Saturday, November 15, 2014

Spelt Pasta

I have friends and family that, for various health reasons, avoid eating wheat. No one in this group has Celiac disease, but all try to avoid gluten with different levels of vigor. Some found that they reasonably tolerate spelt, a subspecies of common wheat, even though spelt contains gluten. So in order to share a plate of homemade pasta with these loved ones, I began experimenting with white spelt flour that I ordered from Keith Giusto’s Central Milling (here). I found that this flour makes excellent fresh pasta.

I started my inquiry by making spelt spaghetti for 2 extruded from my torchio pasta press. I used a standing mixer fitted with a paddle to create a dough made of 150 grams of white spelt flour, 72 grams of an egg mixture consisting of a large whole egg and a large egg yolk, and a pinch of salt. The spelt flour seemed to need less liquid to achieve the texture that I look for in an extruded dough for a torchio. I formed the dough into a log and wrapped it in plastic to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. After popping the dough into the torchio, I set the piston and turned the handle. I needed a significant amount of force to extrude the pasta, but the finished spelt spaghetti looked beautiful and felt dry, dense and heavy. I read that spelt pasta cooks more quickly than conventional wheat pasta, but this wasn’t my experience in this instance. I added the pasta to 2.5 liters of salted, boiling water and cooked the noodles for 3 minutes after the water returned to a boil. After draining, I finished the pasta by cooking it in a sauce for 2 minutes or so. Even then, the pasta had a very firm bite and fine flavor that surpassed the store-bought spelt pasta that I sampled.

I next made spelt fettuccini using my Imperia R220 pasta machine. I followed the same dough recipe as above, except that I added 75 instead of 72 grams of my egg mixture. Again, the dough worked great—dry but not too much so—but it was on the hard side; I had to use a rolling pin to flatten the dough before feeding the dough through the first few settings of my Imperia. I rolled the pasta out to the R220’s number 2 setting, which makes a 1mm thick sheet. The finished fettuccini noodle, like the spaghetti, had a firm bite and excellent flavor.

I tried one last experiment with the spelt flour: I increased the amount of the egg mixture to 80 grams and made another batch of fettuccini. The dough felt softer, but not sticky. The pasta easily traveled through the R220. The finished noodle tasted fine, but I missed the firm bite of the noodle made with 75 grams of my egg mixture.

Overall, I highly recommend Central Milling’s Organic White Spelt Flour for making fresh pasta. The next step in my spelt experiments: create a whole-grain spelt/white spelt flour blend. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Flour + Water Pasta

In the summer of 2011, I attended a series of pasta making classes taught by Thomas McNaughton at his San Francisco restaurant, Flour + Water. The first class covered how to make flat noodles and a simple shape (garganelli). The second and third classes introduced stuffed pasta (cappelletti and agnolotti dal plin) and more complex shapes (cappellacci dei briganti and scarpinocc). McNaughton taught the sessions in his Dough Room, a pasta workshop adjacent to the restaurant. After each class, we cleared the large butcher-block worktables and McNaughton cooked a delicious dinner for the group. It was a pretty sweet deal, and I picked up a number of great pasta making tips. I also learned that McNaughton had a cookbook in the works. And now, three years later, the book has arrived: Flour + Water Pasta by Thomas McNaughton with Paolo Lucchesi and photographs by Eric Wolfinger. If you want to hone and expand your pasta making skills, buy this book.

McNaughton and Lucchesi divide Flour + Water Pasta into two parts. Part One, entitled The Dough, covers how to make different types of pasta dough, how to cook pasta, and how to use the recipes in the book. The authors divide Part Two, entitled The Recipes, by season: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. These recipes reflect McNaughton and his restaurant’s mission: “to explore the complexity of pasta and use it to showcase the bounty of Northern California ingredients.” McNaughton masterfully combines traditional shapes and techniques with a regional and modern approach to ingredients. Under Summer, you’ll find recipes for Corn and Crescenza Cappelletti with Bitter Honey and for Bigoli with Fresh Shelling Beans, Tomato, and Pancetta. Under Autumn, McNaughton shares his recipe for Spaghetti with Black Trumpet, Poached Egg, and Cured Yolk. Scattered among contemporary dishes such as Cocoa Tajarin with Brown Butter-Braised Giblets, Butternut Squash, and Sage, you find classic, traditional dishes like Tortellini in Brodo, Agnolotti dal Plin, and Tagliatelle Bolognese.

