Friday, May 23, 2014

Pasta Etcetera

Fresh Fettuccine with Roasted Tomatoes and Feta 

After publishing my article on pasta sauces, it occurred to me that my target audience - namely you -  might not know how to make the pasta itself, so here's a lesson. I'll also be showing you how to make meatballs and potato pasta aka gnocchi.

My general rule for making pasta from a box is: follow on the directions on the package. Manufacturers have scores of experts and testers that have worked their asses off to come up with the best way to prepare their products.

But...

Just in case, I will provide a few basic guidelines and instructions to make the perfect plate of pasta.

First, use a large pot to boil your pasta and fill it with A LOT of water, leaving a few inches from the top of the pot so that it doesn't overflow when you put the pasta in.

Second Rule for making pasta: salt your water. Plain pasta doesn't have much flavour, so a teaspoon or two of salt (or a pinch or three) will provide it.

Third Rule: Bring the water to a boil before dumping in your pasta. This will get you the right texture.

Fourth: DON'T RINSE IT WHEN IT'S READY! Some people insist on rinsing pasta in order to get rid of excess starch. You need that starch to allow your sauce to stick.

While the pasta is boiling, you can stir it around with a pasta spoon (that thing that looks like serving spoon with teeth), or with tongs to separate the individual strands. Some people will add oil to the water to keep the pasta from sticking together, which is fine, but I don't recommend it because the oil will also keep the sauce from sticking.

The level of doneness of pasta is really up to the cook and the taster. Chefs and snobs (occasionally the same people) will insist on pasta being al dente, meaning tender but still slightly hard when bitten into. Others prefer a more tender pasta.

You're the cook now, so make it how you like it.

Here are some ways to test for doneness.

Carefully scoop a strand or piece of pasta out every 5 minutes or so while it's boiling, let it cool for a couple of seconds, and taste it. If it's tender enough for you, drain it, toss or top with your sauce of choice, and serve.

Another way of checking if the pasta is ready is to throw a strand or two it against a wall or ceiling... if it sticks, it's probably ready, see the image below. This would be a great way to get your kids involved in the cooking process, just remember to clean off the wall or ceiling when you're done. This probably won't work with heavy tubular pasta like rigatoni, you'll have to use the taste test to check for doneness with those.


IF you have the itch, make the pasta from scratch!


It's sounds horribly complicated and difficult, but it isn't. It's actually surprisingly easy, it just takes a little elbow grease, and a willingness to make a BIG mess. Please note that if you don't like chewy pasta, stick with the dry store-bought stuff, as homemade pasta often tends to be a bit tougher, even if you use a machine.

Here's How You Do It

From the Pantry

1  1/2 Cups of All Purpose Flour


From the Fridge

2 Eggs

From the Tap

A Tablespoon or two of water

Equipment

1 Mixing Bowl - Experts will make the pasta on the counter top, but I do it in a bowl to try and keep the mess to a minimum

Measuring cups

1 Rolling pin OR a wine bottle covered in plastic wrap OR IF you have the funds and plan to make a lot of fresh pasta often, you might want to invest in a pasta maker. You can get a mechanical one with a crank mechanism for about 30 bucks.

1 Fork

Dump the flour in a mound in the mixing bowl. See the image below.



Make a hole or well in the middle of the mound of flour and carefully crack your eggs into it, along with a tablespoon or two of water.

Beat the eggs and water with a fork. See the image below.



Using two fingers, stir the mix around slowly, in wider and wider circles, see the image below. The dough will take the flour it needs from its surroundings as you mix.


One the dough has formed into a ball, knead it in the bowl or on a cutting board or a countertop covered with a little flour for at least ten minutes. This will be tiring, but think of how toned your arms will get! No trip to the gym needed!  The dough is ready when it's smooth and elastic, and feels sort of like your earlobe when you pinch it between your fingers.

The Silver Spoon (the latest edition released in 2011), considered the bible of Italian cooking, says that you should let the dough rest for an hour. Having tried it meself, I can safely say I can't taste the difference between pasta dough that has rested for a bit and dough that hasn't, so it's up to you.

Once the dough is ready, on a surface lightly covered with flour, roll the pasta out using your rolling pin, wine bottle covered with plastic wrap, or pasta maker. Try to get it into as thin a sheet as possible. See the image below. Once it's rolled out, the possibilities are limitless!



Try rolling up the pasta dough, slicing it, and then unrolling the dough. Drop the dough strips into salted boiling water and just like that, you have fettuccini! See the images below. Once the pasta floats to the top, it's ready. See the images below. You're now ready to drain it and serve!




Another option is to cut the pasta into rectangles, boil them as you would the homemade fettuccini, and then use them instead of oven-ready noodles to make lasagna. Bake it for 45 minutes at 350 F, and serve!

If ya wanna get fancy, try using the same filling for the lasagna in manicotti! Simply cut the pasta into rectangles, boil them, put them on a plate, and wait until the rectangles are cool enough to handle. Once they are, simply put two or three tablespoons of cheese and spinach lasagna filling (see Back To Work Blues) at the end of one sheet, roll the pasta to form a tube, and then put in a baking pan greased with a little olive oil. Repeat until you've filled the pan. Cover with your favorite tomato sauce, and some grated cheese and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 F  and serve!

Meatballs



There are lot of meatball jokes out there, mostly of lewd kind. That being said, meatballs are an extremely versatile food. Not only can you serve them with pasta and sauce, you could also put 'em on toothpicks and serve them as appetizers or snack food, or use the mix as a base for meatloaf!

