Saturday, October 14, 2017

Straw & Hay Gramigna

Leafing through Michael White’s Classico e Moderno (Random House, 2013), I came across a version of Gramigna con salsiccia that caught my attention. In the recipe’s introduction, White writes: “Befitting its name, “little weeds,” gramigna is made both in yellow and green versions, the latter with a spinach dough, often served together.” The idea of a paglia e fieno (“straw and hay”) version of gramigna intrigued me. Authentic? I pulled my copy of Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta (University of California Press, 2009) off the shelf and looked up gramigna. Sure enough, Zanini De Vita covers the straw and hay variation: “The factory-made version varies from small to medium size, in the shape of a tiny worm, and is often found in a paglia e fieno version.” I posted an egg dough version of gramigna (here), but never attempted a green pasta dough for the torchio. No time like the present.

I developed the following green dough recipe using spinach, but nettles, basil, parsley, kale or Swiss chard should also work. In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf, 1992), Marcella Hazen advocates finely chopping blanched then well-dried spinach “with a knife, but not in a food processor which draws out too much moisture.” Giuliano Bugialli, in his updated The Fine Art of Italian Cooking (Random House, 1989) also makes his green dough with finely chopped spinach. In Cooking by Hand (Potter, 2003), Paul Bertolli makes his green pasta with a purée of spinach or young nettles using either a mortar and pestle or a food processor. I experimented with puréed, finely chopped and pounded spinach. Each type worked just fine. Pasta made with puréed spinach looks uniformly green. Finely chopped spinach produced a slightly lighter, speckled green pasta.

The following recipe make approximately 250 grams of green pasta dough suitable for a torchio pasta press.

60 grams stemmed spinach leaves
80 grams Central Milling Organic Type 00 Flour Normal (11.2% protein)
80 grams Central Milling Organic Extra Fancy Durum Flour (15%+ protein)
2 grams fine kosher salt
whole egg, approximately 50 grams (without shell)
egg yolk, approximately 20 grams

1. Wash the stemmed spinach leaves—multiple times if necessary—to completely remove any dirt and grit. Bring a sauce pan of salted water to a boil. Cook the spinach for a minute or two. Transfer the spinach into a bowl of cold salted water. Once the spinach cools, remove it and drain well. Squeeze the spinach until it is mostly dry. Purée the blanched spinach with a food processor or immersion blender. Alternatively, finely chop the spinach with a knife. Put aside 17 grams (approximately 1 tablespoon) of puréed spinach to make the pasta dough. Use the remaining spinach in another dish so as not to be wasteful.

2. Sift the flours into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the salt. Using a paddle attachment, mix together the flours and salt.
3. Place a mixing glass on a scale. Tare the scale and crack a medium-sized egg into the glass. The white and yolk should weigh approximately 50 grams, give or take. Crack another egg and add its yolk to the mixing glass, bringing the weight of the eggs to somewhere around 70 grams or so. Add the 17 grams of spinach purée to the eggs. The goal is to create an egg and spinach solution that weighs 91 grams. If the mixture weighs less than 91 grams, then add water to bring the weight up to 91 grams. If the mixture weighs more than 91 grams, remove the overage and reserve in case you need more liquid to make the dough. Use a hand whisk to beat the egg and spinach mixture.
4. With the stand mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the egg and spinach mixture into the mixing bowl in small batches. After adding all of the egg and spinach mixture, continue to mix the dough for about 2 to 3 minutes. You may need to add a little bit more liquid to create a dough with the proper consistency. The dough should look clumpy (see following photo). The finished dough should hold together when squeezed.

5. Remove the bowl from the mixer and add any dough on the paddle to the mixing bowl. Using your hand, bring the dough together into a large ball in the mixing bowl. Knead the dough in the bowl or on a work surface for approximately 30 seconds. Don’t worry if the dough feels hard and is difficult to knead. The dough will soften as it rests. Form the dough into a log narrow enough to ultimately slide into the torchio’s chamber. Tightly wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, insert the dough into the torchio and crank away! After extruding, let the pasta dry at room temperature for a couple of hours.

