Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pasta Imperfect

Early on in our relationship, Joe gave me a hand-cranked pasta machine for my birthday. Now, this many have been one of those self serving presents we sometimes give to others, but at least Joe has helped with the pasta making each time we’ve brought it out. Which, has not been as often as it maybe should’ve been. I thought two pieces of the machine had gotten lost in a move across the country, and we waited a year for back ordered parts to come in from Italy.

The first time I tried the device, I dove in head first and tried to make a ricotta ravioli (I have the ravioli filler/form attachment). I tend to do that. Start with the hardest option and wonder why it doesn’t work out so well. I believe we ate leftovers or ordered in that night after I lost my temper and started throwing ricotta and dough balls around the kitchen.

The next time we decided to try the machine, I had had 2 years to cool down and Joe, acting as the voice of reason, decided we should start with a basic egg pasta. There are a lot of egg pasta recipes out there. We chose an easy one from Gourmet, that required minimal drying, and minimal prep. The results were fine. Although I think they ended up more as dumplings then a toothsome pasta, there was no chucking of dough or lost tempers.

This past Sunday we decided to give it another go. But since we already did our basic pasta duty, I wanted to take it to the next level. In consulting with Marcella Hazan’s Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, I found the next level. I knew this was the way to go when she compared rolling out the dough to jumping off a building as a means to get to the bottom. It’ll do the trick, but you won’t like the results. You need patience and to take the right steps in order to get the best end result.

We chose to make a spinach dough. And since that seemed rather attainable, I thought it would be a good idea to make a double batch. Everything went swimmingly until just at the end. As hunger set in and space to lay the pasta out ran in short supply, we hit a snag in the recipe. Now don’t get upset, I know ‘How dare I claim a snag in Marcella’s recipe! Blasphemy!’ She was so in depth, so militant about the rest of the process, that her directive to dry the cut noodles for about 10 minutes seemed easy. But it wasn’t mentioned to make sure they do not stick to one another. The other pasta recipe we had tried suggested we toss the noodles with flour and let them dry as individual separate strands. So when we tossed all the pasta into giant clumps on kitchen towels to dry… let’s just say there was some dough flinging.

But for the strands that survived, the end dish was pretty darn good. We tossed the cooked pasta with a light sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, bay scallops and Maine shrimp. So if you happen to have a few hours one Sunday and you want break out a gift you may have gotten but never used. I suggest making pasta.

Spinach Pasta
As adapted from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen

Makes approx. 1 pound of pasta.

2 large eggs
1 ½ cups flour (I found I needed about 2+cups)
½ pound fresh spinach, stems trimmed

1. Wash the spinach in several changes of water – even if you have bought bagged spinach. Set the spinach in a colander that fits into a larger bowl. Fill the bowl with water until it comes up over the spinach. Move the spinach around in the bowl to help shake off dirt and sand. Pull the colander out of the bowl then drain the water from the bowl. Do this process a few times until the water in the bowl is clean and free of sand. Remove the spinach from the water, but don’t dry it, you’ll need the water on the leaves t help wilt them.

2. Place spinach in a sauté pan over medium high heat and cook with ¼ tsp salt, covered, stirring occasionally until tender. For baby spinach cook for about 5-7 minutes, and for larger older leaves, cook about 10-12 minutes.

3. Remove from heat and let rest until cool enough to handle. Squeeze all the water out of the spinach and chop finely.

For the Dough

1. Place the flour on a clean surface, such as the counter or a large wooden cutting board. Make a well in the center of the flour and add eggs and spinach.

2. Beat together the spinach and eggs with a fork. Once combined, start incorporating the flour into the well with your fork. Gradually add more flour to the center until the dough becomes too thick to work with the fork.

3. Start kneading and working the dough with your hands, adding more flour if the dough gets sticky (and it will). To knead the dough, push the mass with the heel of your hand and your fingers bent over the edge, fold the dough in half. Give the dough a half turn and repeat the pressing and folding process. Marcella is very adamant that you spend about 8 minutes working the dough. As you continue you will need less flour, and the dough is ready when you can press a finger midway through the dough and it comes out clean.

4. Divide the dough into 4 parts. Cover the dough you aren’t rolling with clean dry kitchen towels. Set your pasta machine at its widest setting and roll the dough through. Fold the dough into thirds, and give it a quarter turn, then pass through the machine again. Place the thinned sheet under the kitchen towel as you thin the rest. Once all your sheets have passed through the widest setting, set the machine to the next setting. And repeat with the dough. At this point you don’t need to fold each sheet and run it through a second time – just run it through successively smaller incriments. Continue this thinning, through all the machine settings, or until you reach a thickness you like. (We stopped at the 2nd smallest)

5. Let the sheets dry on the kitchen towels for about 10 minutes. Place the pasta cutting attachment on your machine and choose whatever width you want. Or you can hand cut the sheets. Let the strands dry – separated on kitchen towels for a little while. Lightly toss some flour onto the noodles, to keep them from sticking to one another.

