Lemon Pepper Pasta with Browned Butter
this Monday is the new last Friday
Hello and welcome to A Newsletter! One day I might get a new name for this thing, but for now, consider it hilarious that this is what I named this newsletter in 2020. If you’ve found your way over by some miracle but are not yet subscribed, here, let me help you with that:
Apologies from a delinquent newsletter writer. I got caught up in too many distracting things this weekend (Lunar New Year! Fashion Week!) and felt guilty about it the whole time, but it’s Monday and I’m just happy to be here. If you’re in New York, the energy in Chinatown right now is unparalleled— it’s inspiring and thrilling just walking around. I don’t really subscribe to the “best place to get X,” but I’ve been eating dumplings (soup and otherwise) at Deluxe Green Bo on Bayard Street since I moved to New York (which, this week will be FOURTEEN YEARS AGO), and I still really always love eating there.
Two weeks into February and as a person who barely enjoys sweet potatoes (I only enjoy them with butter and maple syrup), it’s tough out there right now. I’m making up for a lack of produce diversity with things like pasta and mostly just pasta, actually.
Many pastas can be considered a pantry pasta (canned tomatoes, capers, anchovies et al) -- We love them for their ease and breeziness, often able to be thrown together without so much as a fresh, leafy, coarse sprig of anything or trip to a store. These are most of the pastas I find myself making right now (winter), for a variety of reasons (don’t want to go to the store, too cold, no vegetables, need to feel cozy, etc.), and this one today is no exception. That said, I would consider this Lemon Pepper Pasta with Browned Butter number to be something even a wrung lower than that, given how few ingredients (four, to be exact) there are. the same warm, fuzzy, no fuss feelings that the phrase “pantry pasta” does. Mmm. Cozy.
Technically, this pasta is inspired by the great Roman pasta cacio e pepe and the “seems untraditional except it’s on the menu at i Sodi so I’ll take your word for it” pasta al limone. It really falls somewhere in between– no heavy cream (because of course not), but yes cheese (parmesan) and absolutely yes fresh lemon juice (and zest).
Emotionally, this pasta is inspired by my quest to make a macaroni and cheese from scratch that tastes even close to as good as a box of Velveeta (squeeze pouch), or frankly, Annies (orange or white). While my hubris does allow me to think I can improve upon most food stuffs in the world, at the age of 38 I think I have finally accepted that I just won’t make a better macaroni and cheese than something that is highly processed. It is, of course, possible to do at home, but only if you use American Cheese (Velveeta/Kraft/Cooper’s Sharp, etc).
Sure, I’ve written macaroni and cheese recipes before, and they are good! But are they….better than a box of Annie’s after a hard day? They aren’t. I know they’re a lot more work though, and I also know that at the end of the cooking and eating process, at least one person around the table is going to wish you had just made Velveeta Shells and Cheese. A fancy gruyere or “really nice cheddar” won’t save you here– no no. A toasty roux seasoned with paprika and freshly grated garlic or onion is nice tasting, but it’s not hitting the same (and is always just a little grainy- and you know it). The addition of an artisanal emmental or special fontina won’t ever give you the same creamy satisfaction as powdered cheese, sorry to say. It’s okay that this is true! We don’t have to do everything ourselves– a theme I’m working on personally in 2024.
Anyway, this lemony, peppery pasta tastes similar enough to cacio e pepe which does actually hit many of the same pleasure receptors as excellent boxed macaroni and cheese does, sans the production of a macaroni and cheese-from-scratch. Unfortunately, it does require some technique here (the simplest things often do), in that the sauce is only made with some browned butter, finely grated parmesan, pasta water and not much else (not unsimilar to how a carbonara comes together). If this isn’t something you’ve done before, wow, are you in for a treat– but also, be patient, the al dente pasta does take a bit of time in the skillet to fully cook and create a thick enough sauce. It’s the ultimate “I can’t believe this came from only that” – my favorite way to cook.
