Sunday, March 16, 2003

Pasta Ramblings

Homemade pasta really is a world of difference from store-bought, but it needs to be made and treated right.

Ingredients matter. Use the freshest possible eggs -- straight from the farm, if you can. I like to use a mixture of semolina and all-purpose flour. Recipes that include oil, water, or salt result in pasta with an undesirable slick texture. Adding herbs and other goodies (tomato powder, chipotle powder) can make fabulous pasta.

Also, the homemade pasta made by an Atlas-style machine (with little rollers) is far superior to the extruded kind (which always reminds me of a Play-Doh toy I had when I was about 3). That's because extruded pastas (spaghetti, elbows, sometimes angel-hair) must be made with 100% semolina and dried to get their full rich flavor. The home machines just don't have the power. If those shapes are what you want, buy a good brand of dried pasta -- the Italian ones are best, and not expensive, usually.

If you're using the machine with the little rollers, you have to set them at the widest possible opening first, then progressively thin the pasta. That's what develops the gluten and gives fresh pasta its lovely resilience. If you force the dough through on the narrowest setting without stretching it first, it shatters. I don't mean it ends up in shards on the floor, but the internal protein bonds break, and your pasta loses all its bounce and savor. It also tends to cook into an unholy slimy mess.

After each strip emerges, lay it in a single layer on a linen dishtowel. (Cotton is OK, terrycloth is a bad idea.) The woven surface marks the pasta, and you get lovely slight irregularities of surface. The sauce clings to these -- mmm, yes. If you're short on room, you can add a layer of dishtowels on top of the first, then add more pasta. Stacking the pasta itself is counterproductive.

Cook it al dente. No point in making it mushy. The pasta should have the texture and allure of a woman's breast -- springy, resilient, alive under your teeth.

Angel-hair pasta really demands a very light sauce -- tomato-cream, say, or broth. A thicker but still mainly smooth sauce for spaghetti or linguini or fettuccini, a chunky sauce for shells or penne.

I was thinking of making homemade pasta yesterday, but ended up spending the afternoon with H&R Block. (Who at least had good news for me -- whee, a tax refund!) After D&D was over, though, I cooked tricolor rotini, pureed some roasted red peppers, and made a sauce with half-and-half and a smattering of herbs. Steamed some asparagus, heated artichoke hearts, et voila. A good dinner on the fly.

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