Category Archives: fresh pasta

WHEN HOME-MADE JUST CAN’T BE BEATEN

My pink lemonade

It took a long week-end, the first in many years, since working on a Saturday was par for the course of my job, to make me appreciate my lemon tree. I haven’t bought a lemon in the nine years I have lived in this house – this tree miraculously bears fruit twelve months a year and I typically step outside the kitchen and pluck one when needed, without giving it much thought. Until last Friday when, tired of the coyotes and other wildlife feasting on the lemons that fall to the ground, I set out to pick as many  ripe ones as I could. And, with all that bounty, I made lemonade.

Don’t laugh. I took immense pleasure in juicing lemons, finding the right proportion of simple syrup to please my palate and, finally, adding some end of Summer cherries to make pink lemonade.

Home-made noodles

The same pleasure that I took in watching my mother make pasta and meat sauce, the way the universe intended it to taste. Or slicing some perfect tomatoes from McGrath Farms and let them roast on a ricotta tart.

Tasty tomatoes

Somebody asked me this morning if I did anything fun over Labour Day Week-end. As a matter of fact, I did and it involved lounging around on the patio, consuming large quantities of ice-cold lemonade and steaming home-made pasta. And I didn’t even bother working out.

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PASTA E FAGIOLI (ITALIAN BEAN SOUP)

When you work in a professional kitchen, the tendency to run amok with culinary gadgets is very strong. And whenever I enter a kitchen supply store, I am inclined to buy anything and everything for my home kitchen – sure, I will have the chinois because the 60 feet of cheesecloth still sitting in my pantry is not good enough! Why not an egg poacher? Then I remember I can poach eggs perfectly well in my crappy little saucepan – they might not be perfectly round but they are perfectly poached. Only the fact I abhor clutter stops me from adding useless crap to my counters. Then, if all else fails, I think of my mother, who cooks magnificent meals out of a postage stamp sized kitchen, with culinary utensils five decades old.

Cooking at home seldom requires the skills or instruments of a professional kitchen, although having huge cutting boards is something I am so used to I can’t do without, but, with my mom now cooking in my kitchen day and day out, I am reminded that good food does not equal a $200 knife. She already thinks I am off my rocker for having color coordinated cutting boards used only for certain items or that my fridge is organized according to health laws, that when I saw her chopping parsley with the scrappiest knife in my drawer, one that I had thought long lost and that she probably picked because it was the least intimidating, I didn’t have the heart to say anything. The pasta and fagioli she made with that parsley couldn’t have been improved by my Shun knife anyway.

RECIPE – Yields 4 portions

11 oz Dried Cranberry beans, soaked overnight and rinsed

3 T Parsley, chopped

1 Garlic Clove

5 T Tomato Sauce, possibly home-made

1 Carrot

1 sprig Rosemary

4 T Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper to taste

1 C Short pasta or handmade egg pasta roughly cut

  1. Cook the beans in plenty of water (enough to cover the beans) with the carrot, rosemary and salt. Bring the water to boil then let simmer until the beans are tender (about 1 hour)
  2. In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a small pan. Add garlic and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes (make sure not to cook the parsley). Add the tomato sauce, salt and pepper and let cook until the sauce thickens.
  3. Once the beans are cooked drain them but reserve the water.
  4. Mix the tomato sauce to the beans and, adding some of the reserved water, puree in a blender in several batches, adding water to taste, depending on the desired thickness. You probably won’t use all the water but you want it thin enough to be able to cook the pasta in it.
  5. Place the soup on the stove in a big pot, bring to a gentle boil and add the pasta. Cook until al dente and serve with olive oil.

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MUSHROOM LASAGNA – The prequel

Bad, bad blogger. In between taking the lasagna out of the oven and sitting down to eat it, I received some unsettling news and I forgot all about taking a picture of the final dish. I could still snap the leftovers in the fridge but they wouldn’t look as appealing. The lasagna was, once again, a craving for my mother’s cooking. During the “dark years” of my vegetarianism, my mother, whose cooking repertoire is steeped in meat dishes, was trying her best to feed me, all the while lamenting her lack of ideas and my objection to meatIn fairness, I wasn’t living at home any longer, I wasn’t even living in the same country but, every time I visited or during Christmas vacations, my mom would start plotting meals well in advance of my arrival. She still does. At least two weeks before I am due to land, I know to expect the question “What do you want to eat when you get here?”

“Mom, I will be so jet-lagged and stuffed from bad airline food, really, don’t make a fuss”.

