For someone like me who likes to cook dishes with multiple complicated elements, it was a real eye-opener. I ordered these dishes nearly everywhere I sat, and it was interesting to see the subtle differences. Some restaurants would prefer a looser sauce, some would prefer more gently cooked, softer guanciale etc etc. One thing that was pretty common in all, and frankly unexpected, was that for something listed as a ‘primi’, all pasta course were MASSIVE. We got caught out a few times, thinking that we’d have a cheeky little bowl of pasta before our main. We then sat in shock as the waiter pretty much wheeled out bulging plates, before bringing out practically half of a cow for the main. It’s been a long time since I couldn’t physically finish a meal, and it pained me, beads of sweat forming, to give up. 

When I returned to what seemed like freezing cold September London, I carried as much as possible back with me. Slabs of cheese, cured meat and olive oils jingle-jangled in my bag as I wheeled it through Hackney. It was so lovely to create this dish again; looking out of the window into a garden cluttered with auburn leaves and smashed conkers. Although a simple meal in principal, it’s all about getting the balance right for you. I like a lot of pepper to counter the rich cheese and pork. I cut the guanciale thickly to give some differentiation in texture. I prefer the sauce to cling to the pasta, instead of pooling at the bottom of the bowl. The ingredients below will give you scope, and allow you to create a dish to your personal liking. The trick is the ratio of cheese and pasta water, and moving the pasta as soon as it hits the pan, to release the glutens and thicken the sauce.
Serves 2
For the spaghetti:
200g ‘00’ grade strong pasta flour 
2 medium eggs 
1 pinch of fine salt 
1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
For the sauce:
200g guanciale, roughly sliced into strips about 2mm in thickness 
80g Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated 
1 tbsp black peppercorns, coarsely cracked with a pestle and mortar

First make the pasta dough. Tip all of the ingredients into a bowl and mix well with a wooden spoon until a dough is formed. Transfer to a clean worktop and knead for 5-10 minutes, until soft and springy in texture. Wrap the dough well with cling film and put into the fridge to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Remove the dough from the fridge and unwrap. Roll out to roughly 1cm thick, then pass through the thickest setting of your pasta machine. Repeat 8-10 times, or until the texture of the dough is very elastic and dry. Work the dough once through each setting, until you get to number 5 (on an Imperia machine). Lightly dust the pasta sheet with flour, and cut to the required length for spaghetti. Pass each sheet through a spaghetti cutter, then set aside while the rest of the dish is prepared. 

Fill a large saucepan with water, sprinkle in a generous amount of salt and bring to the boil.
Set a large, heavy frying pan or skillet to a medium heat. Pour in a little oil, then add the guanciale. Fry for 10-12 minutes, until a lot of the fat has rendered away and the meat has crisped up. 

Add the fresh pasta carefully to the boiling water and cook for 1-2 minutes, until al dente. Use some tongs to transfer the cooked pasta to the frying pan, and add in 2-3 large spoonfuls of the cooking water. Sprinkle in a good pinch of the black pepper and most of the Pecorino, reserving a little for serving. Toss the pan really well to combine all of the ingredients together, the melted cheese, pork fat and water should emulsify into a glossy sauce that coats every spaghetti strand. Add more water/cheese if the sauce is looking respectively dry or wet.
Pile the pasta onto each plate, making sure that each portion contains a good amount of the crispy guanciale. Finish with more black pepper and grated Pecorino.

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