This is the second part of a five part series with award winning Chef Todd Stein. The final post will detail the complete recipe and directions for cooking Chef Stein's version of Cacio e Pepe.
"I'm all lost in the supermarket I can no longer shop happily I came in here for that special offer. A guaranteed personality." - The Clash, 1979
Todd Stein has come over to my house to cook the classic Italian dish Cacio e Pepe. But first we need to go to the grocery store to pick up ingredients. We'll need everything except of course, the peppercorns. We've got plenty of those on hand at home. We head out together for Whole Foods in Deerfield, Illinois. As we start to walk down the aisles, a bunch of questions pop into my head.
Todd, what do you think of the pasta at Whole Foods?
Their selection of dried pasta is the worst. There’s no commitment to high quality pasta at all.
Then where do you buy your pasta?
If it’s not fresh? There’s a brand that comes in a brown paper bag called Rustichella. That’s the best dried pasta there is. Hands down.
Do tell. Where can you get it?
Fox & Obel has it. Some Whole Foods have it.
That’s when you’re not making your own pasta, right?
Scott, there are certain pastas that are better off dried. Certain dishes are better off dried than fresh.Whole Foods doesn’t have Rustichella brand dried pasta, so Todd settles for something else. He grabs a package of organic spaghetti from Italy. He’s not pleased with the selection, but we move on to the olive oil.
Todd, I'm a bit of a virgin when it comes to olive oil. It’s confusing for me. There are so many different kinds. Different countries. And I have to admit that I'm a little uncomfortable with the terminology.
The real secret? Most of the olive oil that says it’s from Italy or France? It’s actually from Greece.
Todd, I want my money back.
Greece actually produces more olive oil and sends it to other countries for export than the US, which is interesting. My sister lives in Greece and she has a friend that is a chemist who deals with olive oil and she was the one who led me onto that.
Ahhh! Your sister's friend the Greek chemist! I knew it! Hopefully she's living underground with her olive oil secret. Do you think Popeye's lover, Olive Oyl was Greek?
Could be. Not sure. I think I'd like to use a lifeline on that one.
So Todd, you don’t believe the Italian olive oil packaging when it says it’s from Italy?
Well sure if I send it to Italy and they repackage it, it’s from Italy. Yes and no. I believe Greek olive oil is the hidden gem. I think they’re usually less expensive and they’re high quality. You know it all depends what you’re looking for in the oil. If it’s something that you’re finishing just on top of a dish, you’re looking for a different flavor than as opposed to something…in this case we’re going to use it as a basis of a sauce and you want it to be rich and flavorful, but we don’t need to spend $40 on a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. We just want it to have that nice bite.
When do you spend the $40 on the extra virgin olive oil?
When you want to drizzle it over tomatoes. When you want to know that it’s there in a dish that’s just finished or just chilled or something that’s very basic. Like tomato bruschetta, you have the tomato and the bread and you can taste the great tomato and you can taste the great bread and you want to taste the great olive oil.But since we’re making an Italian dish, we really should buy an Italian olive oil. I think for the price, I think this is great. Todd picks up a bottle of Lucini Italian olive oil. I’ve been using this for years. I think this is absolutely perfect for what we’re going to do.
Do you normally buy your olive oil at Whole Foods?
Yeah. Yeah, generally.
We pick up some organic unsalted butter and then head over to the cheese section. I can't think of any questions about butter. Sorry. Soon we arrive at the cheese section and I anxiously blurt out my next question. This must seem a little weird to the people shopping around us.
Todd, talk to me about cheese. (Like that just sounds kind of weird to say to someone in public.)
The Italian dish we're making, Cacio e Pepe, traditionally has a little bit of Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese and mostly Pecorino. "Cacio" is the Italian word for cheese.
Okay, Todd, talk to me about cacio. What do you think about Whole Foods cacio selection.
Great. They import cheese really well.
Todd gets distracted by a particular brand of cheese in the refrigerated case. He picks up a package and shows it to me.This company, Uplands Cheese, is from upstate Wisconsin and they make this Rush Creek Reserve once a year. The company only makes two cheeses. They make a hard cheese called Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which is my all-time favorite cheese and this one. This is like impossible to find except right now at Whole Foods. But it’s really, really good. It ages incredibly well and it’s unpasteurized. It’s ridiculous, ridiculous cheese.
