Archive | April 2012

Pasta Night

Rolling Dough

If you think about it, pasta is brilliant. A transformation of wheat and water, pasta is an ingenious means of collecting and delivering flavor. Southern Italians must be among the world’s most inventive pasta-makers when it comes to shapes and texture. In a culinary world of few ingredients, the form of the pasta becomes a source of variety, trapping sauce and garnishes in ever changing nooks and crannies.

Traditionally, the pasta of Southern Italy was shaped by women’s hands…squeezed, rolled, pinched and pulled this way and that…each resulting form given a name, each shape capable of holding flavor in a unique manner. One afternoon at Serra Gambetta, Domenico’s 96-year-old grandmother joined us to demonstrate how to make homemade pasta and let us try our hands at the traditional pasta shapes of Puglia. We made orecchiette (little ears) by pressing a little lump of dough and turning it inside out over our thumbs, cavatelli (bean pods) by dragging the lump of dough with two fingers so that it curled into a pod, and fusilli by wrapping the dough around an umbrella strut to make a skinny tube. Very fun!

Taking My Turn At Rolling Pasta Dough

We guests were clumsy and slow, but Gina and Grandmother’s hands worked like well-oiled machines. Our misshaped contributions disappeared into their perfectly executed piles of pasta, and we ended up with enough for dinner. If you would like to learn more about rolling and shaping various pasta, look to Rosetta Constantino’s book, My Calabria, or Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

Homemade pasta is a revelation. It has a delicate and light consistency, while at the same time tasting like something of substance. The soft texture absorbs the flavors of sauces particularly well. Hand-rolled or shaped pasta is a craft that takes time to learn, but using a pasta machine takes no skill and turns out great pasta sheets for cutting into flat noodles like tagliatelle, or for ravioli or lasagne.

Italian PastaHere is how to make the dough: Pasta in Southern Italy is made with just flour and water. In the North, eggs replace the water. Domenico uses double zero pasta flour and warm water. Unbleached all-purpose flour is a suitable substitute. Put 2 cups of all-purpose flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. (This amount will make about 14 oz fresh pasta–enough for 4 to 8 servings) Pour 1/2 cup warm water and mix with your fingers to make shaggy dough. Gradually add 1 more Tbs water as you shape the dough into a smooth ball. Now it is ready to knead. Marcella says that kneading is the secret to superior homemade pasta. Clean your hands and the work surface and lightly dust both with flour. Knead by pressing with your palms to flatten the dough, fold it in half, and turn 180 degrees. Repeat these steps for 8 to 10 minutes (you can sing or dance at the same time). Dust with flour sparingly, as needed. When the dough is smooth and elastic, cover it with a clean cloth and let it rest 30 minutes to one hour.

Note: if you want to make egg pasta, use 2 large eggs beaten with 1 tsp water for each cup all-purpose flour. The most important step is to distribute the egg evenly throughout the flour, as in making pastry. You can use a food processor for the initial mixing by pulsing briefly. Once the dough looks like a grainy meal, transfer it to a bowl, gather it into a ball, and follow the directions for kneading as above.

Using a pasta machine: After the dough has rested, it is ready to be stretched and rolled into thin sheets. Cover the work surface with clean dishtowels or a tablecloth–you need to be able to spread the pasta out without overlapping or stacking it. Cut the ball of dough made from 2 cups flour into 6 pieces and cover those you are not working with. Flatten the first piece into a rectangle so that it can be rolled through the machine on the largest setting. Fold it in half and roll it through again. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Place the flattened dough on a towel and prepare the remaining pieces the same way. When all the pieces are flattened, pass each unfolded strip through the next smaller setting on the pasta machine. Continue with this procedure, reducing the setting each time until the strips are as thin as you desire (1/16 inch for lasagne or ravioli, thicker for cut noodles). Cut the strips into 12-inch sections if they become too long to work with. Dust the strips lightly with flour if they start to get sticky.

