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.

risotto con asparagi e pancetta

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risotto with saffron, pancetta and green asparagus

Ask 2 Italians what’s the correct way to prepare pasta. You will get the same story from both: al dente, toss with sauce, serve piping hot. Ask two Italians how to make a risotto. You will get 2 stories. Ask 4 of them, you will get 4 stories.  Stir, don’t stir. Use only butter, oil’s forbidden. No! olive oil’s  OK. Condiments at the beginning, no, at the end. Rest, don’t rest. Finish with cream? No cold butter! Vialone? Arborio? Carnaroli?

I am a “non native” risotto eater. They don’t make risotto in Umbria, so I can’t tell you how my grandma made it. Nor my mum who – being Sicilian and adverse to creamy dishes -  did not like it. I  also happen to be fond of dishes full of flavor, light in texture and calories and made with minimal attendance.

So if you like those stodgy concoctions obtained by beating the life out of the poor grains until they disintegrate and then cemented by extravagant amounts of cheese and butter, please read no further.

Here are my own fundamental rules:

1)  Good quality risotto rice. I prefer Carnaroli which has a nutty taste and does not overcook easily. Arborio and Vialone Nano are also good but I have never found a non-Italian rice that will work for a risotto.

2) Good quality stock, bought, canned, homemade, you choose but nothing with that MSG taste will do

3) I use a large heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. The rice has to be in a thin layer all the time so the grains cook slowly at the same temperature. This way I only stir when I add the liquid and then let it sweetly simmer until most of the stock is evaporated. Meanwhile I have a life.

4) I cook condiments – i.e. vegetables, meat or seafood – separately and add them when the rice is almost ready. Then I sprinkle some herbs if the recipe needs it.

Recipe

  • 30 gr. / 1 ounce pancetta cut into tiny strips
  • 400 gr/ 1 pound green asparagus
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a few strands of saffron
  • 1 lt / 5 cups low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter or EVO oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 cups arborio, vialone nano or carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Cook the pancetta in small nonstick skillet until translucent. Add the saffron strands to 2 tablespoon of  broth and let it soak. Trim asparagus, toss with one tablespoon EVO oil and broil/grill until just tender. Add one garlic clove finely chopped and cover to infuse for at least  5 min. Chop the garlic infused asparagus in 2 cm /1 inch pieces, cover again and reserve.

Risotto will have a completely different taste is made with butter or olive oil. Butter gives a richer and creamier texture. Olive oil is more gentle with delicate condiments like spring vegetables and seafood.

Add rice and stir 1 minute. Add wine and cook until absorbed, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup broth and simmer until liquid is absorbed, stirring often, about 4 minutes. After this initial stage you can continue to cook , adding more broth by ladlefuls and allowing liquid to be absorbed before adding more, stirring only after you have added the liquid.

When the rice is tender but still has a bite add the golden saffron liquid to the rice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  For extra creaminess finish with cold diced butter stirring vigorously. Stir in the asparagus, the pancetta, 2 tablespoons  Parmesan and once last ladleful of broth. Cover and wait 5 min before serving. Serve, passing the remaining Parmesan separately.