I never minded that the grass made my legs itch, or that its dewdrops soaked through my summer dresses. Long and rarely cut by the blades of any man-powered machine, these blades of sweet summertime bluegrass provided a bed for us to do all of our daydreaming in – the best kind of bed. Real bedroom beds are for Lights out! It’s past your bedtime, and Time to get up! You’ll be late for school! Tossing and turning, sleeplessness, alarm clock buzzes and snooze button pressings and Can I have just five more minutes, please? And even, heaven forbid, the occasional nightmare. No, I’d never heard of anyone having a scary or bad daydream out there, in that field. Is there even such a thing? Daydreams are reserved for hopes and happiness, for wistful imaginings and nostalgic musings … where your thoughts go when they want to play a little, to get lost in the best of ways before you have to coax them back to reality. At least that’s what I’d like to think, anyway.
I’d go to this one grassy field sometimes when I was younger, an opening in a grove of tall trees set just behind a popular park in my small Kentucky town, and there I would lay, paying no mind to those pesky drops of water still clinging to the tips of each blade of grass. It was always morning when I was there, so the fierce summer sun had yet to burn them away. No matter though, I’d think as I stared up at the sky, patiently awaiting the arrival of the perfect cloud. Because on cloud watching day, one couldn’t be bothered by something so trivial as a dewdrop or two. Or two thousand.
It’s so fascinating to me, now that I have children of my own, to watch them as they play and create games of their own. Making magic out of little more than nothing seems to be an exclusive gift of childhood that fades away at one point or another. Parenthood does, however, give you a glimpse into that magic again. A gift of parenthood, I suppose. I remember some of the things that I used to do for fun as a child: make-believe games and imaginary friends who always proved to be excellent company … fashioning grand forts out of boxes and bed sheets, sailing across the sea on a ship made of couch cushions … waving wizardly wooden spoon wands and preparing to do battle with the scary monsters that lurked outside our bedroom windows. But mornings would dawn with the eventual and comforting realization that those monsters were really just trees … nothing to fear but the fear itself.
Those cloud-watching days were always a prized thing, and I’d look forward to finding the perfect spot in that grassy knoll of mine and commence my sky search (not, incidentally, to be confused with Star Search. That’s a different channel, friends). I’d scan the skies above looking for shapes in the clouds, while my best friend would do the same thing from her own backyard, at the same time. We’d compare and contrast our cloud notes in hopes that we’d spotted the same things. “Did you see that dinosaur?! It was definitely a T-Rex.” “Yes! I think so! I totally saw that … but wait, did you see the ice cream cone? It made me hungry for one … ”
I’d do a similar thing when I visited my Grandparent’s house sometimes. My Grandfather, as I’ve mentioned here before, would sit in his chair by the window in the late afternoons, puffing away on his pipe. If you’ve ever been in the near vicinity of someone smoking a pipe, you know that it’s nearly impossible to ignore, the smell so thick and strong that you can almost taste it … pervasive in the way it takes over a room. I’d come bursting into their den just as soon as I detected that aroma … like charred vanilla with hints of a fruit that I’d never tasted. Those were my smoke signals. In the dim, fading light of those late afternoons, my Grandfather would puff away on his pipe, sending swirls and twirls of smoke rings into the air, much to my delight. “That one looks like the Cheshire Cat!” I’d say. “Oh, I think I see Texas in this one … wait, now it’s Kansas.”
These beautifully random childhood memories came rushing back to me last week as I worked through the preparation of the recipe that I’m sharing today. I’d left piles of fresh pasta dangerously unattended in my dining room while I’d gone off in search of just the right ingredients, odds, and ends for my photo shoot. When I’d returned from said search, I found my kids throwing the noodles, which were still slightly wet from their cooking liquid, onto the walls … just right onto my Venetian plastered dining room walls.
“Look Easton, it’s a horse! Now it’s a unicorn!”
The giggling was uncontrollable as they searched for shapes in the noodles, and while I didn’t exactly love that this was all taking place on my walls (I plastered them myself!), I did sort of enjoy the moment and could nostalgically relate to the fun in it … first clouds, then smoke rings and now pasta. Kids will be kids.
I even joined in for a second, I’ll admit, offering up a few guesses before the great clean-up commenced, and I was promptly and enthusiastically congratulated for being EXACTLY correct. I’ve still got it, I guess.
Oak-Smoked Pasta Cacio e Pepe RECIPE
If you happen to live in a part of the world where Winter is raging full-force, this is the time of year when pasta and noodle slurping can bring much comfort to the seasonally weary. There is just nothing quite like a bowl full of satisfying pasta to help usher in feelings of comfort and warmth.
