Monday, April 16, 2012

The Time Has Come...

Pasta. The one thing I've waited to make since I first looked into starting this Italian culinary program. I have been excited for so long and the time has coooooome! We've officially begun our introduction to pasta and, while my hips are going to scream at me, my heart is overjoyed. I really do feel like the luckiest person because I consistently get so giddy in the kitchen at school. That definitely makes for a happy Valerie.

Pasta is one of those things that can never, ever get old. There are endless ways to work with it. I'd always viewed it as just a vehicle for whatever amazing sauce or ragu you could put on it but now I feel guilty for not recognizing it as a true star of the show itself. We begin our introduction with fresh pasta which I think everyone loves. Historically speaking, it was unknown for quite some time where pasta actually originated. There are a bunch of theories but it's since been proven that noodles themselves were born in China, yet Italy and the Mediterranean had pasta for ages. It was in ancient Rome where flour and water were mixed together to form the first "pasta" but it's not proven what method of cooking was actually used. Interestingly enough, pasta was definitely present in the Arab world as well.

In Italy, the traditional way of making pasta was to use buckwheat. Each region has their own way of doing it but that was the traditional ingredient used. Pasta fresca, or fresh pasta, was usually only made in the home or in small restaurants. Now, you can get it right in your grocery store! It's very light and delicate so there are only a few ways to serve it without destroying the noodle itself. It also takes just a couple of minutes to cook vs. dried pasta that can take up to ten. The key to cooking pasta as a whole is that the sauce should really stick to the noodles and not slide off. You can achieve that best by cooking pasta in boiling water, as usual, but finishing it in a pan with a touch of pasta water added. The starch in the water helps create a "stickiness" and binds the sauce to the noodle. When working with fresh pasta, the best sauces to use are those with a smooth, light (not meaning in calories but meaning in weight) consistency such as butter, cream or olive oil based sauces. Anything thick or chunky will weigh down fresh pasta and ruin it, essentially.

A basic but delicious recipe that's widely used, and what we worked with for the day, is pasta all'uova or pasta with eggs. It couldn't be easier to make and man, what a gigantic difference it makes in flavor when you cook it properly. As mentioned, each region has their own way of making fresh pasta to this day. In Emilia-Romagna, a region famous for their fresh pasta, they do it with just flour and egg whereas, in Tuscany, they add salt, water and a little olive oil. In our recipe, we used egg, flour, salt and olive oil. All of us had such fun making the dough:
It's like playdough when you start kneading it! Fun for us adults, heehee.

Side note: Always, always cook pasta in a big pot of heavily salted water. The water should taste like the sea. This is the only real way to impart flavor to the noodles themselves outside of their sauce and it's often the most overlooked step. Add the salt when the water begins to boil because doing so beforehand can actually damage your pots due to the salt being corrosive if it sits on the bottom of the pot. Also, adding oil to the water does absolutely nothing. Yep, that age old "trick" you might have learned from your mom is a myth. Who knew?!

"Coloring" agents are often used in fresh pasta, as well. You can do this by adding amazing things like pureed spinach or beet juice or anything, really. We made a fresh spinach dough to use the next day for our lasagna. It was so vibrant and lovely:
We made a traditional ragu di carne (meat sauce) too that was really delicious using ground pork, beef and prosciutto:
Layers of flavors from the veggies and meat are just so rich and delectable. Drool.

Another thing we did was crank out some orecchiette, one of my favorite pasta shapes. This would be our first try at making 'fresh dried' pasta as we let it sit overnight to harden for a dish we'd do later. Um, what a giant pain in the ass these are to make. I have a huge appreciation now for this shape of pasta, seriously. Orecchiette means 'little ears' and that's what the shape resembles. Mine, not so much, but you get the idea:
My thumb actually hurt after working on a bunch of these. Orecchiette is originally from Apulia and usually made with flour that's native to that region. The most common way you find this served is with broccoli rabe in an olive oil sauce.

The final thing we did was to make our first dish with an emulsified butter sauce. We'll be doing this sauce a bunch so hopefully I'll get better at it. It's a tricky thing to do because it's actually made with just butter and some pasta water but you have to finesse it a bit. Otherwise, your sauce will 'break' which means the fat and water will separate, just like oil and water does, instead of emulsify and stay thick. Nobody wants to eat pasta sitting in a pool of fat... I chose to make angel hair in sage butter:
While it was delicious, it seems I'll need a good bit of practice with this emulsification process. I have no problem with that if it means eating this more often.

Yep, it's safe to say that we all had a ton of fun in the kitchen with day one of pasta. Next up? Stuffed pasta. Ravioli, here I come!

1 comment:

Ray Ray said...

OMG! My favorite post yet, by far! This sounds so amazing. And there are SO many neat facts about pasta. It all just makes me hungry. :-)