Yields about 16 meatballs, about an inch in diameter.

Here's how you do it

Ingredients

From the Fridge or Freezer

1 pound of ground beef - if you're taking it from the freezer, defrost it first - As I've mentioned before, I prefer lean or medium meat not extra lean in my cooking, because I find the fat makes the meat moist

2 Eggs

1 Teaspoon of Pesto

3 Tablespoons of Grated Parmesan or Romano Cheese

 From the Pantry

Salt and Pepper - Say 1/2  a Teaspoon each

5 Tablespoons of Italian Style, Flavored Breadcrumbs

Hot Pepper Flakes - Optional - If you're making this for kids, you may want to leave this ingredient out, as they tend to cry at anything spicy

1 Teaspoon of Tomato Paste (optional) - I use this as a binding agent if the meatballs don't seem to be holding together as well as usual

Vegetable oil - about a teaspoon to grease your baking dish

 Equipment

1 Mixing Bowl

Measuring Spoons

1 Kitchen Scale (to measure out your meat)

Rubber gloves - If you don't want your hands dirty

1 Baking Dish

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Mix the ingredients in the bowl with your hands until just combined. DO NOT OVERMIX OR THE MEATBALLS WILL BE TOUGH! Form them into 1 inch balls and you're ready to go!

Regarding how to cook meatballs, a lot of the recipes I've seen call for pan frying them in a little oil. Having tried it myself, I prefer to bake my meatballs in the oven. I find frying messy, painful - as I've been splattered with hot grease while doing it - and the meatballs don't hold their shape unless you continuously roll them around in the pan while frying, failure to do so will result in sliders or mini hamburgers instead. 

To make my meatballs, I put them in a lightly greased baking dish (or non stick one) about an inch or two apart and bake them in the oven at 350 F for about 20 minutes.

Let em cool for a couple of minutes, and you're ready to go!

IF you're feeling REALLY lazy...

Take some Italian Sausage, remove it from the casings, form it into balls, and bake them the same way you would regular meatballs.

Gnocchi



I put this recipe last because it's a bit tricky, time consuming, and extremely messy. Gnocchi is a kind of pasta made from potatoes, but the finished product is a lot more like dumplings than pasta. If done right, the gnocchi will be tender and delicious. If done wrong, you'll end up with chewy balls of mashed potato, so read carefully, Grasshopper.

Here's How You Do It

Ingredients

From the Pantry

About 6 medium sized potatoes - or from the Fridge 2 Cups leftover mashed potatoes

A cup or two of flour

From the Fridge

1/4 Cup Grated Parmesan or Romano Cheese

2 Eggs

Equipment

1 Potato Masher - experts will insist on using a potato ricer to make gnocchi, because it results in a more even mash, but I say that if you work hard enough, you don't need it. However, if you like extremely smooth mashed potatoes, and/or love gnocchi and plan to make it often, you can get potato ricer in the dollar store for a couple of bucks, or a fancy one in a kitchen supply store for about 20.

1 Pot

1  Slotted Spoon

1 Fork or Wooden Spoon

1 Mixing Bowl

1 Potato Peeler

1 Knife and Cutting Board

1 Slotted Spoon

1 Strainer

Rinse the potatoes to get rid of excess dirt, peel them, and cut them into small pieces. Boil them until they're so tender when you pull a piece out with a slotted spoon, a piece mashes easily with a fork.

Drain them in your trusty strainer, dump them back in the pot, and mash the heck out of them, trying to get them as smooth as possible. This will take at least 5 minutes and a little elbow grease. Don't worry if there's still a lump or two. The gnocchi will be fine.

Let the mash cool for a bit (say 10 minutes or until the mash is cool enough to handle) and then measure 2 cups of it and dump it in your mixing bowl. If there's any leftovers, save 'em for a rainy day, as mashed potatoes are an excellent accompaniment to almost any savory dish like meatloaf, chicken, or even fish.

Clean your pot, fill it with lots of fresh water, and a teaspoon or two of salt and put it on to boil.

Add 2 eggs and the cheese to your mixing bowl with the mashed potatoes and mix it all with a fork or wooden spoon until it's well combined. See the image below.




Now add your flour, a little at a time, until the mixture forms into a dough. See the image below.



Cover your hands a little flour and either mix in the bowl or on a work surface lightly covered with flour. Knead it with your hands, adding a little flour if needed. The dough should be soft but not falling apart - just firm enough to work with.

Cut sections of the dough off and roll them into strips or cylinders on a cutting board lightly covered with flour. Cut pieces about 2 centimeters wide off the strips, the images below. You can now, if you wish, lightly press them with a fork, thus giving the gnocchi its signature shape, or boil as is.




CAREFULLY, WITHOUT BURNING YOURSELF, drop the gnocchi into the boiling water. Once they float, they're ready! See the image below.



You can now scoop them out with your trusty slotted spoon, toss them in a little sauce or top with some cheese, and serve! 

Summertime's a coming and with it, all sorts nasty things like bugs, seasonal allergies, and fat guys in speedos. In the overwhelming heat, it makes perfect sense to wear light clothing that shows as much skin as legally possible, but as the media and social media continue to promote an ideal as repulsive as it is unrealistic, in the next entries I'm going to provide recipes for things that will make you feel good about yourself in your own body.

So keep reading!

-Samantha R. Gold

 Questions? Comments? Requests?

Bring it on!

I can be reached at:  for.the.culinarily.challenged@gmail.com

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