My recipe this week is coming to you as part of Lime and Cilantro’s 2017 #noodleholicsparty. My friend Soe created this fun virtual noodle celebration as a way for a group of blogger friends to show off some of our pasta-making prowess and share in a global love of all things “noodle.” Noodles are a universally beloved food group and therefore so very worthy of a celebration, if you ask me. There are bloggers sharing Persian noodles, Norwegian noodles, Southeast Asian noodles, Italian noodles – and much more. As of 1 PM (EST), you can visit each of the blogs below to snag the recipes from everyone else who is participating or you can check out the hashtag above on Instagram for pics and info:
Pho Ga by Beyond Sweet and Savory
Vegetarian manchurian with stir fry noodles by Boxofspice
Beef ragu with pappardelle by Cloudy Kitchen
Indonesian boiled noodles (mie rebus) by Piquecooking
Malaysian Laksa with Pumpkin by Vermillionroots
Chestnut Tortellini & Fettuccine in Sage Cream Sauce by Cuococontento
Vegetarian Tteokbokki by husbandsthatcook
Shrimp Scampi with Tagliatelle by Regan Baroni
Juniper Berry & Barley Noodles with Creamy Chantarelles by North Wild Kitchen
Vegan Jjajangmyeon by The Korean Vegan
Duck Noodle Soup by Lindsaysfeast
Avocado pesto cream sauce with homemade fettuccine noodles by Lyndsey Eden
Homemade sobs noodles in a lapsang souchong broth with crispy tofu by Twiggstudios
Malaysian Laksa by Passmethedimsum
Shanghai Scallion Oil Noodle (Cong You Ban Mian) by Omnivorescookbook
Oak-Smoked Pasta Cacio e Pepe by Harvest and Honey
Noodle in Burmese coconut and chicpea broth (Oh- no-khao-swe) by Lime and Cilantro
Aceh noodles (Mie Aceh) by Whattocooktoday
Persian Noodle (Reshteh) by Noghlemey
Oak-Smoked Pasta Cacio e Pepe
This oak-smoked pasta recipe is one of which I am both very proud and excited to share with you, and you won’t believe how easy it is to make a quick smoker for your stovetop – and then smoke just about anything you like. All you need is a big pot, some foil, wood chips, and a metal steamer insert and you’re all set.
I infused my fresh pasta with the flavor of smoky oak and then tossed it in the simplest Roman-style cacio e pepe sauce (literally means cheese and pepper). I take only the slightest liberty with the this wonderfully traditional Roman sauce, and I add a little butter. Cacio e Pepe is typically just pepper, Pecorino and pasta water, but by adding browned butter, you get a little more decadence and one extra note of flavor to compliment the smoke. It’s completely wonderful – one of my favorite recipes I have ever posted. The sauce doesn’t overpower the smoky noodles, but complements them perfectly, and it just hangs on them like a thin veil – the perfect pairing.
–> But a quick note: you might want to smoke your noodles a little in advance, if you are planning to serve a crowd, as the method will perfume your kitchen a bit with the aroma of the smoke. But it will dissipate quickly, no worries. I crack some windows for a few minutes and take my pot outside to finish smoking to help alleviate this. Easy.
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
1 lb. fresh pasta (store-bought or homemade; you can use whatever shape/cut you like here. I like long noodles such as fettuccini, spaghetti, angel hair, bucatini, tagliatelle, etc. I also tested this method with a simple cheese tortellini and those were fantastic as well)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1.5 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese (this is the traditional cheese for Cacio e Pepe, but you could sub in Parmesan)
3 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper (I go heavy on this, as I love the heat it adds to the dish)
Smoker special equipment:
A large stock pot (a large pasta pot would work)
4 tablespoons oak shavings/kindling/wood chips (with the exception of maybe mesquite, you really can use any type of wood here; I just prefer oak … I tested hickory as well with great results)
A metal steamer insert
To create your stovetop smoker, begin by putting a piece of foil on the bottom of the pot, one that is large enough to cover the entire bottom. Top it with the wood chips and then top with another layer of tinfoil. Place the steamer insert on top, opened up as flat as it will go. Nestle your pasta down in the steamer. You can stack or layer the pasta to fit as needed.
Close the pot, and secure foil around the edges of the lid, to ensure no smoke can get out. Set the pot over medium-high heat on the stove for about 5 minutes or until smoking. The wood chips will begin to char from the heat, thus creating flavorful smoke. Then, reduce the heat to low and smoke for 10 more minutes on the stove. Turn off the heat, and let the pasta rest in the smoker for at least 10 minutes before removing. I like to transfer the smoker outside for the last 10 – 20 minutes, or until I need the pasta, to keep the aromas outside and to let it infuse a bit longer. It is a good idea to open the pot outside as well, to allow the smoke to escape out there, rather than in your kitchen.
To cook the pasta: Fill a large pasta or stock pot 3/4 of the way with water. Bring to a boil and season with the 3 tablespoons of salt. You want the water to taste a bit less salty than the ocean.
Add the pasta to the pot, and stir to break it all up. Cook according to package directions until al dente. Next, drain the pasta into a colander set over a large bowl to catch all of the water. You will need it for the sauce (it is starchy and smoky and a big part of what makes the sauce great), and I find it helpful to just keep all of it. Drain the pasta and set it aside for the time being.
In a large skillet or pan set over medium heat, melt the butter. Cook the butter, swirling occasionally, until it begins to brown and takes on a slightly nutty aroma, about 3 – 4 minutes. Then immediately add 1 cup of the reserved cooking water and 1.5 cups of the cheese. Stir to combine. Then immediately add the pasta and pepper and toss to evenly coat the noodles in the sauce. Just keep tossing until the pasta is coated in a creamy, thin layer of sauce.
Serve right away and enjoy.