Italian

Communal Meal: Fresh Pasta

Inspired by a pasta-making class, a friend suggested that we hold a pasta cook-off. The ingredients were identical – flour and eggs. The combination of semolina flour and “00” flour gave the pasta both texture and lightness, while the eggs added density, color, and richness to the dough. We could agree on those basic components, but we differed in our processes. Our challenge lay with the implements used to mix the flour and eggs (fork versus fingers) and in the rolling and stretching of the kneaded dough (her KitchenAid versus my hand-cranked pasta machine).

There was flour on both sides of the kitchen counter, as we sieved and measured the night away! My friend used a fork to mix in the beaten eggs, whereas I used my fingers for a more old-fashioned approach. While we waited the 30 minutes necessary for the dough to rest, we cleared the kitchen, set the table, and drank wine. Then we rolled (rolling pin versus hand-stretching) and folded the dough before passing it through the KitchenAid or the hand-cranked machine. She trimmed the dough by hand into wide strips, while I got more uniform spaghetti-thin and wider strips from my cutting attachment. However, both of our pasta was uniformly delicious! We served the pasta with three different sauces that we’d previously made and brought to the cook-off, matching flavors with the differing widths of pasta. The widest pasta was reserved for the rich pork ragout, the medium-cut pasta with an eggplant and roasted pepper sauce, and the spaghetti-thin pasta worked well with the plain marinara sauce.

We ended up with the best of a potluck and communal meal at the end of the evening. Cooking together allows people of all ages and abilities to contribute to a meal, something to keep in mind for the holiday visitors soon to come! (If you need ideas, other favorites include cheese fondue, shabu shabu, and injera)

Pasta

“00” flour – 2 cups, sieved

Semolina flour – 2 cups, sieved

Eggs – 4, plus two yolks

  • Heap the two flours separately. Bring them together, forming a small well in the middle.
  • Break an egg into the middle, and using your fingers (or fork) start to form a mixture pulling in the two flours from the sides of the well to combine with the egg – until you get a runny consistency. Keep pulling the flour into the middle of the well and mixing and kneading as you go.
  • When the mixture loses its stickiness, break the next egg into the middle. Continue the process, until all the eggs and two yolks are incorporated into the dough.
  • Pull, stretch, and knead the dough, adding flour as needed. The dough is ready, when pulled apart there are no sticky bits in the middle. The dough should be just firm enough, such that an indented thumbprint would show.
  • Place the dough in a wet towel to prevent drying.
  • Set aside for at least ½ hour.
  • Sieve the excess flour and keep it aside, ready for dusting.
  • When the dough is ready, slice the dough into four equal parts.
  • Work with one portion at a time, while keeping the others covered in moist cloth.
  • Flatten the dough with your fingers. Feed the dough through the machine that is set on the lowest setting (1). The first pass lengthens the dough a little. Fold over the dough and pass through the setting at least 4-5 times, continuing to fold the dough both in half and along the edges. Dust with sieved flour to keep the dough from sticking to the counter.
  • Move up the setting to 3, and repeat at least three times, making sure you get a straight edge, working with aligning the dough. Continue, until you have an even sheet of stretched dough.
  • Move the setting to 5 or 6 and pass the now lengthened sheet through at least twice, dusting with flour as needed.
  • Cut the thin sheet into shapes, or use the cutter on the machine to make thin, medium-size or fat ribbons.
  • Repeat with other sections.
  • The cut pasta can be placed on parchment paper, until ready to cook. Alternatively, freeze the pasta to use within a month.

 

Serve with your favorite sauce. Tomato sauce.

 

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Tackling A Classic: Eggplant Parmesan

I recently bought ready-made eggplant parmesan from a small (and authentic) grocery that stocks fresh pasta made in-store by the Italian owners. The parm was delicious. There is everything to love in the two main ingredients – eggplant and cheese! Unfortunately, my new health app registered the accompanying high number of calories which forced me to attempt a healthier version of the classic.

Eggplants are notorious for absorbing unhealthy amounts of oil, and by baking eggplants, my version cuts out frying the eggplant altogether. Cutting this step also eliminates both the eggs and breadcrumbs that coat the eggplant; these add to the amount of oil absorbed, as well as to the dish’s total calories. All that was left to do was to combine good tomato sauce (thickened with celery, carrots, onions, and garlic), fresh basil, and cheese, and bake. The toasted breadcrumbs that were sprinkled in between layers added crunch, but they are not essential.

