If you asked me to teach you cook, cacio e pepe would be the first thing we’d do together. It might be the only thing I’d teach you, because once you see how transcendentally delicious four ingredients can be, you may understand that cooking isn’t hard at all.
Cacio e pepe will teach you how to boil pasta. Fill a big-ass pot 2/3rds full of water, salt the hell out of it, and bring it to a boil (heating with the lid on speeds things up). Not a bubble, a BOIL, like you’re gonna sterilize surgical instruments in it. Dump your pasta in, give it a stir to make sure none of it sticks to the bottom of the pot. Keep an eye on it: fresh pasta cooks in about 90 seconds, and dried stuff takes maybe 6-8 minutes. When it’s still got some bite to it, but doesn’t stick in your molars, it’s done. HEY WAIT. Before you drain it, pull a few ladles of that lovely starchy saltwater into a bowl. We’re gonna use that.
(Also, don’t run cold water over your pasta after you drain it. Maybe my parents are the only people that do this, but it rinses the starch layer off the surface, which prevents the sauce from sticking).
This dish will teach you the difference that quality ingredients make. There are only four ingredients: if one of them is crap, it’s 25% crap. If you use green-canister “parm,” pre-ground pepper (basically floor sweepings), and olive oil that’s 49% canola, your cacio pepe is going to taste like those things.
You’ll also learn the most important lesson of all: don’t put the cheese grater up until the meal is over, because you will definitely, always, without exception need more cheese.
As much pasta as you want to eat, now and/or later
Freshly-ground black pepper
Boil water, add pasta.
Grate cheese (at least two big handfuls) and crack pepper (more than you think you should) into a bowl big enough to hold the cooked pasta + room for stirring.
Pour enough olive oil into the mixing bowl to turn your cheese + pepper into a tight paste.
Scoop a few ladles of pasta water, either into a separate bowl or the big mixing bowl, depending on your confidence level. Drain the pasta, stir up the cheese/pep/oil and pasta water, then add the pasta to the party.
As you stir, the sauce will coat the pasta. The contents of the bowl will progress from a wet salad of separate things into a cohesive unit of tangled pasta shellacked with a Sauce. If it’s oily or dry, add another splash of pasta water. If it’s watery, add more cheese or oil. Experience and observation are the only reliable guides here.
Use tongs or a spider strainer to move the pasta to a plate. If the plate’s been warmed by resting it on the stovetop, all the better. Try to plate the pasta gently, so there’s air underneath it. Grate some more cheese and crack some more pepper on top.
Pour or make yourself a drink. A negroni is a fine complement. Congratulate yourself: the essential human skill of cooking a simple, satisfying meal is now yours.