29 December 2006

Pasta Fresca!

I ordered a couple dozen pears from Harry & David to be delivered to M's folks place on Cape Cod for Christmas. They arrived too early, so I called and complained. They promised another batch to arrive closer to Christmas. No charge. Now, I never thought fifty pears was what I wanted for Xmas, but it's what I got. Or at least what the whole family got. They were awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I regret not saving one, the reasons for which become apparent below.

M got me a pasta roller attachment for her Kitchenaid mixer. They're traditionally sold with two noodle cutters, one narrow, one wide, but I told her not to bother with these. If I'm going to the trouble of making pasta fresca, it's gonna be a something stuffed, and if it's not stuffed, I prefer hand-cut tagliatelli and papparedelle to uniform noodles. So why clutter the kitchen. I went through a couple of cookbooks and my recollections of various meals in and out of Italy and came up with a must-try list.

  • pappardelle con tartufata - With the Italian truffle spread, butter and cheese. If this were made just with truffles, many would say to omit the cheese. I say go make your own pasta to leave the cheese off. Jacques Pepin tells a great story where he and his wife ask for cheese on a fish pasta dish in a restaurant. The waiter corrects them, saying it's not done, but they insist. He informs the chef who storms out asking who dares sully his creation with inappropriate cheese. The chef takes one look at Pepin, gulps, says it's no problem and retreats to the kitchen. I like the taste of truffles and cheese. And besides, tartufata is mostly mushrooms.
  • "pepperdelle" con olio, pomodoro, e pecorino - Ever since I made the bagel pappa di pomodoro, I've thought the combination of pecorino, black pepper, and tomato was a lovely balance, particularly with a silky or oily texture to back it up. I've found a recipe for black pepper pasta. Once I get a little experience under the old belt, I'm going to attempt this, probably with big sheets of hard, salty pecorino shaved over the top.
  • fagottini con pere e formaggio - little bundles stuffed with ricotta and a chunk of ripe pear, served with a cooked radicchio cream sauce. These were the original dish (with a slightly humorous name in English, though "fagot" in English means bundle) that made me fall in love with Osteria del Ponte. I imagine the difficulty here is in keeping the bundles closed when you boil them.
  • ravioli di zucca - Years ago, I had squash ravioli at Barolo, a restaurant in Denver. Three big, floppy, irregular trapezoids of pasta, stuffed with a very thin layer of sweet, spicy squash--it barely accounted for half of the entire thickness of the ravioli, and melded perfectly with the browned sage butter it was served in. I had this long before I ever got acquainted with real Italian cooking and I could sense even then that this was something true. This is the one bow to familiar dishes I'll probably make with fresh pasta. Because when you cook the familiar, your dish falls into a continuum between the best and the worst your guests have ever had. Hopefully, you can be on the top end of the scale. You'll rarely be the best, so why even compete in the "spinach-ricotta ravioli" division? Why not do something new?
  • maltagliati - The name means 'badly cut'. This is, I guess, what you cook up for the kids with the leftovers from making the mezzelune for the guests. Basically, it's irregularly cut noodles. Bits and pieces. Pastasciutta (dry pasta) is the essence of industrial food: mass-produced, totally uniform. (Too bad other industrialized food hasn't maintained the same purity.) I think was I was latching onto with those irregular ravioli was the fact that they'd obviously been created by a human, not a machine. Don't get me wrong. I love dry pasta for its infinite combinations, but the same impulse that made me shy away from the uniform noodle cutter attachments makes maltagliati attractive.
  • lasagne in brodo - I had this in Lubriano, cooked by my friend Vivian. It's truly an amazing recipe, somewhere between soup and layered pasta, with meatballs and sliced hard-boiled egg! Labor-intensive, for sure, but impressive. Could even make it more special with the addition of a peeled soft-boiled egg on top too enrich the broth.
  • casoncelli alla bergamasca - These are gyoza-shaped, stuffed with braised beef or veal, raisins, and crushed amaretto cookies, sauced with sage butter and pancetta. Had these at Osteria del Ponte in Italy, but didn't know the ingredients. If I'd known them, I probably would've enjoyed the dish more. As it was, I didn't really like it as much as the others.
This is sort of getting at the heart of stuffed pasta's appeal. It's what Michael Pollan in the Omnivore's Dilemma calls "good to think." The book is incredible, by the way, and highly recommended. He uses "good to think" as the pair of "good to eat" mostly to indicate that you feel good about the provenance of the food you are eating (e.g., that the cow was humanely slaughtered, or that the vegetables weren't trucked in from California). Stuffed pasta is often "good to think" as well. Usually, it's not much to look at, and the fillings are almost necessarily a fine paste of various indistinguishable ingredients, none of which can be too strongly flavored for fear of overwhelming everything else, including the pasta and whatever sauce it comes with. But at the same time, there's so little of the stuffing that you really can't put any great number of things in there or they're all going to disappear. So you almost have to bank on the diner's knowledge of what's in the pasta to heighten their enjoyment, because it's unlikely that they'll be able to pick out more than a couple ingredients, and if they do, it probably won't be a pleasant sensation.

I've found a few other stuffed pasta terms, but they seem to fall into a few groups (limiting myself here to those that are stuffed and boiled):
  • crimped - Ravioli, lunette, and ravioloni. These are two separate sheets filled and sealed together. Suited to industrial production.
  • folded - Mezzelune, casoncelli, and quadrucci. This is a single piece folded over and sealed.
  • origami - tortellini, agnolotti, and tortelloni. In the tortelli family, the piece is square, and it folds over to a triangle, two points of which are folded together. This makes sense as there would not be any maltagliati left over with cutting square sheets.
  • bundled - Fagottini and perline. These are pieces with a dollop of filling around which the pasta is gathered. I'm still unclear on how these don't end up coming undone in the water. There might be considerable trial and error here.
That last point also brings up the fact that the best and easiest probable use for pasta fresca is in lasagne. Multi-layered lasagne with a light topping is a real treat, with no boiling needed, no chance of explosion, and a heavy satisfaction factor.

Phew! I never suspected when I sat down to list some of my pasta fresca ambitions that this would turn into a meditation on what it is, but I suppose I should always be prepared for that. If anyone has any ideas about other stuffed or fresh pasta I should try, let me know.

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