Tomato sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (28 oz) can – 2

Tomato paste – 1½ tbsp

Onion – 1 medium, sliced

Carrots – 2, diced

Celery – 1 ½ stalks, chopped

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Olive oil – 1 ½ tbsp

Salt – to taste

Chili pepper flakes – 1½ tsp

Pepper – 1 tsp

  • Heat the oil in a pan.
  • Add onions to the hot oil, and sauté until translucent.
  • Add garlic and stir-fry, until light brown.
  • Add carrots, celery and cook for about five minutes or until softened.
  • Remove the mixture from heat, and mix in the food processor to a grainy texture.
  • Add the mixture back to the pan. Start to heat the pan, adding tomatoes and tomato paste to the mixture. Cook the juice down, mashing up the tomato pieces.
  • Add the salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Adjust the seasonings to taste.
  • Keep 3 cups aside, and boil it down until it is a thick liquid.
  • Freeze the rest of the sauce to use later. I often serve with meatballs, spiralized zucchini “noodles,” and grilled shrimp.

Eggplant

Eggplant – 2 medium sized, peeled and cut lengthwise into ¼-inch strips (10-12 strips in total)

Olive oil – 1 tbsp

  • Heat the oven at 400°F.
  • Place the eggplant slices on aluminum foil and brush lightly with oil.
  • Cook for about 35-40 minutes, turning slices halfway through, until just soft. Keep aside.

For The Assembly Line:

Toasted breadcrumbs or panko – ½ cup

Mozzarella cheese – 12 oz, thinly sliced

Parmesan cheese – 4 oz, freshly grated

Fresh basil leaves – 12-15 leaves

Tomato sauce – see above

Baked eggplant – see above

  • Lightly grease a loaf pan or Pyrex dish.
  • Divide the ingredients in the following order for three layers: sauce, breadcrumbs, overlapping eggplant slices, cheese (parmesan and mozzarella), and basil. Repeat, until you have formed 3 layers.
  • Bake at 350°F for 40 minutes. Set under a broiler for 5 minutes at the end for a crisp topping.
  • Once cooled, the baked eggplant parmesan will be firm. Loosen the slides by sliding a knife along the edges. Flip over on to a serving plate.

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Note: Reduce the tomato sauce, so that there is no excess liquid. Otherwise, your layers will not be firm.

 

Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Italian Tomato Sauce (Part 2)

One of my favorite Italian dishes in the summer is mozzarella and tomato salad. This is especially delicious in the season as the locally-available heirloom tomatoes are at their most flavorful. Any leftover tomatoes get thrown into a skillet and made into simple marinara sauce or tomato sauce. Having eaten a variety of delicious homemade Italian food in friends’ houses, I’ve noticed that the classic tomato sauce is always served on the side. This rich sauce can be paired with pasta and Parmesan cheese for a simple meal or served with meatballs for a more filling meal.

Unlike the plain marinara sauce that combines whole tomatoes and garlic, tomato sauce uses several ingredients that play a part in creating balance. Tomatoes contain both the sour element and natural glutamates required for umami, that savory taste. Garlic, onion, black pepper, and chili pepper provide pungency. Carrot and celery provide texture, adding colors that seem to deepen the bright red of tomatoes, and impart sweet and bitter flavors respectively. The herbs round out the balance giving warmth of peppery and astringent tones.

Tomato sauce is easy to prepare, and the sauce freezes well. The sauce has all the qualities of a perfectly balanced dish combined with color saturation, texture, and a full-bodied taste.

Tomato Sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (or other canned tomato) – 28 oz

Onion – 1, diced

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Carrot – 1, diced

Celery – ½ stalk, diced

Olive oil – ¼ cup

Salt and pepper – ½-1 tsp each

Whole red dried chili – 1

Oregano (fresh or dried) – ½ tsp

Fresh Basil – a handful of leaves

Tomato paste – 1 heaping tbsp. (optional)

Sugar – ¼-1 tsp

Parmesan cheese – 3 tbsp

  • Pour out the tomatoes from the can into a bowl. Using the back of the spoon crush them, until they are broken up into small pieces. (Beware the red juice splattering on your clothes and kitchen counter.)
  • Heat a skillet.
  • Heat oil and add the onion and stir for a minute or more, until they are soft.
  • Add the garlic, carrot and celery to the onions. Sauté until they have softened.
  • Add the crushed tomatoes to the skillet and mix into the onion-celery mixture.
  • Add the red chili and let it simmer on low for 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste (this creates a deeper red sauce and thickness) and oregano and basil.
  • Continue to simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the oil appears to float on the top of the tomato sauce.
  • Add the salt and pepper. Check for balance. If the sauce is sour (from tomatoes), start with a ¼ tsp. salt and sugar, and continue to add incrementally until no one flavor is prominent.
  • Remove the chili pepper before serving.

Serve with spaghetti and Parmesan cheese, meatballs, or zucchini spirals.

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