Monday, April 6, 2015


Surely we live in The Golden Age of pasta making instruction. In March of this year, Ten Speed Press published Marc Vetri’s Mastering Pasta. Right on its heels, Chronicle Books put out Jenn Louis’s Pasta By Hand. Last year, Ten Speed published Thomas McNaughton’s Flour + Water Pasta (here), and in 2013, Norton released Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant’s Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way (here). Of these works, Mastering Pasta and Flour + Water Pasta share the most similarities; both books offer an excellent pasta making primer followed by mostly modern (as opposed to traditional) pasta and sauce parings. Sauces & Shapes covers a broad range of authentic Italian recipes for pasta, both fresh and dry, in soups and sauces.

Jenn Louis’s outstanding Pasta By Hand takes a unique and different path from these other books. Louis exclusively focuses on fresh, handmade pasta dumplings. She defines Italian dumplings as “carefully handcrafted nubs of dough that are poached, simmered, baked, or sautéed.” As one might expect, her book covers gnocchi, perhaps the most obvious of Italian dumplings, but as Louis points out, “while all gnocchi are dumplings, not all dumplings are gnocchi.” So scan Pasta By Hand’s Contents and you’ll find recipes for Sardinian malloreddus, Puglian orecchiette, Molisan cavatelli and Ligurian trofie.

But the majority of recipes in Pasta by Hand celebrate what most pasta eaters think of as gnocchi: bite-sized dumplings made by combining flour and a mixture of potato or a vegetable and cheese. Look up gnocco—the singular of gnocchi—in Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta and you’ll learn: “The word gnocco is not of Latin origin, but one of the many words that culinary Italian has taken from the immense pool of dialect terms, in this case probably from the Veneto, where we find the dialect word gnoco. The latter may go back to the time of the Longobard domination and the term knohha, which is nocca or nodo in Italian, or “knot.” Thus, the old name probably referred to the irregular shape of tree knots.” Fascinating!

Pasta By Hand dives deep into gnocchi. Louis explores these  dumplings by region. From Campania we get a traditional potato gnocchi bathed in a simple tomato sauce with fresh mozzarella and torn basil leaves. From Emilia-Romagna comes a recipe for potato gnocchi enriched with egg and ricotta paired with a range of traditional sauces, such as Brown Butter and Sage or Lamb Ragù. And from Trentino-Alto Adige, Louis shares a recipe for Strangolapreti that is a close cousin of Michelina Satori’s recipe for Strangolapreti alla Trentina that I shared with you last year (here).

With so many dishes to tempt me, I had a hard time deciding what to cook first. In honor of the Satori Family, I went with a traditional spätzli from Trentino-Alto Adige. I own a nifty German spaetzle plane or spätzlehobel from Küchenprofi—this is the spaetzle maker to buy here in the states—so whipping up these little dumplings took no time at all. Louis’s recipe serves 6.

350 G / 2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 Tsp kosher salt
2 eggs
300 G / 1¼ cups whole milk, plus more as needed
extra-virgin olive oil for tossing
sauce of your choice (suggestions to follow)

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, salt, eggs, and milk. Mix with a wooden spoon or on medium speed until just combined, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir more vigorously or raise the speed up a notch or two and beat until the batter becomes slightly shiny and elastic, 3 to 5 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, check the texture of the batter—it should be thin and elastic, with more stretch than a typical batter. If it is too thick, add more milk, 1 Tbsp at a time, to achieve this texture.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Bring a large pot filled with generously salted water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Working in batches, press the dough through a spätzli maker or colander into the simmering water. Simmer the spätzli until they float to the surface, about 1 minute. Stir to release any spätzli that have settled on the bottom of the pot. Simmer for 1 minute more, until tender. Remove immediately with a fine-mesh strainer and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Toss the cooked spätzli with a little olive oil, so they don’t stick together. Allow to cool to room temperature. Finish with your choice of sauce. Serve right away.

Louis recommends either a Sage and Speck or Brown Butter with Sage sauce to pair with her traditional spätzli. But it’s hard to go too terribly wrong if you want a sauce that heads in a different direction. I topped my spätzli with Benton’s bacon sautéed with shimeji mushroons and peas. You probably wouldn’t find this combination in Trentino-Alto Adige, but I found these ingredients in my refrigerator and the finished dish tasted delicious.

Louis’s recipe scales down nicely if you halve the recipe. You can add chopped thyme, parsley or oregano to make an herb-version of the dish. Louis also provides a recipe for Spinach Spätzli and Beet Spätzli. I did have to thin out the batter with milk, but I used medium eggs for my batter. If you want to see what the batter should look like, check out Jenn Louis’s “spaetzle prep 101” on Vine, a video posting site. Her Portland restaurant, Lincoln, has posted a number of short looping video clips that help clarify some of the shapes and techniques featured in Pasta By Hand. The loop for menietti is particularly helpful given the rarity of this shape. Actually, Chronicle Books and Louis should film a loop for each pasta shape in the book and post the videos on-line. Why not?

As I write, it’s only April, but I find it hard to imagine that Pasta By Hand won’t make my 2015 Best Cookbook of the Year list. Now here’s a thought: why doesn’t Jenn Louis tag along with Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant and do a little Vine on how to make each shape in the Encyclopedia of Pasta. A Serious Bunburyist can dream, can’t he?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tagliolini col sugo di agnello

I read a lot of pasta recipes. Occasionally I come across a recipe that illustrates a novel technique to cook pasta. Let’s take a look at one such recipe: Tagliolini col sugo di agnello (Egg pasta with lamb sauce). What’s unique about this recipe? You cook the fresh tagliolini directly in its sauce.

