orecchiette pasta in a creamy zucchini and saffron sauce

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orecchiette, little ear shaped pasta from Southern Italy

orecchiette, little ear shaped pasta from Southern Italy

I find making fresh pasta an incredibly relaxing activity. I could fashionably say it’s therapeutic but I don’t feel the need to have therapy as often as having pasta. My latest passion in “pasta relaxation” is orecchiette, meaning little ears, a semolina pasta traditionally made in Puglia.

It’s the sort of thing that gives a good excuse for gathering friends around a table and while away an afternoon. Do watch the video at the end of this post to see what I mean. That woman must have made so many orecchiette that does not even need to look at what she’s doing. It’s magical.

I can’t produce them quite so fast, but it’s actually easier than it looks if you make sure to obtain a firm dough, use a round tipped knife and don’t get discouraged if the first batch of ten will look a little lopsided. As you get the hang of it you will wonder why you ever found it difficult.

Recipe

Dough

  • 200 gr ( 2 cup) semolina flour
  • 80 ml (2/3 cup) water
  • 2 teaspoon olive oil
  • a pinch of salt

I make all doughs in the food processor as explained here . You can also make the dough by mixing all ingredients by hand until smooth and elastic as shown in the video below. It’s most important that you allow the dough to rest at least 20 min and up to one hour. This way the gluten absorbs moisture and makes the dough pliable and easy to shape.

Once your dough has rested, transfer it onto a work-top. A grainy wooden cutting board or pasta dough helps grip the dough.

use a round tipped knife and work on a wooden board

use a round tipped knife and work on a wooden board

Divide the dough into fist-size portions, and cover them with a cotton kitchen towel. Roll 1 portion of dough into a 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick rope.

Use a knife to cut and drag a 1/3-inch piece of dough from end of rope facing you.

Holding the knife at a 45-degree angle to the work surface, press and roll dough around the tip of the knife toward you. You will obtain something similar to gnocchi but empty in the middle.
Now turn out each piece of dough over your thumb in the opposite direction to form a concave shape, and transfer onto the pasta board or a tea towel. Repeat with remaining dough. Orecchiette can be stored at room temperature in a single layer overnight.

While the orecchiette dry, start boiling your pasta water and prepare this quick sauce in a saucepan which must be large enough to hold all the pasta once is cooked .

Zucchini and saffron sauce

  • 2 medium zucchini, diced
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • a pinch of saffron to taste
  • 2 tablespoon heavy cream or ricotta
  • 2 tablespoon grated Parmesan

Saute zucchini and onion in one tablespoon olive oil until just starting to become golden. Add cream (or ricotta) and saffron and simmer briefly until just warmed through. Cook pasta in plenty salted boiling water, drain, transfer in the sauce pan and toss with the sauce over high heat as explained here. Finish with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of  good extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

Serves 2

Any extra unccoked orecchiette can be frozen. First, freeze them in a single layer on a plastic tray, then transfer them to a resealable plastic bag and return them to the freezer. Boil directly from the freezer.

cappelletti pasta with kamut

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cappelletti, winter delight of every Umbrian home

I have been keeping this post for one of those rare days when I have enough time in my hands. I wanted quiet and concentration to explain in sufficient detail what might be one of the best pasta recipes in the world. To tell you that cappelletti, the Umbrian diminuitive version of tortellini, is pasta Nirvana.

Well. We are snowed in. We have no car because it has seriously broken down just before the storm. Most of Italy is under the snow so the replacement parts will not be arriving for a while. The rare phone call is of friends wanting to know if we are all right. The next shop is 8 km downhill on a windy road presently covered by ice and almost a foot of snow. We are not going anywhere.

The term cappelletti, means little hats. In Umbria they are generally made for Christmas. I know families who make a few thousands of them and keep them in the freezer to enjoy during the winter months. They are better served in a chicken or capon stock. However, I am not opposed to a dressing of truffle shavings in olive oil or a good porcini sauce.

In my quest of wheat free alternatives, I have made these cappelletti  with organic kamut flour also named khorasan. The recipe works as well, if not a little easier, with regular flour. To choose the right type of flour, please make sure to read my flour tips here.

To freeze, place them individually on floured plastic trays until hard, then transfer into sealed bags or tupperwares so you can scoop as many as you need. Boil in plenty stock or salted water for 3 min. slightly less if fresh.

Recipe

For the filling

  • 120 gr / 4 oz. each of ground turkey breast, lean beef and pork
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 60 gr / 2 oz. each charcuterie boiled ham, mortadella, grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • a pinch nutmeg, salt, black pepper

Heat a shallow heavy-bottomed pan, add  two tablespoon olive oil and saute the ground meats on medium-high heat until just starting to brown. If you cook the meat too slowly it will release liquid, loose flavor and feel like sawdust.

Increase heat to maximum, deglaze with white wine, season with salt, nutmeg, a pinch of black pepper and set aside to cool.

In a food processor, pulse the cooked meat, ham, mortadella and grated Parmesan until finely ground.

For the pasta dough:

  • 3 eggs
  • 300 gr kamut flour (khorasan)
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil

Using the ingredients above, make my food processor pasta dough and roll it into thin sheets using a pasta machine. Cover the sheets with a cotton tea towel. Kamut pasta sheets dry quickly and tend to break, so you need to work faster than when using regular flour.

Now follow the instructions in the photo captions below. Click on one of the picture to start the slideshow.

