madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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a gluten-free pasta dough which makes me happy

thin and strong, home-made gluten free fettuccine

thin and strong, homemade gluten-free fettuccine

Pasta is my favorite food in the world.

Pasta is sublime and comforting in its many forms, colors and textures. For an Italian cook, making pasta represents the very essence of cooking. It’s not only a habit, a tradition, a requirement. It’s deeper than that. It’s art. It’s in our genes.

Changing from a cornucopia of variety and flavors to gluten-free foods has lead me on a path of many twists and turns. Especially so for pasta.

Store bought GF pasta has finally improved but lots of what I have tasted has gone into the bin. And it does not help that I live in rural Umbria where strange and “fashionable” products are slow to appear on the shelves.

Ever since I discovered being wheat/gluten intolerant, I have sorely missed homemade fresh pasta.

For quite a while, I have researched, I have made experiments, I have discarded failures until today’s noodles. They are the real thing. As real as gluten-free pasta can get.

They have a neutral taste, they cook without falling apart even though they are almost as thin as wheat noodles. You can sauce them as you would do any pasta and you can roll them with a fork and pull them up from the plate in one single string, not in miserable bits.

If you have never made fresh pasta, please check carefully my tutorials and video (here and here) to learn how to make and roll the dough and how to cook and sauce the pasta.

Gluten-free pasta dough is more difficult to handle as it breaks easily and – being not as flexible – is not as forgiving as gluten pasta. If you cook for others who eat gluten, I advice you to try to make regular pasta a few times to get the hang of the method. Then make gluten-free pasta for yourself.

Recipe

  • 35 gr millet flour *
  • 170 gr potato starch
  • 170 gr corn starch
  • 6 gr (2 teaspoon) xanthan
  • 1 teaspoon psyllium husks
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil

*you can also use rice, corn, buckwheat, basically any GF flour that you like to use to flavor the dough

Making the GF dough:

In a food processor blend all ingredients until the mixture begins to form thick crumbs. Meanwhile heat 1/2 cup water. Depending on the size of the eggs, you will need to add a variable amount of liquid in order to obtain a firm but pliable dough. With the blade running, add the hot water, one teaspoon at the time, until the dough forms a ball. You might need up to 3 tablespoon.

Getting the right consistency is crucial. Too wet and you will not be able to roll it through the pasta machine. Too dry and it will break making it impossible to shape it.

Now wrap the dough in clingfilm and let it rest at least 30 min. This resting period hydrates the dough and makes it easier to roll it.

Rolling the GF dough:

Set the smooth rollers of a pasta machine on widest setting. Cut the dough into golf-ball size pieces. Flatten one piece of dough into a rectangle with a rolling pin and feed it through the rollers.  To prevent sticking, dust with any fine gluten-free flour you have.

Roll the dough as thin as possible and as quickly as possible. Don’t fold it like you would do with wheat flour. Make sure to keep your pasta sheets relatively short, max 20 cm (8 inch) otherwise they will break in the middle. Minimal manipulation is key to success with this beast.

I  roll each piece of GF dough 3 times using the widest setting, an intermediate setting and one before the thinnest setting. The dough tends to shred if it’s too thin.

For example if the settings of your machine are numbered from 1 to 6, roll it at 1, 3 and 5 with 1 being the widest.

roll the pasta as thin as possible using only 3 settings of the pasta machine

roll the pasta as thin as possible using only 3 settings of the pasta machine

Place the pasta sheets on a wooden board or cotton towel to dry. Roll out the remaining dough in the same manner. The pasta should dry – at least 10 min. – before cutting so it will be more robust.  You should however prevent it from becoming brittle.

Feed the sheets through a fettuccine cutter and return your beautiful gluten-free noodles to the kitchen towels to dry until ready to cook.

Serves 4

my babies with a simple tomato sauce, a sprinkle of basil and a drizzle of newly pressed Alla Madonna del Piatto olive oil

my babies with a simple tomato sauce, a sprinkle of basil and
a drizzle of newly pressed Alla Madonna del Piatto olive oil

Notes:

  • This recipe is based on a variation of the GF flour mix used by Felix and Cappera and in turn derived from a recipe of Bette Hagman’s “More from the Gluten-Free Gourmet”.
  • If you are celiac make sure to use certified gluten-free ingredients to avoid gluten contamination
  • If you have allergies to some of the ingredients make sure to substitute by weight and type of ingredient (e.g. rice flour instead of millet flour, tapioca starch instead of potato starch)
  • xanthan and psyllium are used to substitute gluten, check online where to buy them as this is not the same in different countries
  • please check my recipe list for lots of suggestion of simple and seasonal pasta sauces


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asparagus 101

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spring on the plate: soft scrambled eggs with fragrant wild asparagus

With all the running around, worries and excitement about the new house I forgot to post my April article in The American in Italia magazine featuring another of my favorite recipes, Parmesan and asparagus eggs.