The conversation never ever varies and I just don’t know why I don’t sit down and make a list of dishes I want instead of fighting her. It’s a bone she will not let go of until I give her an answer.

I have never been very good at deciding in advance what I want to eat. My youth was dogged by the same question every morning upon setting off for school.

“What do you want to eat today?” while I was reaching for the door.

“I don’t know” I would answer with annoyance in my voice and a shrug of the shoulders. Between 14 and 18, my last concern in life was food. The same question would be posed to my father who probably cooperated a lot more than I, given his love for all things edible. My sister, seven years my junior, didn’t earn meal question privileges until my father left home and I set out for college. Yes, it sucks being the youngest.

It wasn’t until decades later that I came to understand my mother’s predicament: the poor soul made lunch and dinner for a family of four every single friggin’ day, vacations, some evenings out and some Sundays excluded. If you have to cook two meals a day for most of your grown-up life, I am not surprised she needed ideas or at least a hint of what her crowd might favour on any given day.

The family would gather around the dining room table at 1:30, when I got home from school and then again at 8:00 pm for dinner and two courses were invariably served – a pasta dish or soup followed by a meat/fish dish with vegetables. Every day. Twice a day.  Frankly, with nary a help from Martha Stewart, I am not sure how she pulled it out of her hat. Sometimes new recipes would wind their ways into her repertoire, compliments of a friend or of some relative whose dishes she had tasted. All of us had our favourites and our dislikes – god, how I hated ossobuco, liver or, ghastly horror !, tongue…Tortellini, noodles with meat ragout, chicken cacciatore, duck a l’orange, rabbits with black olives were among my favourites and it took me a long time to realize that not everybody ate that way. At 13, I started craving fish fingers, tasted at a friend’s house and forever more banned at mine.

No wonder breakfast was totally ignored. I would wake up before everybody else, shower and sneak into the yellow kitchen to make myself a large cup of milk with a shot of espresso which I would down sitting at the kitchen table, all by myself, munching on a Buondi (a sort of Italian brioche dotted with sugar) or a piece of toast with jam. When I was old enough to have some pocket-money, breakfast morphed into a pit-stop at a coffee shop where a cappuccino and a croissant would be consumed standing at the counter.

Now, this started as a post about the mushroom lasagna I was craving and made last night and I am not sure how it ended up down memory lane. For the actual recipe and the pics, you will have to wait until tomorrw. Leftovers are calling me.

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PASTA E FAGIOLI – Bean Soup with Pasta

Even better the day after

It’s soup time again. Well, the temperatures in Los Angeles have dipped into the ‘50s and such occurrence calls for pots of soups. The older I get or, maybe, the longer I stay away from Italy, I find myself craving the staples of my childhood, just like the way my mother made them. Pasta e Fagioli would be served once every couple of weeks at my house, over the winter, and, to my young palate, my mom’s handmade and roughly cut pasta, was the best part. Forget the beans. How palates change!

My mother always used a bean variety called “borlotti”, closely related to cranberry beans but, scanning the aisles of my very well stocked supermarket, I couldn’t find cranberry beans and I settled for pinto beans that also work well. I like my bean soup extremely thick, more of a puree really, with the surprise of chewy pasta in between the folds.

This is my mother’s recipe – I made it this morning from memory and then I called her to verify the different steps. Dried beans require the overnight soaking and the long cooking times but they are more flavorful than canned ones. In a pinch, though, don’t feel bad about reaching for a can.

RECIPE – Serves 4

1/2 pound dried cranberry or pinto beans, soaked for at least 12 hours

1 C canned tomatoes

1 clove of garlic, minced

2 T parsley, chopped

olive oil as needed

salt and pepper

sprinkle of Parmesan

1/2 onion, 1 stalk of celery and one bay leaf

1/2 pound short pasta

  1. Rinse the soaked beans, put them in a pot with the onion, celery stalk and bay leaf. Cover with cold water and cook for about 90 minutes or until the beans are tender. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid.
  2. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a soup pot and, when very hot, add the garlic and parsley and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and let cook on low for a while, until thickened, about 15/20 minutes.
  3. Add the beans and a couple of cups of the reserved cooking liquid, salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat until heated through and, using an immersion blender, puree most of the beans. If the soup is too thick, add more of the bean cooking liquid.
  4. Separately, cook the pasta in boiling water until al dente. Drain and drop it in the bean soup.
  5. Ladle it in the bowls immediately and sprinkle with Parmesan.

