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Friday, February 25, 2011

BANISHED: The Mystery of Homemade Pasta

Tender, Delicious Pasta
Pasta making has always intimidated me. Creating this essential food staple from only two simple ingredients, flour and eggs, seemed almost counterintuitive and mysterious to me. However, I have always wanted to make my own pasta. So last year, I bought a shiny new pasta maker, despite the fact that all those cranks and rollers and cutters looked slightly dangerous.  I signed up for a pasta making class at Chef Central in Hartsdale, New York, and brought the pasta maker with me. The teacher at Chef Central  was quite patient, showed me how to use it and I learned to use it quite well.  It is actually quite easy.

Pasta made WITHOUT a machine is not so easy.   My Nonna used to make pasta herself, and there was no machine.  The traditional Italian Abruzzese housewife made the pasta with nothing more than a long, thin rolling pin and plenty of kneading action, resulting, I expect,  in very strong forearms.  I remember long strands of pasta hanging from improvised racks, flour everywhere, a big mess.

 Pasta Machine
For this posting I will try to demystify pasta making so if you ever decide to do it, you will know what ingredients to buy, how to prepare it,  what to expect, and what to avoid.

Preparing to Make Pasta
When setting out to make my own pasta, I researched the ingredients. The most helpful source was in a cookbook by Marsella Hazan, entitled Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  Even though the pasta class was helpful, they had made the pasta dough ahead of time.  So all I knew what how to operate the machine.  I really needed to find out how to actually make a good dough on my own.

First I researched the kind of flour needed. I found in the Fairway Market the soft wheat "00" (doppio-zero) flour used by most Italian cooks to make pasta. Soft wheat 00 flour is silky smooth and similar to talcum powder in texture, slightly different than commonly used all-purpose flour found in every supermarket.  Although I used this flour according to Hazan all purpose flour makes a fine product and is in some ways superior as the pasta has more body but is still very tender.

I also found out that semolina flour, or hard durum wheat flour, is not used in homemade pasta as it is very difficult for the home cook to work with. It is only suitable for factory made pasta.  In fact, you will never find manufactured pasta made with soft wheat flour as it is much too delicate. Even those pastas that purport to be fresh, but are in a cellophane package, are not made with soft wheat. They are delicious but still made with durum wheat.


Pasta & Egg "Volcano"

1 cup "00" or all purpose flour (approximate)
2 eggs

Makes approximately 3/4 of a pound of pasta, or three good-sized  servings.

Beating the Eggs
Prepare a clean work surface. I use a large wooden cutting board not used for meat.  Marble or granite is a poor surface because it is too cool and will cause the dough to contract.

Place the flour on the cutting board and make a mound, as tall as you can make it.  Hollow out a space in the center, like a volcano, and break the eggs into the center.  Beat the eggs with a fork, taking care not to spill  the eggs over the edges of the center of the mound, for about one minute. With your fingers, draw the flour into the egg mixture a bit at a time, and then shape it into a tight dough.  It is done and ready to knead when you can poke your finger in the dough and it is not sticky. If too sticky, just add more flour.
Cutting into Sections
When it feels right, nice and smooth, flatten the dough and knead.  How to knead: flatten the dough into a disk and fold it towards you, pushing against the mound with the heels of your hands with your fingers bent. Keep doing this, folding and kneading, in a clockwise direction, until the dough is smooth, about a few minutes. The Italian housewives kneaded for a much longer time but the pasta machine takes care of most of the kneading for you. After kneading, form the dough into a shape the size of a sausage link, and cut it into six pieces. Flatten a piece with your hand, covering the rest with plastic wrap to avoid drying.