Please remember that if you don’t have wild asparagus or the season is over, you need to choose fairly thin green asparagus and use them as soon as possible so they stay fresh and crunchy. Remove the woody part of the stem, toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil per 1/2 pound asparagus and broil them for 15-20 min until just cooked through and slightly charred.Remove from under the grill, add some crushed garlic, cover and let them infuse for at least 10 min.

I use this method of preparation as a lovely side dish and for most of my asparagus recipes like risotto, spaghetti, and beef. I also chop them, mix them with equal weight of fresh ricotta and a couple of tablespoon grated Parmesan to use as a filling for ravioli or as a spread on crostini.

The picture below has nothing to do with the recipe. Its an Apsara, a heavenly dancer I got to know about during our winter trip in Cambodia. It’s just that I have this crazy name association between their name and my favorite vegetable. It’s becoming an obsession, but I promise, no more asparagus until next year!

An Apsara, a heavenly dancer of Hindu Mithology


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pasta for beginners

a good plate of pasta is true art

Pasta is such a convenient food and it’s made in a million ways all over the planet. Accordingly, it will taste everything from boring, to vibrant, from disgusting to heavenly. Don’t believe anybody who tells you they don’t like pasta. Most likely they have not tasted the real thing.

Sorry to be smug, but the real thing is made and cooked like Italians do. We do so few things really well in this crazy country. Pasta is one.

However, even if you don’t have it in the genes, you can make magic with our national starch.

Let’s see, did you buy good quality, durum-wheat, bronze-drawn spaghetti? Even better, did you just make some fantastic noodles or ravioli? Did you make some sauce?

Fine. Now you need a really large pan, better a tall stockpot, water and salt. You also need a shallow pan to assemble sauce and pasta. For this purpose, I prefer to use a wok-like pan which in Italy is called saltapasta.

The key to a perfect pasta is to keep it at a high temperature throughout cooking, saucing and serving.

Here are the rules:

  1. Use lots of water, typically 1 lt per 100 gr (1 quart per 3 oz) of dry pasta. Only start cooking the pasta when the water is on a rolling boil. You need to keep it at a high temperature so it cooks as fast as possible. As a result the pasta will keep its shape and texture (al dente).
  2. Use lots of salt, about 1 teaspoon of salt per lt (quart). Pasta cooked in unsalted water will be bland no matter how much salt you add to the sauce. I know it looks like a lot of salt, please just try and taste the difference.
  3. Keep the starch. During cooking pasta releases starch in the water which will provide a creamy texture and help the sauce  clinging to the pasta. To retain the precious starchy film, don’t rinse the pasta after draining. On the contrary, you need to reserve some of the pasta water for the finishing (see below).

Here is the method:

While your pasta is cooking keep the sauce warm in the saltapasta or similar pan. Fresh pasta will cook in 1 to 3 minutes, dry pasta will cook in 6 to 12 minutes depending on package instructions. If you don’t overcook the pasta, there is no need to add oil to the water.

As soon as the pasta is cooked, drain and transfer to the sauce pan. You actually need to drain it a good half a minute before is cooked as you will finish it while saucing. Increase the heat and stir the pasta into the sauce. Add the pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and grated cheese, if using. Stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. Serve on warm plates at once.

And please remember, no swimming!


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the 5th taste

 

the  umami  royalty

Did you ever ask yourself why some Italian foods have become universally accepted? Nowadays pizza, tomato sauce, lasagne, cured olives, prosciutto can be found  in the most unsuspected corners of the globe. There are many historic and cultural reasons for this phenomenon. It’s delicious food, you will think. Convenient, yes. Kid friendly, great. But what else?

Umami.

Umami, a Japanese word meaning “savoriness”, is the 5th basic taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The umami taste in a certain food  is defined by a high content of glutamate. Umami rich foods,  such as soy and fish sauce, are flavor enhancers. That’s why glutamate is commonly used in Asian cuisine.

What does this have to do with Italian food? Flavor enhancers have been used for thousand of years.  Garum, a pickled  sauce made with fermented fish, fetched fantastic prices in ancient Rome. By the way, Worcestershire sauce is its direct descendant.

There’s lots of umami foods in Italian cuisine. Parmesan is the umami king, the humble anchovy is the princess, they rarely go together. And there’s more.  Cured meats, stock, ripe tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, capers, mushrooms, olives are daily helpers to add depth and flavor to our food.

So now you know what makes the magic. A sprinkle of capers, a drop of balsamic, a handful of olives, few cubes of pancetta, a dusting of Parmesan. Use modest amounts though, you don’t want to eat only the condiment, you need the condiment to improve the rest.


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the antimafia and other very good pasta

anelletti pasta

bronze drawn anelletti pasta from Palermo

“GO BUY  ME A KILO PASTA, WILL YOU?????”

This Italy here  is a crazy country and always will be, but important priorities are respected. A good bowl of pasta is  hardly ever refused. So easy,  so good, so comforting. It’s in our genes, in our blood, it’s the mother of foods. Pasta comes first, not for nothing we call it primo.

Eating store-bought dried pasta is so fundamental to Italian life that we have gotten organized. And I don’t mean grandma rolling fettuccine for the kids, I mean industrial amounts.

