I once went to a restaurant that was known for the way its food was displayed on the plate. This was back in the early 90’s, when food as art and celebrity chefs started to make inroads into our daily stream of things we should pay attention to. The restaurant of mention that year was located across the street from a major cultural center, and since we had time to kill before curtain up at the ballet, my friend and I ventured in. The décor? Well, lets just say Dr. Seuss would have felt right at home. The menu read like those tiny white cards affixed to walls adjacent to works of art in a gallery. Various selections were referred to with terms like “mélange”, “infusion”, “concasse” and “coulis”. A particularly wordy description accompanied a selection listed as “vegetable presentation”. I knew I had to order it, if only to see what exactly the presentation was, and if overhead slides might be included. Altitude was a key factor in this dish, so much so that I was surprised the height of the presentation wasn’t included in the elaborate menu description. Color upon color of poached, seared, shaved, smoked, ionized, cured and foamed veggie were layered higher and higher, culminating in a sprig of rosemary stuck into the top like the spire on the Chrysler building. It was indeed impressive, and actually quite tasty, between giggles and snorts. Certainly coming up with something like the leaning tower of veg took considerable imagination, but truth be told, the overpriced “presentation” was really just a very nice salad, piled sky high.
I realize this may be viewed as heresy by the phalanx of foodies out there, but a heck of a lot of dishes, especially the most elaborate and hence impressive, are really a case of smoke and mirrors. Fancy accoutrements, drops of sauces decoratively strewn aren’t necessarily better, just better presented. That’s not to say there aren’t amazing artists and culinary craftsmen out there. I am lucky enough to know a few, and often stand in awe of what they can do with ingredients and kitchen alchemy. But for every truly creative construction that hits a plate, there are at least as many that look damn impressive and only the cook knows how simple the process.
Take homemade pasta. The act of making mouthwatering meals from what is basically water, flour, maybe some egg and a pinch of salt has been going on for centuries. Yet step into a restaurant or watch a cooking demo when someone is making noodles on the spot and it instantly is transformed to something “those food people do”. Here’s a thought. Remember play dough? Well freshly made pasta is basically grown up play dough. Play dough that you really should eat.
I too was gob smacked the first time I tasted real handmade pasta. Gob smacked, until I learned just how simple it is to make myself. I absolutely love making pasta. Maybe it’s the feel of it, or how wonderful the handmade stuff is even in a sauce as simple as butter and cheese. Whatever it is, I find an afternoon filled with mixing, rolling, cutting and cooking homemade noodles intensely satisfying and even a little therapeutic. I mean, really, who doesn’t love a good noodle? So why not give some homemade pasta a try? There are few things as simple yet impressive. Call it a “rolled wheat construction” when you serve it to your awe-filled friends…they’ll be talking about it for weeks 😉
Pasta dough is really nothing more than flour and water. Add in an egg for a little color, oil for a more subtle texture, and salt for flavor. I’ve played with mixing different flours (white, wheat, buckwheat), but my all-time favorite combines regular all-purpose flour and semolina. I love the color and the chewy-ness semolina adds, especially when used for formed pasta like orecchietti (little ears) or fusilli (spirals or corkscrews). Using a pasta maker, either hand-crank, electric or an attachment to stand mixer makes this a whole lot faster and easier, but you don’t have to run out and buy a Marcato to make lovely pasta. A bowl, fork, rolling pin and a little elbow grease is all you need to noodle at home. Since this recipe is a little bit of ingredients and a lot of technique, I’ve added some pictures along the way. Best of all, there’s no rule saying you can’t make up your own shapes, and as an activity to inspire kids to cook, there’s nothing better than letting them play with dough and serving it up for supper. So don’t be scared. Go ahead and get your noodle on!
Semolina Pasta Dough
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup semolina flour
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 large eggs
- ½ tsp olive oil
- 3-4 TBSP cold water
[NOTE: you can make the dough in a food processor, but I’ve decided to do the whole recipe by hand. If using a processor mix the flours and salt together, beat the eggs with olive oil and add in a stream into the bowl. Using ice water, add water one tablespoon at a time and mix until the dough forms a ball. Wrap in cling film and stow in fridge for at least 30 minutes before rolling.]
Pasta by hand:
Mix the flours and salt in a large mixing bowl with your hand. Make a well in the middle and add the two eggs and olive oil. With a fork, beat the eggs until combined, then slowly pull in flour until you have a paste. With your hand, continue to mix in the flour until you have a rough ball. Either in the bowl, or on a floured surface, knead the ball about 5-8 minutes until it is smooth. Wrap in cling film and stow in fridge for at least 30 minutes. It will keep a day or so in the fridge wrapped well if you want to make ahead.
On a well floured surface, roll out dough until very thin – if you put a magazine or paper under it, you should be able to see the paper through the pasta. Let the sheet of pasta dry for about 15 minutes on the counter. Using a ruler or other straight edge cut strips with a knife or pizza cutter and toss in flour. Transfer the pasta piles to a floured cookie sheet and let dry about an hour. Transfer the pasta to a zip top freezer bag. Pasta can last in the freezer for several months in a well-sealed bag.
After the pasta sheet has dried about 15 minutes, cut the pasta into 3-inch wide strips. Lay out the strips with the long edge facing you. Cut the pasta into very thin strips (about ¼”). Flour a chopstick or thin ¼” dowel and wrap the pasta around it to make a corkscrew spiral. Slide the pasta off onto well-floured counter. Once you have a large pile, toss well in flour, let dry about an hour, and transfer to zip top freezer bag.
Cut off a piece of the dough and wrap up the remainder. Roll the dough into a rope about ½” thick. With a knife or bench scraper, cut 1/2” pieces off of rope. Flour the palm of your hand. Take a piece of the dough and using your thumb, press into the palm of your hand to make a cup-shape. Continue with the other pieces of dough. Once you have a large pile, toss well in flour, let dry about an hour, and transfer to zip top freezer bag.
Here’s one of my favorite sauces for homemade shaped pasta:
Orecchietti and Fusilli with Peas, Ricotta and Parmesan
Per one cup uncooked freshly made orecchietti and/or fusilli
- 1/2 cup chopped leeks
- 1 teaspoon butter
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- ¼ cup whole milk ricotta
- 1 teaspoon heavy cream
- ½ tsp lemon zest
- 1/3 cup frozen baby peas
- 2 tablespoons grated parmesan
- 1/8 tsp pepper
- ¼ tsp salt
Heat the butter and oil in a medium sauté pan. Add the leeks and tiny pinch salt and cook over medium low heat until caramelized, about 8-10 minutes. While the leeks are cooking, put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. When the water is boiling, add a few big pinches salt. Add the pasta and peas, bring water back to a boil and cook for 2-4 minutes or until the pasta is floating and al dente. (Fresh pasta cooks much faster than dried).
When the pasta is ready, add the ricotta, cream and lemon zest to the leeks, along with 1/3 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and peas and add to the pan with the sauce. Add salt and pepper. Cook, stirring for a minute or two until the pasta is coated with sauce. Turn the heat off, add the parmesan and toss well. Top with a grind of black pepper and serve in warm pasta bowl. Sit back and enjoy your handmade noodles! Calories: approximately 550 per serving.
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