Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sagne e lenticchie

Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant have collaborated on an outstanding new book entitled Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way [2013]. Zanini De Vita’s previous two US publications, the celebrated Encyclopedia of Pasta [2009] and Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds – Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio [2013], both translated into English by Fant, document Italian culinary traditions. Although one can certainly cook from the Encyclopedia of Pasta (e.g., here and here), and while Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds includes recipes, neither work is a traditional cookbook. Happily and at last, Zanini De Vita has penned a bona fide English-language cookbook, but one with the focus of a passionate Italian food historian and expert. If you enjoy learning about and cooking Italian food, especially pasta, then I highly recommend this excellent book.

In Sauces & Shapes’ Introduction, Fant asks the question “What is in this Book?” The answer lies in the book’s subtitle: Pasta the Italian Way. Zanini De Vita and Fant give “advice for: cooking, serving and eating pasta; stocking a pantry and choosing ingredients; and generally approaching pasta as much like an Italian as anyone outside Italy can.” To this end, the authors include pasta do’s and don’ts: do add cheese to pasta before adding sauce (unless their recipe instructs otherwise); don’t use a fork and spoon to twirl and eat pasta (unless eating capelli d’angelo served in soup); and do serve tortellini in broth (“That is not a suggestion; it’s an order.”). This goodhearted and wry counsel isn’t born from a persnickety mindset, but rather comes from a palpable desire to share authentic Italian cooking.

I have read through the book a couple of times now and have cooked a number of dishes. The recipes come from Zanini De Vita’s research and treasure trove of over 2,200 recipes. Sauces & Shapes includes classics such as Sugo alla marinara; Puttanesca; Amatriciana; and Carbonara. The book also presents more unique offerings such as Boscaiola made with canned tuna and mushrooms; Ragù con le spuntature, a pork rib sauce that includes horseradish; and an agnolotti filled with broccoli rabe and served in a clam sauce.

One of my favorite dishes from the book is a simple soup, Sagne e lenticchie (Lentils and noodles). The recipe’s introduction offers a primer on where the best lentils grow in Italy. Luckily, the Internet makes sourcing these beautiful Italian lentils fairly easy. The soup—more dense than liquid—tastes comforting and utterly delicious. Sauces & Shapes’ version uses fresh pasta that, in my opinion, transforms this classic dish from very good to great.

For the soup:

1 pound (450 grams) lentils, washed and picked over
1 bay leaf
at least 1½ level teaspoons salt (kosher)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups (550 grams) tomato puree
1 small piece dried chile

Before serving:

8 ounces (225 grams) or less pasta
2 tablespoons, or more, best-quality extra virgin olive oil for finishing

Put the lentils in a 4-quart (4-liter) pot, preferably terracotta, with 6 cups (1.5 liters) water and the bay leaf. Add 1 level teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, then cook, covered, over low heat until tender. The cooling time can range from 20 minutes (for the best-quality tiny Italian lentils) to about 45 minutes, so keep your eye on them and check often. They should be tender but not mushy.

Keep a supply of boiling hot lightly salted water available on the stove and add it by the ladleful in the unlikely event your lentils begin to look dry. You can also use the water to make the soup more liquid.

Put the oil in a saucepan and add the onion and garlic. Sauté gently over low heat until transparent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree, the chile, and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce is visibly reduced and the oil comes to the surface. Add this sauce to the lentils. You should have about 8 cups total. Taste for salt.

Make ahead note: At this point, the process can be interrupted and the lentils kept until you are ready to complete the dish. The lentils freeze very well, too. They are best reheated in a double boiler.

When you are ready to continue, heat the lentils gently (if they are not already hot), add 2 cups (400 milliliters) lightly salted hot water, stir in the pasta, cover the pot, and cook over low heat until the pasta is al dente, which may be very quick.

Discard the bay leaf, stir in the oil, and let the soup rest for a few minutes before serving. It is also excellent served at room temperature.

Note: Lentils continue to absorb water like a sponge long after they’ve finished cooking. In this case, you can certainly add water before reheating, but you will need to taste for salt. You can also just let them absorb as much as they want and eat the dish with a fork.

Sauces & Shapes includes a recipe for fresh pasta all’uovo (egg dough): 450 grams tipo 00 flour to 5 medium or large eggs, or 4 extra-large or jumbo eggs. It also includes a detailed description on how to hand-roll and machine-roll fresh pasta.

To my mind, Sauces & Shapes’ section on Basic Dough is reason enough to buy this book. The introduction to the pasta all’uovo recipe begins: “As important as it is to develop feel and instinct when making dough, there is a metric formula for making pasta all’uovo.” Zanini De Vita presents what any Bolognesi no doubt instinctively knows at birth: mix 100 grams of 00 flour with an egg (i.e., a medium egg weighing near 50 grams without its shell) per serving. I use this 2:1 ratio all the time as my general rule of thumb when making fresh egg pasta. Certainly the type and blend of flour and level of workplace humidity impact dough, but it’s hard to go too far off the rails when making fresh egg pasta if you stick to 100 grams of flour to 50 grams of egg.

A final note on Sauces & Shapes: Ms. Fant writes really well. And call me a prude, but I think it refreshing to read a new cookbook that doesn’t drop an f-bomb or other colorful expletive on every other page. Fant is a wonderful writer and it’s a pleasure to read her carefully crafted text. Let’s hope that Zanini De Vita and Fant have another book or two (or three) in the works.