LA Chef Matthew Kenney Has a Better Way to Make Cacio e Pepe

It’s healthier, greener and more photogenic, to boot

March 12, 2021 2:13 pm
Chef Matthew Kenney's cacio e pepe
Chef Matthew Kenney's cacio e pepe
Matthew Kenney

Matthew Kenney — the Los Angeles-based chef and owner of more than 25 restaurants across the globe — is far from starved for vegan inspiration. Kenney’s claims to fame include everything from creating vegan pastry for French luxury macaron shop Ladurée to shining a spotlight on vegan pizza at Double Zero. With each of his projects, Kenney’s goal is clear: show people another side of vegan food, divorced from its old-school, crunchy granola reputation.

Case in point: this version of Instagram’s favorite lockdown recipe, cacio e pepe. The hearty, moreish dish usually features just three ingredients: pasta, pecorino, and pepper. In his version, Kenney does away with two of the three stars … and it works.

Chef Matthew Kenney
Chef Matthew Kenney
Matthew Kenney

Cacio e pepe was first invented by semi-nomadic Italian shepherds: an energizing dish with staying power combining carb-rich spaghetti with fatty local sheep’s milk pecorino and black pepper, which helped the shepherds ward off the chilly temperatures by stimulating the heat receptors. Kenney combines not just black but green peppercorns in a cashew cream sauce starring nutritional yeast, a vegan’s best friend for emulating cheesy umami flavors. The luscious sauce is tossed, not with spaghetti, but with gluten-free kelp noodles, a natural source of an alphabet of vitamins and ten times the calcium of milk. A briny green olive purée and a shard of gluten-free pangrattato — a play on breadcrumbs made with buckwheat, sunflower seeds, and sun-dried tomatoes — add texture and even more flavor to the dish.

While traditionalists may balk, Kenney’s version is nutrient-dense, rich, and savory. It’s no surprise it’s become a stalwart favorite at his plant-based Italian restaurants.

“We are always respectful of culinary history and at the same time take many liberties that are afforded due to our emphasis on plant-based cuisine,” Kenney says. “Our goals are to provide the most memorable sensory experience to our guests, albeit in a unique format.”

The dish consists of several components, though none is particularly demanding, and most can be prepared in advance. The longest process is undoubtedly the pangrattato, which dries for two days in a dehydrator or four hours in the oven, but this is very much a set-it-and-forget-it kind of operation, and the resulting crispy, flavorful garnish is well worth the effort. If you just can’t wait that long to tuck in, though, consider simply toasting some sunflower seeds and finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes in a pan as an alternate topping with similar crunch.

Kelp Noodle Cacio E Pepe: 

Editor’s Note: While Kenney’s recipe provides exact measurements in grams, we’ve ventured to make life easier for those sans kitchen scale and have provided approximate cup measures in parentheses.

For the raw pangrattato

100g diced carrots (¾ cup)
70g roughly chopped shallots (7 tablespoons)
110g sunflower seeds, soaked 20 minutes minimum and up to overnight (1 ¾ cups unsoaked)
110g buckwheat groats, soaked 20 minutes minimum and up to overnight (⅔ cup, unsoaked)
50g flax meal (scant ½ cup)
15g oil-packed sun dried tomatoes (about 5)
50g olive oil from tomatoes (¼ cup)
100g pitted black olives (¾ cup)
20g nutritional yeast (3 heaping tablespoons)
3g salt (½ teaspoon)

For the black pepper cream

155g cashews, soaked 20 minutes minimum and up to overnight (1¼ cups, unsoaked)
112g water (scant ½ cup)
29g lemon juice (2 tablespoons)
10g nutritional yeast (1 heaping tablespoon)
2g black peppercorns (⅔ teaspoon)
2g green peppercorns (½ teaspoon)
10g salt (1¾ teaspoon)

For the olive purée

150g pitted green olives, drained (1⅛ cups)
50g soy milk (scant ¼ cup)

For the kelp noodles

2 pounds kelp noodles 
10g baking soda (2 teaspoons)
10g lemon juice (2 teaspoons)
20g tamari (3½ teaspoons)
10g olive oil (¾ tablespoon)
10g agave (1½ teaspoon)
Peppery greens (like arugula, radish greens, or mustard greens) for serving

For the pangrattato: In a food processor, blend together shallots and carrots until pasty. Add half of the olive oil and blend until smooth. Place in a large bowl. In the same food processor, combine the sunflower seeds, buckwheat, sun dried tomatoes, olives, nutritional yeast, and salt. Blend until combined and smooth. Add remaining olive oil and continue to blend until a smooth paste forms. Place in a bowl with the shallot-carrot mixture, and fold in the ground flax. Let the pangrattato base rest 10 minutes to allow flax to bloom, then spread out onto a dehydrator sheet or silicone baking mat 1mm thick. Dehydrate for 24 hours at 115F, then flip off the sheet and return to the dehydrator for another 24 hours. (If using the oven, bake at the lowest setting for 4 hours). Allow to cool, and break into large, irregular pieces to serve. 

For the black pepper cream: Blend all ingredients except for pepper until smooth and creamy. Grind pepper coarsely and fold into cream sauce. Chill until ready to use.

For the olive purée: Blend olives and soy milk, scraping down the blender as needed, until smooth. Chill until ready to use.

For the noodles: Place in a large bowl with baking soda, lemon juice and enough hot (but not boiling) water to cover completely. Let stand for 20 minutes or until noodles have the texture of al dente pasta, adding more hot water as needed. Rinse well to remove any traces of baking soda and drain thoroughly. Using scissors, cut into spaghetti length strands. Marinate the noodles in tamari, olive oil and agave. Chill until ready to use.

To assemble, place the kelp noodles in a mixing bowl and dress with the black pepper cream so that the noodles are evenly coated. Splatter a spoonful of the olive purée on the side of each individual bowl. Place the kelp noodles where they look best on the splatter. Garnish with peppery greens like arugula or mustard greens, and a large shard of pangrattato.

Serves six.


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