Notes: Cut lasagne noodles to fit your pan. Parboil the strips 20 to 30 seconds in salted water, dip in ice water to cool, and drain before assembling the lasagne. For ravioli or tortellini, stuff each strip as soon as it passes through the final setting so that the dough will still be soft and sticky. For cut noodles, allow the dough to dry on the towels for 10 minutes so that it is pliant but not sticky. Noodles can be cut by the machine or by hand. Extra noodles may be dried and stored for later use.

Pasta Dough Rolling

What to do with your Homemade Pasta

Keep it simple! Fresh pasta cooks very quickly, so have your sauce ready before the pasta goes into the boiling water. Use plenty of water–4 to 5 quarts–and a generous Tbs salt. Keep an eye on the boiling pasta, and check it early and often so that it is cooked al dent, no more.

*Spring vegetables and lemon sauce: Heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil and 2 Tbs butter with 1 Tbs finely chopped garlic and a couple of thinly sliced shallots over medium heat. Sauté 2 minutes. Add cooked, chopped asparagus and/or peas to the pan, stirring to coat the vegetables with oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in 1 or more tsp fresh lemon juice to taste and 1 tsp lemon zest. Toss with cooked pasta, adding a couple of Tbs pasta water as needed. Serve with grated Parmesan.

*Fresh herbs and pine nuts with sun-dried tomatoes: Chop a mixture of fresh herbs–flat-leaf parsley, basil, chives, marjoram, chervil, arugula, mint…to make about 1/2 cup. Toast 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnut pieces. Heat 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil over medium low heat with 1/4 cup chopped shallots or thinly sliced green onions. Cook a few minutes until the shallots are soft. Stir in 2 or 3 thinly sliced sun-dried tomatoes. Toss cooked pasta with the shallot/tomato oil and herbs. Sprinkle with nuts and serve with shaved Parmesan or Pecorino.

*Southern Italian Aglio, Olie, e Peperoncini (Garlic and Red Chile in Olive oil): Heat 4 or 5 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 4 or 5 thinly sliced garlic cloves and 2 or 3 minced hot red peppers over low heat. Stir 2 or 3 minutes, so that the garlic softens but does not color. Add 1/4 cup pasta cooking water to the pan, and toss with cooked pasta. Sprinkle with chopped flat-leaf parsley. Need more? Add chopped olives, toasted nuts, capers, roasted red bell pepper or other roasted vegetables, marinated artichoke hearts…or even canned tuna or crumbled bacon.

*Caramelized onion with Gorgonzola and curly Endive: Cook 2 or 3 thinly sliced, large white onions in 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil over low heat until very soft and turning golden brown–30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Toss cooked pasta with the caramelized onion and three or four cups chopped curly endive. Sprinkle with crumbled Gorgonzola.

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Spanakopita (Greek Spinach Pie)

Spanakopita

I always make a big tray of Spanakopita to take to the Skemp’s Easter party. It’s the perfect time of year to make this dish because the ingredients come straight from the garden–the last of the winter leeks, chard or spinach, fresh herbs…and the chickens provide the eggs. I learned to make this delicious spinach pie with a crust of filo pastry  in Greece from the formidable Spitidoula, who ruled over a massive indoor wood fired oven and brazier of glowing coals. Her kitchen was filled with the smell of bubbling stew,  heady with the aroma of lemons and herbs gathered from the rocky hills. We made Spanakopita at Easter time, when it was all right to use eggs and cheese again. In the weeks before during the fast of lent, she and other village cooks made hortopita, a version of the pie made only with a mixture of wild greens and herbs. I remember them foraging beneath the olive trees as I forage in my own spring garden, looking for early volunteers and the fresh growth of over-wintered greens and herbs.

Ingredients for Spanakopita: extra virgin olive oil, 2 lbs. washed spinach or chard leaves, 1 1/2 cups chopped onion or leeks (white and tender green parts), 2 or 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1/3 cup chopped fresh dill, chervil, or parsley, 1/2 cup chopped arugula, 2 or 3 eggs, 8 oz crumbled feta cheese, a pinch of red chile flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. A cup of ricotta or other soft fresh cheese is optional. This recipe calls for 1/2 package frozen filo sheets. Thaw them at least 2 hours before assembling the Spanakopita.

