Pasta Your Eyes Out!

I rather jumped at the chance to write this month's article on pasta. Some of my more consistent readers will remember that I've mentioned my Italian heritage more than once in previous articles. Either in reference to food or family, heritage plays an important part to many of us. To remember, actively, one's roots are a well-defining characteristic of an individual. And a noble trait, I might add.

In my family, on my mother's side, we've begun a new tradition which itself has roots to the time when our family first came to the United States. On my Grandfather's side, it was very normal for many families living on the same block (or blocks) to gather together and cook. Making one's own wines, sausage, and of course... pasta was tradition! I wish I could have been there to help. To see the hustle and bustle. To hear the stories. To sample the food.

Now, the tradition of my family is to gather together at one person's home and make gnocchi. Gnocchi is a shell pasta made to hold fillings. This will be the first time I actually get to help out. Previous times I had been away. Now it's my turn to write my own version of "I'll be home for Christmas." At the reading of this article, I will have gone through the whole ordeal and made my first gnocchi. I will be sure to report back to Seasoned Cooking on our success.

What is pasta?
Well, I may get some heat for this answer as we all have our own interpretations. For the sake of simplicity, pasta (or "noodles") is any grain-flour product that is made into dough, processed into a desired shape, and cooked. And how you cook it is entirely up to you. Is pasta flour unique?
Yes … and no. Depending on its source, the wheat used can have a great effect on the final flour. Also, how it is harvested and processed has an effect. Some processes include drying and separating. Depending on the manufacturer, some additives may also be in the final product, the flour. One other note, flour is milled. It's a rather interesting adventure trying to track down how exactly flour is milled and which milling method goes into your pasta flour. For my pastas, I use commercially available semolina flour. An expert from Enviroweb and The University of Illinois:
    "The best quality pasta is made from 100% durum wheat. Durum wheat is a high protein, hard wheat, which contributes to the characteristics of good pasta.

    The endosperm of durum is called semolina and it is a granular, hard substance resembling sugar. Macaroni and spaghetti are made from this. A by-product of semolina milling is durum flour, which is used to make noodles. Both semolina and durum flour are enriched with B-Vitamins and iron."

What can you do with pasta? How do you make it?
I think it's a safe assumption that many of you are not only interested in food, but also interesting in creating the food. The experience weighs as much as the first and last bites. Making pasta is a simple pleasure. At times, it's a stress reliever too. And it is also not very technical or complicated. First, locate a bag of semolina flour. If you're just experimenting, normal baking flour can do but I would encourage you to invest in the semolina. You'll also need water (I use either filtered or distilled, depending on how I feel), a large mixing bowl, extra virgin olive oil, eggs and, a dish towel (because we ALL make messes). Finally, roll up your sleeves! The kids play ends here and now.

In the large mixing bowl, add two eggs, two cups semolina flour, two teaspoons of water and two teaspoons of oil. With a fork, begin to mix the ingredients until you feel comfortable mixing it by hand. With clean hands, mix the ingredients. A caution: the dough is very tough so take "breathers" every now and again so you don't tire yourself out. Over time, you'll develop the proper muscles for this task. This is why I feel Italian children have such a great respect for their nonas. Because if they didn't, the spanking they would get would leave a very lasting impression!

Once the mixture is well integrated, lightly dust a clean working surface with baking flour and continue to knead the dough. Its texture will become very dense and elastic. The appearance will be a golden yellow. If you don't plan on using the dough for some time (more than an hour), cover with a slightly damp paper towel in a bowl.

While the purchase of a home pasta maker is not imperative, it sure does make the job easier. They are available at most house wares stores and specialty/chef's stores or on-line.

Roll the pasta out with a rolling pin. The end thickness is entirely up to you. Examining your favourite pasta at the store will help you select the thickness you will want to use. Linguini, spaghettis, and other straight pasta need only be a couple of millimeters thick. Shaped pasta almost a centimeter. Again, it's preference-based.

For simple, straight pasta, use a straight edge (cutting board or ruler) to draw lines on your pasta blank (your rolled pasta sheet) with a sharp knife. It's dough, so a serrated knife will work but a chef's knife is recommended. Again, examine pasta at your store for estimating widths.

Shaped and tubular pastas
These are a tad more complicated. For home-use, a small diameter dowel works well for large tubes. Smaller tubes need a special tool for extrusion. Bow-ties are strips just pinched in the center. Basically, if you can visualize it, you're already there. Chris, I've seen different coloured pastas. What's up with that?
Ah, I love coloured pastas because they are quite simple. For red pastas, substitute one teaspoon of water with a tablespoon or more of tomato paste. The best paste I've found comes in a tube. Caution, DO NOT LEAVE IT IN YOUR BATHROOM!

For green pastas, substitute both teaspoons of water with the sqeezings from frozen spinach.

Pasta Drying
One year, as a gift, I received both a pasta maker and a wooden drying rack. You can use cookie sheets laid in a cool, dry area (and covered with a linen cloth) but the drying rack just looks so cool. I feel that its impression on a meal is part of that meal. For some reason, pasta hung up to dry tastes better, to me, than laid out to dry. Of course, if you're in a hurry, you do NOT have to dry your newly made pasta.

Dried pasta should be out for about 24 hours. When done drying, store it in a large, dry container in a cool, dry place. Your fresh pasta will store fresh for a couple of weeks. But why wait!?

In conclusion......
I wanted to end this pasta experience with a good sauce. But there is so many out there! Many excellent sauces can be had, right here, in our recipe index. I encourage a visit when you're finished here.

Homemade pasta cooks in less time than store-bought. Plan on this. When cooking, constantly watch the pot and -- until you have a feel of how quickly your pasta cooks -- do not abandon the pot for other parts of the meal. Designate a Pasta Looker for the job!

Making pasta is fun and very simple. And children can use this as a stepping stone into working in the kitchen. Make this a family event the next time you sit down for some pasta!