In Gragnano, South of Naples, artisan pasta makers have been producing high quality pasta for as long as 500 years. Until relatively recent times the whole town was decorated with kilometers of noodles hanging to dry outside the pasta workshops. In the late XIX century the town was even granted the right to open a train station to be able to “export” their product to Northern Italy.

From then on, industrially produced pasta became the cheap and convenient food that by now appears on the tables of a large portion of the world’s population.

If you look for good dried pasta make sure that what you buy  is made with 100% durum wheat semolina, not with tender wheat flour which is used for bread, fresh pasta and general cooking.

To make the pasta, semolina is first mixed in a dough and then extruded through a die -named trafila in Italian –  to obtain the desired shape. Dies are made of teflon or bronze.   Standard pasta is teflon drawn, it’s quite smooth and yellow. High quality pasta is bronze drawn – trafilata al bronzo – and has a lovely powdery surface like that one in the picture above.

The bronze extruder makes the surface of the pasta more porous so that the sauces clings to the uneven surface of it rather than slipping away.

Bronze drawn pasta is widely available in Italy. However, there is one brand, which in our house has been nicknamed the “antimafia”, that sums up all goodness of flavor and thinking.

The Libera organization produces organic bronze-drawn pasta using wheat that is cultivated on estates confiscated from the mafia lords. Volunteer work by young people who believes in future.

So next time you come on holidays you know one more thing about this country.

We have some really good pasta. Sometimes we have some real courage.

antimafia pasta

organic pasta made by the Libera organization


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I’m going eggplant

Eggplant, aubergine, has been around the Mediterranean for more than 500 years. No wonder this luxurious vegetable of Indian origin became a staple of Sicilian cooking. In a land too dry and warm to support large-scale cattle breeding, meat was an expensive rarity. Peasants in Southern Italy lived on a basic diet of olive oil, pasta, cheese and vegetables, occasionally fish. Eggplant, enriched by cooking in oil, must have been a welcome addition to their simple dishes.

Later in history some unknown gastronomic hero conceived the heavenly combination of tomato and eggplants. Fried eggplants are still used for a number of spectacular – and virtually vegetarian – dishes like eggplant parmesan,  caponata, pasta incasciata. I promise recipes for all these.

In my memory, the aroma of fried eggplants permeates images of luminous Sicilian summers. Memories of  green shutters closed against the heat. Tiny whitewashed alleys where you don’t see anybody but someone is cooking something magical somewhere. Memories of fragrant spaghetti with the sweetest tomato sauce piled high with slabs of golden aubergines and a sprinkle of baked ricotta, pasta alla Norma.

Yes, you can use grilled eggplants instead of fried, I know. But for a real bite of Sicily, please just try, even if only once. Fry and be happy.


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balsamic vinegar

aged balsamic vinegar

mellow, thick, intense, truly aged balsamic vinegar

ACETO BALSAMICO di MODENA. We are so lucky in modern times. Foods and flavors that in the past were only for king and princes, are now available to (almost) any commoner who likes to enjoy life. As early as 1046, future emperor Henry III writes to Marquis Boniface, father of Mathilde of Canossa to ask a gift of of a bottle of ‘the old vinegar made to smell most beautiful and sweet’.  Most likely this was  the ancestor of balsamic vinegar. By the end of the XVI century, the Dukes of Ferrara and Modena graced their tables and those of their important friends with this aromatic (= balsamico) elixir.

Modern balsamic vinegar is still made like centuries ago, using cooked grape must in a battery of seven barrels of successively smaller sizes each made of different woods. The vinegar is aged for a minimum of 12 years and sold in round 10o ml bottles labelled as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. The traditional balsamic is certified  by the consortium of producers of Modena or of Reggio Emilia.

Why it’s so special? It’s an artisanal product, made in small amounts over a long time, the barrels  are used by a producer for generations. The slow fermentation, the balance of  grape varieties, the aging in a sequence of  different woods imparts a complex aromatic flavor by which every traditional balsamic vinegar is unique and splendid. It is something to be used sparingly, by the drop and uncooked. It’s expensive, starting at 60 Euro for a 12 years old.

Only a traditional can be considered a true balsamic, but other products labelled as balsamic vinegars or balsamic condiments are easier on the budget and practical for use in larger amounts. The cheapest stuff is red wine vinegar sweetened with caramel and added with artificial flavors, please ignore.

Some uncertified balsamic it’s made like the traditional but is less aged and therefore less expensive, 25- 30 Euro a bottle. You need to buy it from a reputable dealer. It is delicious with aged cheese, roast red meat and used in dressing of special salads together with good extra virgin olive oil.

An everyday balsamic  should be aged 3 or 4 years and sweetened with cooked grape must. It is acceptable for sauces, deglazing and reductions. It’s easy, it’s pleasant, but remember, it’s not the real thing.

Where to find good balsamic vinegar in the Assisi area:
Terra Umbra Antica, Via Patrono d’Italia 10/a, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi.

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