Cheese and pasta: pasta and cheese. The two go together like a warm comforting blanket. With the cool nights of fall soon arriving and kids heading back to school, nothing seems more comforting than a bowl of perfectly cooked spaghetti, tossed in a decadent browned butter sauce, and then loaded even more with creamy Mizithra cheese. “Mizithra, huh?” you might ask. Yep! Mizithra! It’s sort of a Greek cross between a tangy Romano and salty Parmesan cheese. Made traditionally from sheep’s milk, it’s a tangy, salty, cheese that varies in hardness. When spelled as Mizithra, it is usually a softer version of the cheese; when written as Myzithra it’s generally the harder, longer aged, and a better for grating, type of cheese. But, as with all things, the spelling is pretty interchangeable when finding it in a general store or marketplace.
I first discovered this cheese in one of my favorite Italian restaurants. I’ve since added my own take to that original dish here. By adding a little sweet, a little spice, and a little acid (wine) to cut the richness of the butter and cheese, this is now my own perfect little piece of heaven on a busy back-to-school weeknight. It’s ready in less than 30 minutes and can stand alone as a main dish, or lightened up a bit as a side dish for a nice grilled chicken or pork chop. With the richness of this dish, it definitely needs to be served with a light and bright veggie, such as lemony green beans, or a light salad with citrus dressing, and of course, a lovely glass of wine!
Wine note: The richness of this dish definitely requires a wine with a good bit of acidity. This can be either white or red, but I suggest a dry Pinot Grigio (like the one you will be using in the sauce) or an earthy Chianti or Malbec.
1 cup grated Mizithra (or Myzithra) cheese
1 pound spaghetti or other pasta
1/2 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine (such as a dry Pinot Grigio)
sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
- Boil a pot of water with at least 1 to 2 tablespoons sea salt. The salted water will season the pasta while it is cooking and will give it an added depth of flavor when mixed with the simple butter sauce.
- While the water is coming to a boil, grate the cheese. Note: To make grating easier, place the block of cheese in the freezer for about ten minutes. Slightly freezing the semi-hard cheese will prevent big chunks of cheese from coming off while grating and will make the process easier!
- Mince the onion and garlic. In a medium sauce pan, melt two tablespoons of butter. Add the shallots and garlic and sauté for about five minutes over low to medium heat. Be careful not to burn them. The shallots will soften and be translucent and the garlic should no longer have that strong, raw garlic, aroma.
- Add the wine and simmer for about 5 minutes (maybe top off your glass as well here).
- Once the wine has reduced by half, add the entire stick (1/2 cup) of butter. Note: Slicing the butter before adding quickens the melting process. Melt the butter, stirring often.
- Add the pasta to the boiling salted water and cook until al dente. You still want a bite to the pasta (and no one wants soggy noodles).
- As the butter melts, it will begin to bubble and become clear. As this happens, you’ll start seeing little brown flecks in the butter and it will begin to take on a nutty aroma. This is the browned butter stage. Remove it from the heat.
- In the serving bowl, add the noodles and butter sauce and toss it well, Make sure that the butter sauce is fully incorporated with the noodles, then add the grated cheese. Add a little cheese at a time so it gets fully incorporated with the noodles BEFORE it starts melting. Otherwise, you end up with a ball of noodles stuck together. Season with salt and pepper as needed, but remember, the pasta is already salted and the cheese is salty as well, so taste it as you go.
- Serve warm. Since this is a rich and decadent dish, it’s great as a side dish with roasted or grilled chicken and green beans or a light salad; but it is perfectly capable of standing on its own as the main dish! Enjoy!
For a lighter version, substitute extra virgin olive oil for the butter. Since olive oil cooks hotter than butter, you need to use very low heat or else the garlic and shallots will burn to a crisp. Sauté the shallots and garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil over low heat. Add the wine and simmer per the original recipe. Then add 1/3 cup of olive oil and simmer over very low heat. By slowly cooking the shallots and garlic, they end up caramelizing and will add that richness that the butter would have brought to the sauce. Then just finish the sauce per the recipe. You won’t even miss the butter!