6. Set a large pot of salted water on the stove. Once boiling, pick up the kitchen towels by their four corners, and dump the pasta in all at once. Stir to loosen any clumps. Cook for about 5 minutes –testing the pasta often to check doneness. Once finished, strain the pasta and toss with your favorite sauce.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Getting Things Started

So, I set up this blog a few weeks ago, and hadn’t been able to take the plunge until now. I’ve been cooking, don’t get me wrong. But each time I think to myself ‘Oh this is a good recipe, maybe I should try this one’ it turns out all wrong, or I run out of time, or the pictures don’t come out. Which reminds me, let me apologize for the pictures that will be on this blog. I am not very adept at using my camera and I still need to purchase a tripod. So if the pictures are slightly blurry, please know that I tried.

Anyways, my idea for this is to share with you recipes that I try, adapt and eat which seem worthy. And believe me there are a lot out there that are not worth sharing. I am pretty hard on myself when it comes to cooking, especially if I want other people to try it. And Joe (you’ll hear more about him as this progresses) is always very complimentary about the food I make. As long as it isn’t peppers stuffed with vegetables.

So in lieu of that, I came across a recipe from an issue of Gourmet last year - Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar and Leeks. And I must tell you that I am sucker for macaroni and cheese. All kinds. Powdery fake cheese like substance, rich and creamy homemade stuff, dry and old sitting at the bottom of a restaurant pan, anything. It’s almost shameful how I lust for mac and cheese. So when I came across this - I figured, farmhouse cheddar cheese? yes. leeks? yes. penne? yes. This recipe also calls for “hot pepper sauce”. Which may seem a little strange at first -but trust me (yes you hardly know me, but I won’t steer you wrong). I once had a scallop chowder at a restaurant on Catalina Island and the waiter recommended that I add a few dashes of hot sauce to round out the flavor. Now this was by no means a fabulous restaurant, so I didn’t expect much, but when I did… wow! So the addition of hot sauce won’t be too much here, just enough to…wow!

The real reason I finally tried this recipe was because lobsters were on sale this week at the grocery store and I had a coupon. Now, I am not rubbing anything in here, but I live in Maine. So when the opportunity comes along to buy a lobster with a dollar off coupon - it’s hard to pass up. The only problem was, my coupon was only for ONE lobster. And it would be cruel to steam one lobster for one person while the other gets sprayed with errant lobster juice. So I decided to add my discount lobster to the pasta dish. If all those chefs can do it - then why can’t we? And what better way to kick this thing off then with some fancy schmancy mac n’ cheese.

Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar, Leeks and Lobster!
(Or Fancy Schmancy Mac n’ Cheese)
as adapted from Gourmet March 2009

This recipe calls for 5 cups of leeks. Well, leeks weren’t on sale this week, so I used about 3 cups, and the recipe still tasted great, but 5 cups would have made it more complex - so I recommend 5 if you can get them. Try to get good extra sharp cheddar, but any extra sharp will do. As for the hot sauce, if you have a favorite brand, use it. If not try Sriracha, since it’s all the rage now.

1/4 cup butter
5 cups chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only; about 5 large)
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk, warmed to room temperature
1 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (about 4 cups packed)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 pound penne pasta
1 (1-1 ½ pound) lobster (or more if you have more coupons)

First put about 1” of water into the bottom of a large pot, and place on medium-high heat. You can add flavorings to this water if you want, but since it’s for a lobster that will be coated in cheese, I say don’t bother. Once the water is boiling, place the lobster in the pot and cover. Steam the lobster for about 6-7 minutes, or until it turns bright red. It doesn’t need to be completely cooked through, but the shell should still be red.

Once the lobster is done, remove it from the pot and let rest until cool enough to handle. Don’t worry about keeping the lobster chunks pretty, they will be cut up anyway. I like to pull off the claws first, and then attack the tail. But do it any way it’s easiest for you. Once the lobster has been picked, set the meat aside.

Lightly butter 15x10x2-inch baking dish. Melt 1/4 cup butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks; stir to coat. Cover saucepan and cook until leeks are tender, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes (do not brown). Uncover saucepan; add flour. Stir 2 minutes. Add the milk; bring to simmer, stirring often. If the milk starts to boil, remove it from the heat, and turn down your burner - you don’t want it to be too hot or your sauce will break. Add cheese, mustard, and pepper sauce. Stir until cheese melts. Remove from heat. Season cheese sauce to taste with salt.

Whisk eggs in medium bowl. Slowly whisk in 1 cup cheese sauce, to warm the eggs to sauce temperature. Stir egg mixture into cheese sauce in saucepan.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Return to pot.

Stir cheese sauce and lobster into pasta in pot. Transfer to prepared baking dish.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Bake pasta until cheese sauce is bubbling around edges and some ends of pasta are golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes.

Let stand 15 minutes. Serve hot.

I find that leftovers of this are best served cold from the refrigerator. Most cheese/egg sauces don’t enjoy being in the microwave. But re-warming it in the oven should be ok.