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – THE MARKET AT SANTA MONICA PLACE

It’s a shame that, on a Sunday lunch, the Santa Monica Place posh food court, otherwise known as The Market, is virtually empty. Better for me so I can browse and sample and buy in peace but, while the Promenade is the usual hustle and bustle of street performers, mobbed Apple store and bad pizza, the pretty mall is just not as crowded. The top floor, overlooking the ocean, even less so, especially inside the Market.

The idea was to create a gourmet experience that, on a small scale, reminded me a little bit of the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Well, not as many vendors and certainly no Farmer’s Market nearby but the concept is the same. A small concentration of high-end food experiences for those West side foodies who wouldn’t find the idea of buying food at a mall repellent. Something doesn’t seem to be working and it might be that people just don’t want to be inside, especially if the alternative is sipping wine on the terrace overlooking the ocean or just frequenting hipper parts of Santa Monica.

Rockenwagner's SouffleAs I walk in, I am greeted by Souffle, another Rockenwagner’s offering – the Austrian chef is crowding this corner of Southern California, with a place  just off the Promenade, one on Abbot Kinney and the stand at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. The concept is similar to the rest: pretty sandwiches, nice desserts and bread. And I love his bread, especially the pretzel rolls he has been making since the days of his eponymous restaurant on Main Street. Two of them have to come home with me.

The coffee corner, Groundwork, with meager pastry offerings wrapped in plastic and a bitter espresso doesn’t thrill me. L’Artisan de Chocolate  entices me to buy half a dozen macaroons (pretty respectable) and some truffles (less so – I am not partial to gooey filled truffles).

My nose is then attracted by Primi, the largest operation of the bunch which belongs to the Valentino family. A small lady in a corner is making pasta and the large menu is pasta and gnocchi based (hence the name). The dining room is virtually empty and, when I ask to buy half a pound of garganelli, the people behind the counter seem confused, as if nobody ever does that. At $16 for less than half a pound, I can understand why no one would touch the handmade pasta (what was I thinking? I can make it myself) but I was too polite to tell them to put my parcel back after the chef had to come out and deal with my simple request.

At the very back, The Curious Palate offers an extensive local and sustainable menu but reading the enormous board was taking too long, I was hungry and Salumeria Norcino, with a counter and refrigerated shelves chockablock with Italian salumi and cheeses, beckoned.  A low, marble counter offers the chance to sit down, have an awesome sandwich and a glass of wine or beer, for very reasonable prices. My Panini of prosciutto cotto (an Italian version of ham), mozzarella, sun-dried tomato spread and caponata on ciabatta was close to perfect. Now, making a sandwich is easy. Making the perfect sandwich, as the Earl himself would tell you, much less so. I hardly ever order sandwiches because they tend to be laden with too much of everything: meat, mayo and unnecessary accessories. But, today, my Parmacotto, just pressed in a panini maker and using bread from Rockenwagner, was just right. And when, in Italian, I made the staff notice that I expected fresh mozzarella and not the sliced variety, they rushed to cut me some, way more than I needed, at no charge.

My close to perfect sandwich

It was impossible to resist buying something for the house: a quarter pound of bresaola for $7.00 was a good deal. I was tempted by the whole salami and the Di Stefano Burrata, a local Italian manufacturer with an excellent product but, knowing I will be out most nights this week, I resisted the temptation. Nice to know that, when the urge to have some speck strikes (and strike it will), it will be there. In the hope the crowds will keep the Market open…

 

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THE PASTA SNOB

Whole Wheat Pasta with Roasted Vegetables

Recently, deep in the recess of my pantry, I found a file folder jammed full with recipes that I vaguely remember collecting over the years, mostly cut out of cooking magazines and random newspapers. Both folders and cuttings were swiftly thrown into the trash, after a quick appraisal which led me to conclude I will never make them. For somebody  who abhors clutter above all else, I tend to hoard recipes. I mostly read them, I buy cookbooks for inspiration and if I decide to try something, chances are I will change a few things here and there to appease my palate and if the recipe is positively weird I will stick to its contents in the hope of being pleasantly surprised.

Since becoming a chef, the way I read recipes has changed – I can instantly tell if something will work or where tweaking will be needed. Friends and family have, more or less willingly, been my guinea pigs for years now. Nearly everything that ended up on a menu was first tried at home and then improved upon or added to in the professional kitchen. But my loved ones sometimes require “regular food”, as they tend to call it, and that is where recipes come in to free me from the boredom of the tried and true.

