Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Tag: pasta

Winter Sunday Pasta

Mix, beat, stretch, and cut eggs and flour to get pasta. Down from the high shelf I grab the chrome pasta machine, clamping the base to my countertop, inserting the crank, and brushing off old flour. Across the counter and on the TV, a football game rolls. Sauce is bubbling on the stove. But first, the dough.

Pasta dough is a strange thing. Recipes for it often produce something else. Eggs come in many sizes, brands of flour are milled to different dimensions of dust, and variables like humidity shape the properties of the resulting ball of dough. Numbers and precision are of little use other than as starting points. Generally, I go with two eggs per one-and-a-half cups of flour, a measurement I cribbed from Leite’s Culinaria.

My great-grandmother, it is said, could measure the temperature of water with a swipe of her finger. If it was right, she added the yeast for bread. My grandmother taught me how to make pasta in half-a-dozen dinners spread out over 25 years. I have learned that the dough is ready when you think it is. Add whatever flour you please, roll to whatever thick or thinness. Touch. Does it feel ready? You’ll know after you’ve made pasta a hundred times.

Taglierini

The sauce simmering on my stove–its murmuring more pleasant than the din of broadcasters and human collisions–was Bolognese. The sauce is popular in Italian-American cooking. It is also popular in Bologna, Italy, where it is simply called ragú, in English, “sauce.”

Bolognese

I first cooked Bolognese four or five years ago from a cookbook that has become my most oil-splattered and timeworn: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a work of intelligence, rough aesthetic, and surgical recipes and writing. The author, Marcella Hazan, a trained biologist who was born not far from Bologna, prefaces her recipe with a galactic claim: “There is no more union more perfect in all of gastronomy than the marriage of Bolognese ragú with homemade Bolognese tagliatelle.” As the football game unfolded, I was making versions of both.

Years before, I watched the proprietor of an agritourism farm in Bologna make tagliatelle, a thick noodle revered in the region. When the dough was made, he rolled it like a crepe. With a long knife he cut a cross-section of the dough, stuck the blade into the tangle, lifted, and from the knife’s top dangled ribbons of fat yellow noodles. Here they are, uncooked:

Bolognese Tagliatelle

Feeling lazy (squash and a chicken were already in the oven) and blissfully enervated from the wine I drank whenever I washed my hands of flour, I used the machine to cut the stretched dough. Actually, the hand-cut method is easier, but I was in a nice rhythm with the cranking and pulling. Soon, the taglierini noodles were ready, and right when I finished cutting them–right then–the experience of making pasta peaked, before the salt water bath, before the first taste.

Please inhale the below video of an ancient Italian woman making tagliatelle.

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Greenness and Grass

Today, on the way back from Sunday brunch in Chinatown, I picked up, among other groceries, a jar of wild blueberry jam. Thoughts of work were sailing in like storm clouds. As I often do with food, I wondered about the jam, about the snug rural place it came from, and about the guy who picks blueberries all day.

When I see honey, I imagine the beekeeper. When I read on a menu that a beer has been brewed by monks since 1634, as in the case with Paulaner Salvator, I imagine the monks in their high stone fortress stirring beer with paddles. And today, when I saw in Little Italy a package of penne made by La Terra e Il Cielo, I didn’t imagine anything at all. I remembered. Harvesting grain, chaffing the kernels, driving them to the pasta factory. It is strange to wonder back to yourself.

I once worked at La Terra e Il Cielo, a cooperative of farmers farming mostly in Le Marche, Italy. In fact, I was there for the co-op’s 30th anniversary, and we ate roasted goose and drank verdicchio, the wine of the region, in a castle that would satisfy any beer-brewing monk. There it was, the pasta on the shelf; and there I was, the sun high, the breeze rustling, the tractor rumbling, and my gloves on tight.

When you imagine what it’s like for the guy who picks blueberries, who grows garlic, who brews beer, who serves that beer on a cruise ship, or who makes a living from writing about that beer, there are no clouds, only beaming sunlight. But the beer can go flat, and plenty of cruise ships make their last stop on the ocean floor. With my gloves on tight and the smell of mint blowing in from the woods, I couldn’t see a cloud, only rows and rows of garlic, the bulbs so present I could taste them in the air and, later, would have to throw out my clothes.

But you return to the jam, the honey, the pasta. Work looms. If those wondered about places always seem green and sunny, it’s because some of them are.

Scapes and Shells, Two Ways

On Saturday, I walked Shadow to the farmers’ market on Hoboken’s 14th street. There, sitting in a basket, the stems coiled like green whips, were a bunch of garlic scapes. They were soon in my bag, and I was soon in my kitchen. “Yes, yes!” said my pre-caffeinated mind, “A new food, a new adventure!”