This recipe makes 350 cappelletti. You will need about 25 per person, so you either have a feast or freeze 3 heavenly family dinners for 4 and 1 tete a tete.

kamut cappelletti on the left, wheat cappelletti on the right

“priest chokers” made with farro flour

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here they are, peasant beauties, the stranged named strozzapreti

STROZZAPRETI.  Priest stranglers? Isn’t this a crazy name? Sounds like a recipe of the Swedish Chef .

The origin of the name is unclear but it is surely evocative of our farmers’ long suffering under centuries of papal domination. Having to part with hard earned food as a tax, they wished the greedy clerics to choke on it.

The strozzapreti are short, eggless noodles, not dissimilar to the Umbrian stringozzi. They are simply made with flour and water and rolled by hand to obtain irregular pasta curls. This is a nicely rustic, wheat-free version I made today with farro flour. You could also use spelt, whole wheat or regular wheat flour or a mixture of any of the above.

Recipe

  • 300 gr (3 ) farro flour plus additional for kneading
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pinch salt

To make the strozzapreti dough use the same food processor method which I have explained for egg pasta. The dough must be firm but pliable so you might need to adjust the amount of water depending on the type of flour you are using.  Roll the dough with a pasta machine until it’s thin, but not transparent, one setting before the last one. While the pasta is still soft, cut the dough into 1.5 cm (1/2 inch)  ribbons, then…

...take a pasta ribbon on the palm of your hand....

....roll the pasta ribbons to make it curl....

....like this.

With a sharp knife cut the ribbons into 5 cm (2 inch) long pieces and set them on a floured worktop or cotton towel to dry.

Cook in salted boiling water for one minute, they overcook fast! Toss with sauce and a little pasta water as as explained here. Serve immediately.

The strozzapreti need a robust sauce like ragù , a Norcina or a porcini mushroom sauce. In Romagna they serve them with seafood. YUM.

Serves 2-3 as a main.

pasta for beginners

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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!

meat and spinach cannelloni

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authentic Italian cannelloni, a feast

Warning: mistreated recipe! If you have any intention of using those chewy curly no-boil lasagna,  lumpia/wanton wrappers, manicotti tubes, tortilla, frozen crepes or other horrors please don’t even read this recipe. In fact, you might want to go out for dinner or make mac n’ cheese.

Like lasagna, this is a labor-intensive pasta recipe. It’s a dish of sublime goodness which deserves to be revered and prepared with loving care for the appropriate (grand) occasion. The effort will be totally worthy, I promise you.

The success of this dish is based on high-quality ingredients, a restrained amount of sauce, a relatively dry but wonderfully savory filling. By the time it is ready to eat, the pasta should remain al dente.

Recipe

  • 700 gr (forty 6- by 4-inch) fresh pasta rectangles or thin dry lasagna noodles
  • for soffritto: 1 onion, 1  celery rib, 1 carrot, all finely chopped
  • 700 gr (1.5 lb) good quality ground red meat. I use a mixture of pork and beef.
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 200 gr (7 oz)  sliced ham, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 500 gr (1 lb.) fresh spinach, blanched, dried and chopped
  • 60 gr (2 oz) finely grated Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano plus two tablespoon for sprinkling.
  • 350 gr mozzarella or mild cow’s-milk cheese, sliced
  • 2/3 cup Bechamel sauce
  • 1.5 lt (6 cups) basic tomato sauce flavored with a handful of basil leaves

Schedule:

  1. Make tomato sauce and Bechamel
  2. Blanch spinach
  3. Slice ham, cheese and soffritto vegetables
  4. Make filling
  5. Blanch pasta sheets
  6. Assemble the cannelloni (see the full process here)
  7. Bake

If you use your own pasta sheets you will need to triple my basic pasta dough recipe. Make them the day before, let them dry completely, covered with a thick kitchen towel so they will not curl up and break.  Storing at room temperature is OK for one day, otherwise freeze the individual sheets and keep in a freezer box until needed.

As an alternative buy the thinnest possible lasagna noodles. Preparing the tomato sauce and blanched spinach in advance also helps with time management.

To make filling:

In a shallow heavy-bottomed pan saute onion, carrot and celery with two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. This is called a soffritto. When the vegetables are translucent, increase heat, add ground meat and saute quickly until just starting to brown. Deglaze with white wine, season with salt, nutmeg and black pepper and set aside to cool.

In a food processor, pulse ham, spinach and grated Parmesan until finely ground. Add to cooked ground meat together with 2-3 tablespoon tomato sauce. Do not use frozen spinach, they tend to retain too much water. If the filling is too moist the cannelloni will fall apart during cooking.

To assemble the cannelloni:

Bring a large pot of salted water to rolling boil, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Boil pasta 10 pieces at a time in a large pot, stirring lightly to separate, until just tender, about 1/2 minute for fresh pasta or about 3 minutes for dry noodles. Drain in a colander. Using thick rubber gloves gently transfer the pasta sheets on a clean work-top and lay them flat to cool. Preheat oven to  200 °C (400°F).

Spread about 2 tablespoon filling in a line along the diagonal of 1 pasta rectangle, top with a slice of mozzarella…..

homemade lasagna sheets used for cannelloni ready to be rolled

……then roll up to enclose filling.

cannelloni rolled nice and tight, ready to be placed in a baking dish

Transfer them to a baking dish arranging snugly in 1 layer. Spread cannelloni with a thin layer of tomato sauce, drizzle with Bechamel and sprinkle with 2 tablespoon  grated cheese. Bake in the middle of the oven until the sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes.

Let them stand 5 minutes before serving. Cannelloni are  ideal to serve a crowd, each piece just lifts out of the baking dish in a perfectly sized portion. In addition they can be frozen uncooked. Just make sure to thaw them completely before baking.

Serves 12-15.

heaven in a roll