Let’s get some! (I toss it in the cart.) Okay, back to the recipe
I locate the parmesan display. At Whole Foods it's called Parmesan Reggiano and if you haven't had it, you must try it sometime. It's the real deal. The smell of it is so great. It’s the greatest cheese in the world.Scott, this cheese is amazing, I’ve been cooking Italian food for so long and this is a staple ingredient. You just always have it.
Not cheap at $22.99 a pound.
But worth every penny.
Todd, What is Whole Foods doing that their cheese is better than everyone else’s?
They sell more cheese each day. It’s fresher. There are independent cheese stores that are very good as well. On the restaurant side, I buy cheese from a lady that’s all she does is import cheese. She gets better cheese than anybody.
(I'm thinking that maybe the pepper guy and the cheese lady need to meet at some point!) Okay, Todd, so what other cheeses would you recommend with the pepper?
Something mild and sweet. Not bland. I think it would be great with smoked mozzarella or any smoked cheese because I think the smoke and the composition of the black pepper will go very well. Cheddar would overpower it. You can go either way. Something soft and creamy or something a little harder like this Pleasant Ridge. This is my all-time favorite cheese. (I think this is Todd’s third all-time favorite cheese, but who's counting? This guy loves food! He's a chef!)
We walk over to the wine section. I’m thinking we should at least talk wine even if we aren’t going to be drinking at two in the afternoon.
For a traditional wine with Cacio e Pepe, you would choose which wine?
Something light and crisp. Something from the area of Rome. You can even go with a light red. I would just say a Chianti. If a white, a Vermentino.There isn’t much of a selection of Chianti at this Whole Foods, so Todd just picks one out. He hasn’t heard of it, so he doesn’t necessarily recommend it.
What about a less traditional selection?
You could do a pinot noir that’s more on the fruit side because it’s going to work well with the pepper. You’re not going to want to do something that’s overly peppery already or you’ll lose the flavor of the pasta. I might also choose a sauvignon blanc. Something that’s very crisp and light. Even a rosé would work well. We grab a baguette and head to the register to check out.
What about bread?
They do a lot of things well at Whole Foods, but bread is not one of them. Did you know that Stephanie Izard who owns Girl & the Goat and Little Goat in Chicago, she’s doing her own breads that you can buy at Little Goat now? They’re very good.
We check out with a bag full of groceries and a nice appetite. All this talk of pasta, cheese and bread has made me hungry. Can’t wait to taste Todd’s cooking.
Shopping List for Cacio e Pepe - Serves about 4-6, Prep Time 20 minutes
4 oz bag of The Reluctant Pepper Co. Organic Tellicherry Peppercorns 1 lb of dried spaghetti (although this can be made with egg tagliolini or bucatini too. A dry pasta. We bought Montebello Organic Italian spaghetti. It was excellent. But feel free to substitute. Todd highly recommends Rustichella brand pasta.) 8.5 oz bottle of extra virgin Italian olive oil (Todd recommends Luciano Italian olive oil, but also likes the Greek variety, but not for this dish) 1/2 lb. Pecorino Romano Cheese (Whole Foods has amazing Pecorino) 1/2 lb. Parmesan Reggiano Cheese (Whole Foods has amazing Parmesan Reggiano) Unsalted Butter Kosher Salt
Optional Wine Pairing Chianti, Pinot Noir (not too peppery) or Rose if you're looking for red. If you want a white, a Sauvignon Blanc or a Vermentino
Coming tomorrow: Part 3, "Home on the (Wolf) Range". Back in my kitchen, we'll be preparing to cook Cacio e Pepe. I'll be getting to know Todd better and learning how he fell in amore with Italian cooking. (Pardon my terrible Italian.) You'll soon see how Chef Stein was able to take a few simple ingredients and turn them into something worth blogging about. In the end, I'll publish Todd's version of Cacio e Pepe and how you can make it at home yourself.
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