A few notes and observations. I use a flour mixture containing 50% extra fancy durum flour in order to add strength to the dough. I worried that the spinach purée might compromise the dough’s plasticity without the benefit of the durum flour’s extra gluten. I like how the 50/50 flour blend performed and tasted.
To make my yellow “straw” pasta, I created another 250 grams of egg dough sans spinach. I used the same 50/50 flour blend adding cream and extra egg whites in place of the spinach purée. Together the green and yellow pasta weighed 500 grams—just over a pound—serving 4 to 6 depending upon appetites.

I tried my paglia e fieno gramigna with a number of different white sauces. (I avoided red sauces that might mask the pasta’s yellow and green colors.) I made a cabbage and sausage sauce from a recipe in Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta (Boxtree, 2010). Kenedy braises sausage and cabbage in equal parts chicken stock and milk creating a sauce that tastes rich without being heavy.
My favorite sauce turned out to be a variation of Gramigna al ragù di salsiccia (here) wherein I switched out the tomato purée for a milk/chicken stock mixture. Try it and see what you think.

Feel free to experiment with the green dough using different bronze dies. I made a green rigatoni that worked well in a light cream sauce with pancetta and peas dusted with Parmesan.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Cleaning Torchio Pasta Dies

My Bottene Model B torchio pasta press arrived with two bronze dies to make bigoli (here) and gargarti (here), Venetian variations of spaghettoni and sedani, respectively. Although the torchio originated in the Veneto, the press accommodates a myriad of bronze dies allowing you to extrude classic pasta shapes from across Italy, such as gramigna (here) from Emilia-Romagna or tonnarelli from Lazio.

Search the WWW (or explore this site) and you will find plenty of recipes to make dough suitable for a hand-cranked torchio. You will not, however, find much information on the Internet on how to clean the torchio’s pasta dies. Pasta shops and restaurants that keep pasta machine dies in regular production often store their dies in plain water or water spiked with vinegar (approximately 15 ml per liter of water). Whether you use plain or acidic water, every pastaio I queried recommends changing the soaking water every day.

Although soaking dies makes sense when one keeps a die in constant use, this practice does not work for me and probably not many other home cooks. Here’s my die cleaning routine (which I do not represent as the standard of care). First, after extruding pasta with my torchio, I remove the die and pick out as much of the dough left in the die that I can using a toothpick or other similar small wooden skewer. I can entirely clean certain simple dies, such as my bigoli and gargarti dies, by using a toothpick.

Survey a range of pasta dies and you will notice that many dies have inserts (i.e., bronze plugs that seat into holes bored into the die blank). These inserts, some with open backs while other partially enclosed, do the work of manipulating the dough into the pasta’s shape using surfaces, ridges and/or pins. Certain dies, depending upon their insert’s configuration, take a lot of work to clean. Again, I usually start with a toothpick or small wooden skewer to remove as much dough as possible. I then soak the die in lukewarm soapy water for a couple of hours or overnight. I might again try to pick out more dough by hand and soak the die again. I next use a Waterpik that I purchased to clean dies. I find cleaning dies with a Waterpik yields good results, but also makes quite a damp mess. Spray goes everywhere.

Some dies are so difficult to clean that they need multiple soaks and take a couple of passes with the Waterpik to dislodge all the small pieces of dough that become trapped in their inserts. Nevertheless, the soak and Waterpik method remains the best way that I have found to clean certain complex dies (e.g., lumache, perciatelli and 23mm rigatoni).