Through the Roller, Over and Over
Flattened Dough in Machine
Now you are ready to use the pasta maker.  Carefully read the manufacturer's instructions as each manufacturer creates a machine with a slightly different design. Attach the pasta maker to a table or counter using the c-clamp or vise provided with the machine, and lay a clean dishtowel on the end where the pasta will come out. Take the flattened disk and feed it into the roller end of the pasta maker at the widest setting, 3 or 4 times, then the next wide setting, several times.  You will see the dough come out thinner and thinner. My pasta maker has 8 settings, 8 being the widest and 1 being the thinnest. When I set the gage at 2, the pasta was too thin and delicate.  I found 4 or 5 to be the best thickness.
Wide Noodles

Ready for Machine!
You can feed the flattened dough through the pasta cutters on the machine, or you can cut them yourselves with a pizza or ravioli cutter, or you can roll the pasta lengthwise and slice it with a knife for some nice long noodles.  This takes some skill, so I prefer the machine at this point. 

Thin Noodles
Pasta makers usually have two cutters, allowing you to choose between wide pasta, or fettucini, and narrow pasta, which comes out looking like spaghetti but with more of a squarish shape.  While carefully feeding the flattened and thin pasta dough though the cutters, pull the strands out gently with your hand and place them on a clean towel.  You can make them fresh or dry them. If you prefer to dry them, you let the pasta rest on the towels until they dry a bit but are still pliable, and then take a few strands and wind them around your fingers to make a small nest.  I placed these nests in a plastic container, uncovered, until totally dry. You can only store them when they are totally dry otherwise they will form mold. I used mine, the fettucine, the first night, and the pasta nests of spaghetti, the next night. They did not dry completely; they were brittle almost like boxed pasta, but way more delicate.

Ooops!  Done
When you are ready to make the pasta, have the table set and the sauce of your choice made, keeping it  hot and ready to serve.  Fill your pasta pot with cold water and add one teaspoon of salt. Bring it to a brisk boil, and all at once,carefully place the pasta in the pot, and stir gently to make sure the strands do not stick together.  It cooks very quickly, taking only a minute or two. Remove immediately when it is at its desired firmness, only determined by tasting, and drain in a colander. Loosen the pasta by shaking the colander a bit.   Do not add olive oil.  Serve in warm dishes...nobody likes cold pasta!

My pasta was very delicate, and held the sauce very well. I couldn't believe I made this pasta from scratch,, just like my Nonna did, so many years ago.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Just in time for the Super Bowl!! Cornbread-topped chili; BBQ beef ribs

 Easy Super Bowl Party Recipes

Super Bowl Sunday, February 6, will likely be one more of those snowy, icy evenings that we have been enjoying lately, and you might be wondering what dishes you might want to create for your guests that are easy to prepare with a minimum of fuss. Here are two great recipes: Cornbread-topped Chili, and BBQ Short Ribs of Beef. These two dishes, my corn and black bean salsa (July 15, 2010 posting), some frosty beer, chips and dip, and other party what-have-you, and you have yourself a Super Bowl party!


Cornbread-topped Chili
Cornbread-topped Chili is a ridiculously easy dish that looks and tastes spectacular.  It is simply this: thick, spicy beef and bean chili in a baking dish, topped with cornbread batter, baked in a 350 degree oven until golden brown and firm,  topped with shredded cheddar and baked for a few minutes more until the cheese is melted. That's it!  What, you don't have a favorite Chili recipe?  Well, I have one right here for you!  And you don't have a cornbread recipe?  Hold on, you can use a mix!  I used one and it comes out great.

I was leafing through a magazine one day and saw a picture of this dish, and thought it was a great idea.  The chili recipe was not that great, so I thought, why not substitute my own chili recipe? There was a recipe for cornbread, but I know how to make cornbread from scratch, so how hard could this recipe be?  I figured I would give it a try when I had my next party. On that day, I found that I had run out of corn meal flour: the only thing I had was a package of  Penguin ( cornbread mix that I had picked up in BJ's on a whim. I had made a few batches over the summer and found it makes some very fine cornbread, cakey and sweet with added corn kernels. Surprisingly, the combination of sweet and spicy hot worked quite well.  I imagine any good mix will work, as well as any good scratch recipe.
Preparing cornbread batter

Spreading the chili

1 batch of corn bread batter
1/2 cup (less or more to taste)
     shredded cheddar cheese
9-10 cups chili with ground beef and
     beans ( your own, or see recipe

