Here’s a weeknight dinner formula that’s never failed me: rigatoni cacio e pepe plus whatever vegetable is in season. In the spring, this means asparagus or ramps. Summer, it’s tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes. And, fall through winter, it’s hard-as-heck squash.
But first, we should cover a few cacio e pepe basics. Its translation—literally, cheese and pepper—tells you most of what you need to know about this simple Roman sauce. The creaminess comes not from cream (don’t you dare!), but from cheese emulsifying with starchy, salty pasta water.
Often, said cheese is Pecorino Romano. But lots of cooks like to add Parmesan, too—think of it like bonus umami—and I’m one of them. The catch with both is: They’re reluctant melters compared to younger, softer varieties like mozzarella and chevre. This means you’ll need to encourage melting however you can—notably, by grating the cheese as finely as possible (a Microplane works wonders here), adding butter to lead the way (“follow me, I’ll show you!” it cries out), and cutting the heat before adding the cheese (to prevent clumping).
If you’re thinking that 2 teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper sounds like a lot—well, good, because it is. And that’s the whole point. Buzz black peppercorns in a coffee grinder, mash them up in a mortar, or churn, churn, churn with a pepper mill—whatever your prefered method is. Just don’t swap in pre-ground black pepper; its flavor is nonexistent in comparison (like water next to coffee), and that zingy-tingly heat is paramount. To amplify its pepperiness even more, we’ll let it blossom in some sizzling butter.
Now, about that squash. Yes, I call for three times as much delicata as pasta, by weight, and no, that’s not a typo. While roasting is my default during the colder months, in this case, I make a convenient exception. We’re already boiling pasta in salty water, so why not add in the squash? You may recognize this two-for-one method from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ Genius pesto pasta. As Kristen Miglore writes, “This shortcut is both faster than cooking the vegetables separately and makes the pasta taste better, too, as the noodles absorb some of the flavor from the vegetables as they cook.”
Of course, you could play around with the squash type (say, butternut, kabocha, or red kuri) and pasta shape (like penne, radiatori, or fusilli). You’ll just need to adjust the cooking times accordingly, so they’re done cooking at the same time. —Emma Laperruque
2 to 4
(1 1/2–pounds) delicata squash
stick butter (113 grams), divided into 6 tablespoons and 2 tablespoons
freshly ground black pepper
pecorino, very finely grated (I used a Microplane, about 1 cup)
Parmesan, very finely grated (I used a Microplane, about 1 cup)
Fill a large pot with water (at least 6 quarts) and set on the stove over high heat to come to a boil.
Meanwhile, prep the squash: Halve vertically, remove the seeds, then halve each half (so you have four long pieces). Chop into (1/2- to 3/4-inch) chunks.
When the water reaches a boil, salt it, about 2 teaspoons kosher salt per quart of water. (This is slightly less salty than I usually recommend for vegetables or pasta water, because the cheese is salty. Adjust to your personal preference.)
Add the pasta to the salted boiling water. You’ll want to cook it for 2 to 3 minutes less than the box suggests; for me, this meant 11 minutes. After the pasta has been cooking for 4 minutes, add the squash. You’ll want to cook this for 7 minutes, until it’s just tender. (The goal is to remove both these from the boiling water at the same time, which is why you’re adding the squash later than the pasta.)
After you add the squash to the water, set a big skillet—like, the biggest you have (mine is 12 inches in diameter)—over medium heat. Add 6 tablespoons butter. When it’s melted, add the black pepper. Stir-fry for a minute or less, until the spice is very fragrant, then cut the heat. Right before the pasta and squash are done, return the skillet’s heat to medium.
Use a slotted spoon or spider to add the cooked pasta and squash to the skillet with the black pepper–butter. Add 1/2 cup pasta water, plus the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Toss until both squash and pasta are completely coated. Now cut the heat, and add the cheese. Continue to toss until coated, adding another splash of pasta water if needed, to create a smooth and silky sauce. Taste and season with more salt if needed.
Serve immediately, with more grated pecorino and ground black pepper to pass around and sprinkle on top.
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.