Personally, I find cleaning bronze pasta dies A Total Bore. I’ll admit it: I may not buy a die if the die looks like it will be too difficult to clean. Call me lazy, but if a die involves too much work to clean, I am simply less likely to use it. I’m looking at you, perciatelli.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Armenian Tava

I grew up eating Armenian food that ranged from complex, time intensive dishes, such as my paternal grandmother’s Izmir Kufta, to simple country food, like Tava. What is Tava? This depends upon who you ask. According to my mother, Tava consists of lamb shoulder chops baked on top of layered vegetables. My dad will tell you that Tava’s lamb chops rest on cubed—and not layered—vegetables. You’ll find Armenian families that top the vegetables with seasoned ground beef or ground lamb instead of chops and call the dish Tava or Duzmeh. A Book of Favorite Recipes (1968) compiled by the Los Angeles Daughters of Vartan includes a recipe for Tava that layers vegetables on top of seasoned meatballs. Vegetarians, don’t worry: Many Armenians entirely skip the meat and they still call the resulting dish TavaPresent this meatless version to a Frenchman or Frenchwoman and he or she will tell you that you have made Ratatouille.

The vegetables in Tava come from every corner of a summer garden, but mainstays include eggplant, tomato, squash, onion and potato. Expect to find recipes that add bell peppers, green beans and even okra. My mother claims that Tava just isn’t Tava without carrots (layered—and this is important—on top of the potatoes). Most, but not all, recipes pour a little water or tomato sauce over the vegetables. Some recipes call for mint or parsley as seasonings, but most versions call for nothing more than salt and pepper.

With countless Tava recipes, why do I post my version? Because I believe it important to memorialize how a family—in this case my family—makes a loved food. My grandmother and great-aunt frequently made Tava. My mother only occasionally. Unless a family’s recipe boards a food ark, children (or grandchildren) might never eat a dish that comforted their great-grandparents.

Armenian Tava

Pre-heat oven to 375°F. Butter a baking dish. The size and depth of the dish depends upon how much meat and how many vegetables you wish to accommodate. This recipe, which makes 2 to 4 servings, uses 2 large lamb shoulder chops, so I suggest a deep 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish. A deep, 10-inch diameter pie plate also works nicely.

Peel 2 medium-sized yellow potatoes (e.g., Yukon Golds) and slice into ¼-inch rounds. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with a single, overlapping layer of potatoes. As you arrange the slices in the dish, season the potatoes with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. You will add salt and pepper to each following vegetable layer, so season judiciously. Peel a medium eggplant and slice it into ¼-inch rounds. Place a single layer of eggplant slices on top of the potatoes and season. Slice a medium zucchini into rounds—again ¼-inch thick—and layer on top of the eggplant, seasoning the squash layer to taste. Next, peel a large yellow (or white or red or sweet) onion and make ¼-inch thick slices and lay these into the dish in a single layer, seasoning as you go. Finally, slice enough ripe tomatoes to cover the onions and lightly season this final vegetable layer.

Pour about ¼ cup water or tomato sauce over the vegetables.

Place seasoned lamb shoulder chops on top of the tomatoes and cover the baking dish with foil. Place the package in the oven and bake for approximately 1 hour. Remove the foil and flip the lamb chops over and return to the oven to bake for another 15 minutes. Flip the lamb chops again and increase the oven temperature to 400°F and bake for 15 more minutes until the chop look browned.

As I mentioned, countless versions of Tava exist, so feel free to add or subtract vegetables to satisfy your family’s palate. As a general rule, vegetables that give up their liquid sit on top of vegetables that absorb liquid.

Personally, I like to salt the lamb shoulder chops the night before I make Tava. I put a rack into a baking sheet and dust the lamb with kosher salt and refrigerate the lamb, uncovered, overnight. I also like to use mild red pepper flakes—think Aleppo or Marash or Piment d’ville—when seasoning the vegetables and lamb. Sometimes I substitute a splash of dashi (here) in place of water or tomato sauce. I think this completely and utterly nontraditional ingredient adds a lovely smoky flavor to this simple dish.

If you want to have a true Armenian experience, serve Tava with an authentic Armenian Pilaf (here). The lamb and vegetables and pilaf marry beautifully.