A couple of weeks ago the front page article of the New York Times Food Section was dedicated to whole wheat pasta. If you have been reading me for a while, you all know I am a pasta purist – I hardly ever bother to eat pasta anywhere unless it’s made in my kitchen or by an Italian friend. My biggest pet peeves are overcooking and oversaucing, the two major no no’s of any pasta dish. I am also picky when it comes to pasta brands and let’s forget rice pasta and all manners of gluten-free which I did try once I realized I had a mild intolerance to gluten – some suck less than others but the bottom line is that they still suck. Even whole wheat pasta I always looked at with suspicion but, after reading the article, I decided to give it a go. I bought spaghetti made by Bionaturae, a line of organic foods heading from Italy – I love their yoghurt and their jams so I was prepared to trust them with my dinner.

In an effort to branch out, I even went as far as trying one of the recipes that came with the article, which called for roasted eggplant and peppers, roasted garlic, olive oil, ricotta cheese and pepper flakes. I read the recipe a few times and, as appealing as all the ingredients were, 9 cloves of garlic seemed excessive (I ended up using three) and, besides the olive oil, there was no creaminess to the sauce at all. This pasta was going to be dry. Sure enough, it was. A problem that can be obviated by adding a bit of cooking water to the ricotta (for a healthy take) or cream (for a cholesterol unfriendly one).

The bottom line was surprising or, at least, unexpected. I loved the slightly nutty flavor of the pasta which cooked beautifully al dente. It gave more depth to the roasted vegetables and married splendidly with the olive oil. The taste was more in the foreground than with regular pasta and I don’t see it working as well with fish sauces but , all in all, I was eager to have it again. Which I did, a few days later, with different vegetables and goat cheese. Another marriage made in heaven.

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PASTA ON MY MIND

Pasta has been on my mind a lot, mainly because my mother has managed to make me feel guilty for not making it more often. And I am not referring to the macaroni from the local supermarket but to the fresh variety one, still made the old-fashioned way and rolled on a table.It used to be that every Italian kitchen table came with a wooden board attached underneath that would be taken out and placed on top every time pasta needed to be made. Here, I have often thought of having one made, as the typical wooden boards that are to be found in kitchen supplies stores just don’t cut it. But, in my laziness, I never have so I now own an extra long rolling-pin that I use on a board half its size, the rare times I am inspired to actually make pasta.

I understand, it’s not hard, and the more one practices, the easier it becomes, but who has the extra half hour to make such a big production of dinner? Still, making pasta is a dying art and the pasta made with a machine  just isn’t the same. The surface is too smooth and the sauce doesn’t cling to it the same way. There are  gadgets  I know will never find a place in my kitchen, pasta and bread makers being two of them.Fresh pasta is a big deal where I come from – there are even stores dedicated to it. Nothing fancy, just small businesses  with tiny women (called “sfogline” from the word “sfoglia” which is the dough sheet) in white caps working at long tables rolling sheets of pasta, moulding them into tiny tortellini, cutting them into noodles and a million other shapes. So it’s no wonder I grew up to be a pasta snob, very particular when it comes to cooking times, thickness and consistency. I only order pasta in good Italian restaurants because no one else stands a chance of understanding it the way finicky Italians do.Here is the basic recipe. There really is no trick to it – it’s just a matter of practice and working fast once the dough is rolled as it will dry quickly. Extremely impressive for a date at home, a foodie dinner guest or your dreaded mother in law. It will leave them speechless and no need to elaborate on how easy it really was.

RECIPE

Yields enough for 6

3 1/4 C         AP Flour

4                    Eggs

A Pinch of Salt

1. Stir together flour and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the center and crack the eggs in it. Using a fork, lightly beat the eggs and then start incorporating the flour, working from the center out. If the dough seems a bit too dry, you can add a little bit of water. Once you have a cohesive ball of dough transfer it to a floured wooden board and start kneading it with the heel of your hands until the dough becomes smooth and supple (approx 10 min or so).

2. Place the dough in a bowl, cover it with a cloth and let rest no less than 30 minutes and no more than an hour.

3. When ready to roll, divide the dough into 2 or 3 portions, depending on the size of your board. Quickly flatten your round with the rolling-pin and keep on rolling, turning the dough around several times, until it’s so thin you can nearly see through it. Quickly cut desired shapes (long noodles, pappardelle, squares for ravioli) before proceeding to the next batch.

4. If you are making ravioli, take care to fill them quickly before the pasta dries – otherwise, let your shapes dry on baking sheets lined with parchment until ready to cook.

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