I first read Tagliolini col sugo di agnello in Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Il Lazio a Tavola (1994), which Maureen B. Fant translated into English as The Food of Rome and Lazio. The recipe also appears in the updated 2013 version of The Food of Rome and Lazio entitled Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds – Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio published by the University of California (here). Look and you’ll also find a nearly identical recipe for this dish (but with more detailed instructions) on-line by Mario Batali. The following recipe from Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds makes 4 servings.

1 small onion
1 carrot
leaves from 1 small bunch basil
3½ ounces (100 g) lean pancetta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ pounds (700g) boneless lamb, in ¾-inch (2-cm) pieces
1 cup (250 ml) dry white table wine
12 ounces (350 g) canned tomatoes
12 ounces (350 g) fresh egg tagliolini

Chop together finely the onion, carrot, basil, and pancetta. Put them in a pan with the oil over medium heat. When the pancetta fat has completely melted, add the lamb and brown, stirring. Add the wine and let it evaporate, then add the tomatoes and 4 cups (1 liter) boiling water. Season with salt and pepper and continue cooking until the meat is tender. Remove the lamb from the sauce with a slotted spoon and keep warm.

Add the tagliolini to the sauce, which should be quite liquid, and cook until al dente. Return the lamb to the pan and stir for a few minutes. Transfer to a warmed serving bowl and serve immediately.

Read through Fant’s skillful translation of Zanini De Vita’s Italian recipe and the American reader might ask: What size pan? What cut of lamb? Chop the tomatoes? Cover the pot as the lamb cooks? Batali’s version of the recipe answers these questions: a large, fairly deep skillet; lamb shoulder; crush by hand and also add the can’s juice; yes.

When I make the dish I prefer to very finely chop the tomatoes. I might try reducing a cup of chicken stock in place of wine. It’s pretty remarkable to see the starchy pasta transform a very liquid stew into a lovely sauce in a matter of a minute or two. Take care to mix the pasta as it cooks so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. If I want to save time when making the fresh pasta, I use the tagliolini cutting attachment to my Imperia R220. If you hand-cut your pasta, aim for a noodle width of around 1-mm.

It’s rare, but, as the above recipe demonstrates, not unheard of to cook pasta in sauce as opposed to boiling water. Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta (2009) contains other examples (e.g., see gramigna (here).) It’s much more common to finish a dish by briefly cooking the just boiled pasta with its sauce. And since we’re exploring cooking pasta, why go through the trouble of finishing cooked pasta in its sauce? Thomas McNaughton writes in his 2014 Flour + Water Pasta (here) that this step allows the pasta to adsorb (as opposed to absorb) the sauce. McNaughton explains: “The reality of the science is that once pasta is cooked in water, it doesn’t absorb any more flavor from the finishing pan sauce. Because pasta is water-soluble, it absorbs only the water from the sauce, not any aroma or oils. Instead, the pasta is adsorbing the flavors, meaning the flavor only sticks to the surface of the pasta.” So, in a nutshell, the step helps pasta and sauce’s flavors to cling to one another. See what you can learn from reading cookbooks!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Welsh Rabbit

Let’s begin 2015 by tucking into a rich, spicy, cheese-glazed piece of toast called a Welsh Rabbit. Today’s recipe comes from Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham’s The Prawn Cocktail Years (here). Consult Fergus Henderson’s Nose To Tail Eating and you’ll find a recipe for Welsh Rarebit. Is the dish a Rabbit or Rarebit? It doesn’t really much matter. Call this delectable savory what you like.

Hopkinson and Bareham’s version cooks up differently than your typical Rabbit. Their recipe eliminates the dish’s standard roux base. This means one needs to take a bit of extra care when making their Rabbit’s cheese topping.  Cheese has a tendency to break when it melts at too high a temperature. Adding a starch (such as the flour in a roux) to cheese helps to prevent breakage, but you can also avoid overcooking by using a very low heat and slowly incorporating your cheese in small quantities.

Another difference in the Hopkinson/Bareham Rabbit is that it includes egg yolks to increase the dish’s already over-the-top richness. The yolks add additional fat and body and cause the cheese mixture to puff up nicely whilst the Rabbit broils.

But enough of the differences. Today’s recipe shares most of the essential ingredients in any Welsh Rabbit: butter, English mustard, cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce, stout and, of course, cheese. Although called a Welsh Rabbit, this dish, which serves 2, includes no rabbit, Welsh or otherwise.

25g butter
1 tsp English mustard [Note: I use Colman’s Mustard Powder]
Worcestershire sauce
4 shakes Tabasco
2 tbsp stout or Guinness
75g mature Cheddar or Double Gloucester or Cheshire or Lancashire, grated
2 egg yolks
2 thick slices bread
cayenne pepper

Place the butter, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and stout or Guinness in a small pan and heat it through. Add the cheese, stirring as it melts, without letting the mixture boil. Remove the pan from the heat and leave it to cool to room temperature. Beat in the two egg yolks. Toast the bread on one side, spread the untoasted side thickly with the mixture and cook under a pre-heated grill until blistered and bubbling. Dust with cayenne and serve with a splash of Worcestershire sauce.

Some notes and thoughts. Again, work over a very low heat and add the grated cheese slowly and you shouldn’t have a problem with the cheese breaking. I use a couple of splashes of Worcestershire sauce and this quantity tasted just fine to me. Finally, Hopkinson and Bareham admit that “[t]he recipe uses what seems like a silly amount of stout….” Yes, the recipe calls for two (2) tablespoons of stout. But the pair also point out that the rest of the bottle can nicely wash down the spicy Rabbit.