Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Pasta Lesson

Months in the planning, our first big event on our return from the U.S. in September was to be a pasta making lesson as a fund raiser for the Women’s International Group.  I was approached in the spring about this project but I explained there was no way I could do this solo.  Bruce is the pasta maestro in our house, I'm in charge of sauces, fillings and plating.  So a double act it was to be.

First hurdle: where to get hold of a pasta machine.  Yes, it’s correct, a true contadina would only accept hand rolled pasta but after almost eighteen years in Italy, Bruce hasn’t mastered that technique yet.  Turns out that a fellow WIG member had a pasta machine she’d never used.  She got it as a present but being Japanese didn’t know how it worked.  Unfortunately, it was a Chinese made pasta maker and when we did a test using it we found it didn’t quite roll out the dough thin enough.  Acceptable, but not quite the gossamer sheets we were used to using our Italian machine which remains in Italy.

I was bemoaning this to another friend who thereupon reached into her kitchen cupboard and “ecco” revealed a pasta maker made in Italy!  We were in business.

Our first plan was to make two kinds of ravioli.  One stuffed with pumpkin – readily available here - and the other from our favorite trattoria “dal Pallazzacio” in Umbria.  “Ravioli Letizia” is filled with eggplant - also readily available here – and topped with a sauce of black and green olives, capers and fresh tomatoes topped with shavings of parmesan.

We emailed Letizia, the daughter in the family trattoria for whom this pasta is named, and asked for their recipe.  She sent it back with detailed instructions and we made it just for ourselves on Easter Sunday.  Here it is.

We then tried the pumpkin ravioli but the filling didn’t have much pizazz.  I remembered a recipe of Marcella Hazan’s that substituted sweet potato for pumpkin in cappellaci, and so I emailed our pal, Mikey Tucker, to ask him to send that to me.  Mikey and I tossed around ideas about solutions to the blandness and both felt that a combo of pumpkin and sweet potato could be the answer.  Which it was.  By the way, Michael Tucker writes a great blog which I highly recommend called “Notes from a Culinary Wasteland”.  Here’s the link. http://notesfromaculinarywasteland.com

But Bruce was decidedly not happy with the Lao (actually Thai) flour.  It didn’t have enough gluten in it to withstand the kneading and rolling process and kept shredding and falling apart.  We were saved by discovering a very expensive but very rugged Australian flour at the ex-pat market.  $10 per bag - but it worked.  Here it is. 

So now we were all set.  We decided that after our summer holiday in the states we’d teach the class how to make pumpkin/sweet potato ravioli in a butter and thyme sauce with parmesan and then fettucine with a blended fresh tomato sauce which includes carrots, onions, rosemary and lashings of olive oil.  We chose not to do the “ravioli Letizia” – yummy though it is – because the cost of ingredients like olives and capers and shavings of parmesan here in Vientiane was a bit prohibitive for a crowd.  But you should definitely try it.  Here’s the recipe:

Ravioli Letizia

    •    500 grams of flour
    •    pinch of salt
    •    4 eggs

    •    500 grams of eggplant cut into small cubes – no need to peel eggplant
    •    1 clove of garlic
    •    extra-virgin olive oil
    •    finely chopped parsley
    •    parmesan cheese

    1.    Cube the eggplant and place in a saute pan with olive oil, garlic and parsley.
    2.    Cook five minutes and let cool. 
    3.    Add 2 T grated parmesan.

This is the filling.

    1.    In a saute pan place 6 T of olive oil, 150 grams of green olives and 100 grams of black olives.  Add I clove of garlic and 10 grams of capers.
    2.    Saute for three minutes and then add 600 grams fresh tomato sauce.
    3.    Simmer for a further twelve to fifteen minutes.


    1.    Roll the pasta out very thinly and stuff with the filling. 
    2.    Seal edges well using a beaten egg wash. 
    3.    Cook in abundant salted water.  A minute or so should be enough. 
    4.    Dress with the sauce and top with shavings of parmesan cheese.
While staying in Santa Barbara we bought a ravioli cutter – ours being, yet again, in Italy - and just before getting on the plane back to Laos we swung by Whole Foods in New York and bought fresh rosemary and bay leaves.  This had now morphed into a multi-continental operation.

At last the day arrived.  I had made the ravioli filling and sauce for the fettucine in advance because the idea was to focus on the pasta making and we didn’t want to be there all day.  Bruce made a CD of Neapolitan music to play while we worked. 
Here’s the “maestro” explaining how to take the flour; make a well in the center of it; break in an egg and gradually gather in the flour making sure not to break the ring of flour until the egg is incorporated otherwise the egg runs right off the table.

I don’t think I was ever more aware of what an international group WIG is until that day.  Here’s part of the gang that showed up.  We had women from America, Belgium, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Russia all wanting to learn how to make Italian pasta.  Pretty wild.

We decided to use the Italian pasta maker for the ravioli and the Chinese pasta maker for the sturdier fettucine.  But there were still more acolytes than machines so here’s Bolo from Mongolia who took things into her own hands and started rolling her own.  She realized the dough was similar to what Mongolians use to make their dumplings.  She gets the “Golden Contandina” award.

Here’s Seema from Nepal (well, actually, just her hands) making the ravioli.  Scroll down to the end for the filling recipe.

And here’s Alison from Papua New Guinea slicing the pasta sheets into fettucine.  Scroll down to the end for the sauce recipe.

And so we lunched on fettucine in fresh tomato sauce with rosemary; pumpkin/sweet potato ravioli with thyme leaf, butter and parmesan; salad and a glass of wine.

As the old Ronzoni pasta ads used to say.  “Close your eyes and you’re eating in Italy”. 

Tomato Sauce (from Marcella Hazan)

•    1 medium onion
•    1 carrot
•    1 stalk of celery
•    1 can (about 425 ml) peeled tomatoes
•    salt
•    pepper
•    fresh herbs (I’d suggest either rosemary or oregano or marjoram)
•    ¼ C extra virgin olive oil

1.    Put the tomatoes in a sauce pot
2.    Chop the onion and the carrot and the celery (medium/fine) and add them to the pot
3.    Add the salt, pepper and fresh herbs
4.    Simmer slowly for 30 minutes – without a lid
5.    Remove the fresh herbs from the pot
6.    Pour the remaining contents into a cuisinart or blender and blend until it’s as smooth as you want it to be.
7.    Pour this mixture back into the sauce pan and add about ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil – if you want to add a bit more – go ahead.
8.    Stir the pot slowly until the oil is incorporated into the sauce and then let it all simmer for another 15 minutes.

 Pumpkin Ravioli

•    1 ¾  pounds sweet potatoes and pumpkin about equal weight (not yams)
•    1 ¼  cups grated parmigiano or grana padana
•    3 Tb chopped parsley
•    2 Tb chopped mortadella, prosciutto or ham
•    1 egg yolk
•    ½  tsp nutmeg grated
•    1/2 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 450
2. Put potatoes and pumpkin in middle level of oven. 
3. After 20 minutes turn down to 400.
4. Cook for another 35-40  minutes or until potatoes are tender.
5. Peel potatoes and puree them through a food mill into a bowl. 
6. Add all other ingredients and mix thoroughly with a fork until the mixture is smooth and evenly blended. 
7. Taste and correct for salt.