As much as I enjoy and appreciate how McNaughton pairs the old and new, to my mind Flour + Water Pasta shines when it shares what McNaughton knows about making fresh pasta. McNaughton has impressive credentials, including working under Chef Michael Tusk at San Francisco’s Quince and making pasta at a laboratorio in Bologna. Flour + Water Pasta works as a primer for those who want to learn the basics of how to make fresh pasta, but in my opinion, the book better suits the more experienced pasta maker interested in different pasta dough recipes and complex shaping techniques. McNaughton’s standard egg dough, which makes 644 grams of dough, calls for 360 grams 00 flour, 1¼ teaspoons kosher salt, 18 to 20 egg yolks—he wants 300 grams of yolks—and 1½ teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil: a tricky dough to cut one’s teeth on as a beginner.

But for the cook interested in expanding his or her pasta making repertoire, Flour + Water Pasta is the book for you. McNaughton teaches you how to make pasta shapes both common and obscure: spaghetti and caramelle; farfalle and casonsei; pappardelle and stradette. McNaughton and Lucchesi also cover topics like making pasta by hand with a rolling pin, and the importance of pork in Emillia-Romagna cuisine.  I particularly enjoyed McNaughton’s and Lucchesi’s shout out to Emilio Mitidieri. If you want to explore the world of making fresh pasta here in the states, you need to know about Emilio and his company (here).

When I enrolled in McNaughton’s pasta classes, I wanted to learn the finer points of making fresh pasta from a working chef and, with luck, score a dough recipe for my relatively new torchio pasta press. (I accomplished the former, but, sadly, not the latter.) Now with the debut of Flour + Water Pasta, readers have the benefit of McNaughton’s vast pasta-making knowledge without having to travel to Flour + Water’s Dough Room in San Francisco. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pesce spada alla ghiotta

I try to be open-minded when I visit my favorite local fish market. Although I might walk in with a plan of buying Manila clams to make a pasta sauce or of picking up a piece of black cod to marinate in miso, I remind myself to take a careful look at what else is in the case and to be flexible.  That’s why a couple of weeks ago I set out for the Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley to buy some scallops, but came home with a beautiful piece of swordfish.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960’s, it seemed to me that every grocery store and seafood restaurant sold swordfish. Then the fish disappeared. I remember hearing about high mercury levels in local catches. Or was it overfished? Whatever the reason(s) swordfish vanished, you can buy it now, but with this caveat: the EPA cautions “women who might become pregnant; women who are pregnant; nursing mothers; (and) young children” against eating swordfish, shark, king mackerel or tilefish, because they contain high levels of mercury.  The EPA writes that “nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels...because they’ve had more time to accumulate it.”

Noting the EPA’s warning (but more than reasonably satisfied that I do not fall in any high-risk group), I arrived home with my swordfish steak.

When I think swordfish, I think Sicily. I pulled an armful of Sicilian cookbooks off my library shelf. I wanted a dish with with tomatoes, olives and capers.  After looking at all of the variations on this theme, I decided to go with a recipe entitled Pesce spada alla ghiotta (translated as Tasty swordfish) from an Italian/English language cookbook called Sicilia in cucina – The flavours of Sicily (2013) from SIME Books. I like this recipe’s absolute simplicity. It takes very little time to make—maybe 30 minutes, tops—and tastes absolutely fantastic: bold yet fresh. Here’s the English version of Pesce spada alla ghiotta, which serves 4.

300 g (10½ oz) swordfish, sliced
200 g (7 oz) potatoes
200 g (7 oz) canned peeled tomatoes
½ onion
green olives, pitted
1 tablespoon desalinated capers
chilli (sic) pepper
extra virgin olive oil

Sauté the chopped onion in plenty of oil and add the olives, desalinated capers, peeled tomatoes, chilli (sic) pepper, salt and pepper.

Cook for 20 minutes.

Add the swordfish and cook for a further 5 minutes.

Boil the potatoes separately. Peel and slice them, then add to the fish. Sprinkle with chopped basil.

I’ll add a few notes to the above. I like to cube the swordfish because I think this helps to keep the fish from getting overcooked and dry. I use about 10 large castelvetrano olives and red-skinned potatoes. If you want to skip the potatoes, I think the swordfish and its sauce work very well with rigatoni. The book’s editor pairs the dish with a 2009 Italian frapatto and nero d’avola blend from Arianna Occhipinti called “SP 68”. Fantastic choice. Paul Marcus Wines in Berkeley often has this hard-to-find red wine, but the shop was currently out of its stock when I dropped in to pick up a bottle (or two…or three). But the shop did have Occhipinti’s frappato, which costs more, but goes wonderfully with Pesce spada alla ghiotta.