Spreading batter over chili
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  • Prepare your favorite chili, or use the recipe below. Simmer until thick.
  • Prepare your favorite cornbread mix, or buy a bag of yellow corn meal and follow the directions on the package for one batch of cornbread. 
  • Spoon the chili into a 9 X 13 pan. I like the Pampered Chef stoneware pan. 
  • Spread the cornbread batter over the chili.
  • Bake for for hour, or until golden brown and firm.
  • Take out of the oven, sprinkle evenly with cheddar, and bake until cheese is melted, just two or three minutes.
  • Serve either hot or warm.  I found that you can heat this in the microwave the next day without compromising taste.

The Chili Recipe
First, a word about my chili. This is a family favorite which I have been making for years.  It is not authentic, but it is rich, thick, and spicy. Authentic would mean slowly cooked whole cuts of beef and no beans. I use ground beef and canned beans, sometimes, horrors, I don't even drain them.  It would probably horrify a Mexican cook,  but many so-called Italian dishes would horrify me, however people who make them enjoy them. I make no apologies!
Santoku knife in action
Also some words about some of the cooking tools I used to prepare this dish: a Santoku knife, a new discovery of mine, and an old-fashioned potato masher.  The Santoku knife is a small cleaver-like knife, with a hollow edge which prevents the food from sticking. I never used one before, and I found that it cuts true and straight and made short work of the peppers and onions I had to dice so small.  I recommend it highly, as well as a good chef's knife, which is my workhorse.
Old-fashioned potato masher

The potato masher has many uses: it's not only used for mashing potatoes! In this recipe, I used it for breaking up the ground meat right in the pan as it cooks, and to mash the beans about halfway through the cooking process. I got this one at an antique store in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. It's hard to find this design!


It must be THICK!
1/2 pound ground beef
2 cans of  red kidney beans, 15.5 oz., I use Goya
2 cans Del Monte (or other brand) tomato sauce,
   8 oz. each
1 can diced tomatoes, 15 oz.
1 can corn, 12 oz.
2 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 red pepper, diced small
1 green pepper, diced small
1 yellow onion, diced small
chili powder, at least 1/4 cup
4 or 5 slices jalapeno peppers, I like El Paso
1 tsp. cumin
1 tablespoon tabasco, sriracha* or other hot chili sauce
Salt to taste
1 bay leaf (make sure you remove this after Chili is done!)

Sauteed peppers and onions
  • In a dutch oven, break up and saute ground beef until it loses its pinkness.
  • Add tomato sauce and diced tomatoes and stir
  • In a separate saucepan, heat the olive oil and saute the diced peppers and onions. When soft and almost transparent, stir into beef and tomato mixture.
  • Add spices to taste
  • Using a potato masher, periodically crush the chili mixture as you cook it,that helps to thicken it
  • Taste, taste, taste as you go!
  • Simmer for as long as it takes to produce a thick chili

WOW is all I can say
This fine recipe has only two ingredients, and you don't need a barbecue. I originally saw Sunny Anderson ( prepare something similar to this on the Food Network. It looked so good!  The only difference between my recipe and hers is that she made her own barbecue sauce, which you certainly can do. However, I found that a simple bottle of your favorite barbecue sauce, or my favorite, Sweet Baby Ray's ( is certainly more than adequate. I also used short ribs of beef, instead of boneless ribs. All you need besides the beef and sauce is a working oven and some patience.  
When done, the meat just falls off the bone. So tender, so delicious!  


1 dozen short ribs of beef
1 bottle (18 oz) Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce, or your favorite brand, or your own recipe
3 hours of cooking time!
  • Preheat oven to 300 degrees
  • Place short ribs in a 9X13 stoneware, cast iron, or other heavy pan
  • Pour barbecue sauce over ribs
  • With hands or wooden spoons, depending on how squeamish you are, and toss ribs in sauce until fully coated
  • Cover with aluminum foil and bake for two and a half hours
  • Uncover and bake in order to caramelize, for additional half hour
  • Stir once more to coat with sauce
  • Serve hot!

Enjoy the game!