For me, I want to eat a bowl of this on the couch for what we affectionately call “couch dinner” at my house. With it, a plate or bowl of broccoli that I’ve cut into elegant little spears and blanched (or steamed) in salted boiling water for about 60-90 seconds until just bright green and tender then doused in lemon juice and sprinkled flaky salt. I eat the stalks with my hands as a palate cleanser between bites of pasta. It’s 6:30 pm. I’m watching Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I watch two episodes, properly digest my meal, make myself an 8:45 cup of chamomile tea, do a brief but effective skin care routine and get in bed by 9. I do not look at my phone. I read something wonderful that makes me feel intelligent for 25-35 minutes. I fall asleep at 9:45. This is my fantasy.
LEMON PEPPER PASTA WITH BROWNED BUTTER
While “lemon” and “pepper” are the two primary flavors here, this pasta really does taste enough like cacio e pepe to hit many of the same pleasure receptors as excellent boxed macaroni and cheese. Unfortunately, it does require a bit more technique here (the simplest things often do), in that the sauce is only created with some browned butter, finely grated parmesan, pasta water and not much else. If this isn’t something you’ve done before, wow, are you in for a treat– but also, be patient, the al dente pasta does take a bit of time in the skillet to fully cook and create a thick enough sauce. It’s the ultimate “I can’t believe this came from only that” – my favorite way to cook.
If this feels too simple for your taste, I encourage you to just try it because it really does dazzle. That said, feel free to do something like add a little thinly sliced preserved lemon or maybe a finely grated clove of garlic to the skillet, maybe toss in a handful of leafy greens at the end (but really, that’s what the blanched broccoli is for).
12-16 ounces / 300-450g of pasta (a whole box or ¾ of a box), a long, noodle shape works best here*
6 tablespoons/85g unsalted butter
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, plus more
Lots of freshly ground black pepper (from a pepper mill)
1 lemon, zested and juiced
½ cup/50g finely grated parmesan cheese, plus more
1. Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until it’s nicely al dente (it’ll finish cooking in the sauce you make); Set aside 2 cups of the pasta water, then drain the pasta, setting both aside.
2. Meanwhile, heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Let the butter melt, then begin to brown, using a whisk to scrape up all the browned bits as they form (this will give you a good evenly browned brown butter). Cook until the butter is all foamy and nutty-smelling, 3–4 minutes or so.
3. Add red pepper flakes, lots of freshly ground black pepper and the lemon zest. Add the pasta along with ½ cup cheese and ½ cup of pasta water. Season with salt and increase heat to medium–high. Cook, tossing frequently (I like to use tongs) until the liquid starts to thicken and evaporate, 3–4 minutes or so. Add another ½ cup pasta water to the skillet, and continue to cook, tossing, tossing, tossing…again until the liquid starts to thicken and evaporate, about 2-3 minutes (it’ll start happening quicker with each addition).
4. Add another ½ cup water and continue to cook until the sauce appears thickened, glossy, starchy and luscious. Taste a noodle– it should be salty, creamy and fully cooked (but not mushy). If you think the pasta or sauce needs it, give another splash of pasta water and get it to where you want it.
5. Remove from heat and add half the lemon juice. Season with salt and maybe more pepper or some crushed red pepper flakes. Taste a noodle and add the remaining lemon juice if “very lemony” is what you’re after (it’s what I’m after). Divide among bowls, making sure each has a nice pool of sauce. Top with more pepper and cheese, if you like.
*The pasta pictured that I used is called fusilli di gragnano (we carry it at First Bloom!). You can use any pasta shape here, though I do think a long, fun noodle is best. I am true fan of the humble spaghetti, but bucatini would also work. There is an increasingly large number of new, interesting, “cool” shapes at even the most basic grocery stores, so I encourage you to experiment to see what you like best.
Technically not shopping, but if you live in New York, you should buy tickets to see Cole Escola’s new play “Oh, Mary!” Unique, hilarious, unhinged, pure joy.
This is the pasta I used (if you’re not coming to The Catskills any time soon).
I posted a photo this weekend and there was A LOT OF INTEREST in the lipstick— It’s this from Yves Saint Laurent, and the applicator is worth the price alone. Pricier than what I want to spend on lipstick, but it’s kind of a special “fun” color and think it’ll last me a long time (I bought it on a recent trip with Emilia Petrarca for her newsletter— you can read about it here).