Garlic bulbs grow in the ground. I know this from my days as a garlic farmer. Garlic scapes are what, when a tractor driven by a crazed Italian loosens the clay, you grab to yank garlic bulbs from the soil. I have never cooked the scape, only braided them to make their bulbs sell for more at market. Now I, the customer, had a coil of scapes in my bag and the promise of a rustic dinner in my head.

Food is like writing in that the meals and stories are best when they’re still in your head; put them to plate or paper, and you can hope for at best an echo of your beautiful idea. So there I stood, sharpening my knife, the scapes tangled on the cutting board, about to start my meal and thereby ruin it. The scapes looked like the stems of tulips. If left be, a garlic scape will sprout white or purple petals on its tip. Farmers snip these flowers to shape the bulb’s flavor. Probably flowers had never bloomed on my scapes, and certainly they never would now that I had sliced them to bits.

Two-thirds went into pesto, the rest into a sautée pan with olive oil, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes. I ran the blender when scapes, basil, mint, toasted almonds, and Parmesan cheese were in. In spurts, I drizzled in olive oil, leaving the finished pesto to sit while seeing to the sautée pan. Some pancetta and peas in the pan. Some pasta water. Some grape tomatoes, sweet corn, basil, and ricotta salata after I’d cut the heat.

Above are the pastas: scapes and shells two ways, one sauce raw, one cooked. I’m glad I was able to ruin my meal into something tasty.

Frittata of Leftover Pasta

Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

1 cup    leftover pasta

1 tbsp   olive oil

4           large eggs

Salt + Pepper

Red pepper flakes

1) Remove the pasta from the fridge at least 30 minutes before cooking. Let the pasta stand on the countertop and warm to room temp.

2) Put a non-stick pan over medium-low heat. Slick the flat part of the pan’s surface with olive oil

3) Over a large bowl crack the eggs. Grind salt and pepper over the eggs, keeping in mind how peppery and salty and spicy your pasta was two nights ago. Add some red pepper flakes if you like. Whisk the eggy solution and, when well mixed, add the pasta and mix again.

4) Pour the egg-pasta liquid into the pan. Use a spoon to spread the pasta, for the noodles tend to gather in one area of the pan, and we want to evenly distribute them. Cover the pan. Let sit for 8-10 minutes, peeking under the lid when the mood strikes.

5) When the egg has mostly congealed and resembles an omelet but for a shallow pool on top, it is time for the flip. Place a large plate next to the pan. Carefully slide a spatula under the omelet and loosen it from the sides and bottom of the pan. (We used a heady dose of oil to ease the pain this step can bring.) Now, tilting the pan to the plate, use the spatula to transfer the omelet to the plate.

6) Breathe. How many times have I messed up the flip? Too many.

7) Invert the pan over the omelet. Put one hand on the panhandle and the other under the plate. Pressing plate and pan together, invert the plate in one quick motion, landing the pan right-side-up on the still-hot burner. Cook the omelet uncovered for another 30 seconds. Transfer to the plate. Eat.

A Farmer’s Pasta in Six Ingredients

“Guanciale” comes from guancia, the Italian word for cheek. Guancia also means pillow, for where do you rest your cheek at night? Guanciale, a strip of meat, comes from a pig’s cheek that has been cured. The cut is some 90% fat. I seldom eat meat, but in the hour before I do, something like guanciale arrives on my cutting board.

My favorite pasta calls for guanciale, spaghetti, onions, olive oil, tomato purée, and Parmesan cheese. Should you be unable to find guanciale, pancetta can substitute. But Guanciale gives the pasta a deeply animal flavor that takes you to a place out of time, to a sad barn in the hills, to the campfire of Stone Age hunters, to a savage and dirty place where tofu and cream-white chicken have never been tasted.

I learned to cook this pasta in Italy, from the owner of a farm near Bologna, where I worked a few summers ago. “A farmer’s pasta,” he often said while preparing the dish. (It appears on menus as spaghetti amatriciana.) Here’s his version:

And mine:

And a recipe:

Spaghetti Amatriciana (“a farmer’s pasta”)

Serves 2

1 tbsp   olive oil

1/4 lb   guanciale, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1            small onion, chopped

1 cup     tomato purée (or crushed tomatoes, etc.)

1/2 lb    spaghetti

Parmesan cheese to taste

1) Put two paper towels on a plate beside your stove. Sauté guanciale in olive oil over medium heat, stirring often. After three or four minutes, when the guanciale is browned  and a pool of grease coats the pan, transfer guanciale with a slotted spoon to the paper towels. Use paper towels to lazily wrap the guanciale.

2) Sauté onion in the guanciale’s grease for three minutes over medium-low heat. Pour in tomato purée. Let simmer, stirring occasionally.

3) Cook the spaghetti in salted water (about 1 tsp. salt) until al dente. Drain spaghetti. Add to simmering sauce. Add guanciale. Kill heat. Stir well. Sprinkle Parmesan onto the pasta. Eat.