 Garlic chives, Arugula, Sorrel and Italian parsley

To make the filling, heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet with the onions or leeks over medium heat and sauté 5 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. If the pan is big enough, the chopped spinach can be cooked with the onions. If not, steam the leaves until wilted, drain and chop, and add them to the skillet. Season lightly with salt and black pepper and a pinch or red chile flakes. Remove from the heat and drain any liquid from the vegetables. In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the vegetables to the bowl and stir to combine. Add the herbs and cheese and mix again. Check the seasoning.

Chard

Assemble the Spanakopita: Unwrap the filo sheets and cover them with a damp towel to keep them from drying out. You will need a 9 x 13-inch pyrex baking dish or a larger baking pan at least 1-inch deep. In a small bowl, combine 3 Tbs melted butter and 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. Brush the bottom of the pan with the butter/olive oil and spread one layer of filo in the pan. Brush the filo lightly with butter/oil. Repeat this step until you have used one half the filo sheets (six to eight layers).  Spread the filling over the filo. Layer on the rest of the filo, brushing each sheet with butter/oil. Cut through the pastry to the bottom of the pan to make 3-inch squares, then diagonally into diamonds. Bake the Spanakopita in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.

Traveling the Silk Road

Tapenade

We liked the Caspian Olives with Pomegranate (a.k.a. “Silk Road Tapenade”) so much that it was eaten before I got a photograph. So, I had to make it again. This time I had a big bunch of coriander (cilantro) and plenty of mint. I chopped the herbs, olives, and chile by hand and used the mortar and pestle to mash the garlic and salt to a paste. I left the walnuts very chunky and used dried cranberries as a stand-in for the pomegranate. I much preferred the chunkier, hand-chopped version

Salmon with TapenadeThe new tapenade made a perfect topping for pan-seared salmon–and was even better with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Najmieh Batmanglij, the author of Silk Road Cooking, suggests using the tapenade with flatbreads, or as a topping for rice or pasta. I think it would be very good stirred into tiny pasta like Greek orzo or Israeli couscous. But it also occurred to me that the de-constructed tapenade made a very good collection of ingredients for a pilaf or grain salad. So that’s what I made.

Start the pilaf by sautéing 1/2 cup chopped onion in 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil for a few minutes. Stir in 1 cup farro (a very pleasing grain that is sort of like a cross between kamut and barley) and toast the grain in the oil for a couple of minutes. Add 2 cups water and cook the farro like rice: let the water boil down until it almost meets the level of the grain, reduce the heat to very low, cover the pot, and steam until all the water is absorbed. Farro takes about 35 minutes to cook. Allow the grain to sit, covered, 10 minutes after you turn off the heat. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a serving dish or bowl.

PilafWhile the grain cooks, prepare the other ingredients. I used basically the same ingredients as for the tapenade, but changed the proportions. This pilaf got about 1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves (or substitute parsley), 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, a couple of Tbs chopped chives, a few chopped fresh oregano leaves, 1/2 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, a few grinds of black pepper, one minced jalapeno, 1/4 cup dried cranberries in lieu of pomegranate seeds, a handful of chopped green olives, and maybe 1/2 cup of toasted walnut pieces. Stir these ingredients into the rice and season with salt and fresh lemon juice to taste.

Other grains could replace the farro: Brown or white basmati rice, long or short-grained brown rice (short is best if serving at room temperature), Bhutanese red rice, kamut, wild rice, wheat berries, quinoa, barley…I often like a blend of different grains in pilaf or grain salads, but they should be cooked separately because the cooking times are not always the same.

If I were serving this as a salad, I would most likely add more chopped herbs and vegetables. Diced carrot, fennel, sweet pepper, tomato, celery, avocado…whatever is fresh and available. Save the toasted nuts for last, to keep them crunchy. Drizzle the salad with extra virgin olive oil and a little fresh lemon juice before serving.