Cacio e pepe with asparagus offers a springtime twist on the classic pasta dish. The dish comes together quickly for weeknight ease and hits all the right notes with peppery, creamy spaghetti and tender spring asparagus.
It took me almost my whole life to figure out how to properly make pasta. I’m not exactly sure where to lay the blame for the technique I initially used – draining the pasta fully and then rinsing away the starch (!!!) – but I’m going to place the blame on all the anti-carb weirdness of the late 20th century.
Eventually, finally, I got wise. This path to pasta wisdom wasn’t exactly straightforward, though. It started mostly because I really hate using the colander. So I grabbed that weird claw spoon that always seemed to be in kitchens but was never used, lifted my pasta out of the starchy water and into a big bowl, and started figuring out the feel of tossing pasta with sauce, adding splashes of starchy pasta water as needed. This technique, fundamental it seems to everyone but me, makes the best pasta. The sauce is distributed perfectly, and thanks to the added starch, clings beautifully to the pasta.
Cacio e Pepe: Perfecting the Pasta Toss
The path to better pasta may have taken me decades, but the path to excellent cacio e pepe took a few months. Cacio e pepe, a simple mix of butter, pasta water, cheese, and black pepper, is a recipe you make by feel and it can take a while to master the best proportions for you. Cacio e pepe comes together simply and quickly, but there’s just a little finesse to getting it perfectly saucy and delicious.
A Seasonal Twist: Cacio e Pepe with Asparagus
This recipe adds a small twist to classic cacio e pepe: asparagus. The asparagus spears are blanched in the salted water before you add the pasta, and sliced into thin spears that bend and fold right into the pasta. Cacio e pepe is our quick weeknight go-to and the added vegetables means it can be a one-bowl dinner when we’re really pressed for time or served with a big salad for a totally respectable meal.
Asparagus season is brief, and the spears thicken as the season goes on, but for this recipe, I recommend thin spears. And of course, fresh farmers’ market asparagus is my favorite, but the kind from the grocery store is just fine too.
Though I overlooked it for years, a good spaghetti spoon is crucial to your pasta tossing technique. In my opinion, you want a strong metal one that can handle tossing a full pound of pasta. I got mine at Ikea and it’s great.
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 2 tablespoons sea salt
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup pasta water
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan
- 1/2 cup grated Pecorino
- 1 pound asparagus, rinsed well with woody ends snapped off
- Lemon zest for garnish, if desired
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add sea salt to the water. Cook the asparagus 1 - 2 minutes, then remove to a bowl of ice water. Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and set a timer for two minutes less than the shortest recommended cook time.
When asparagus is cool enough to handle, cut it lengthwise into thin, 1/8-inch thick strips.
Meanwhile, in a deep, wide pot big enough to hold the pasta, melt the butter over medium heat and stir in the pepper. The butter and pepper mixture will bubble and bloom, once fragrant, turn heat to low.
When the pasta is almost done, use a measuring cup to pull 1 cup starchy pasta water from the pot and add it to the butter mixture. Turn heat to medium-high and bring to a vigorous simmer. Stir often as the butter and pasta water reduce to a creamy, light brown sauce. Keep over low heat.
When the pasta's done, scoop it out of the water with your spaghetti spoon and toss it, along with the asparagus, in the pot with the creamy sauce. With your spaghetti spoon and maybe a second wooden spoon, work quickly to fold the cheese into the hot pasta. Add a splash more pasta water as needed.
Serve pasta immediately in big twists, garnish with lemon zest and more pepper.