Monday, November 29, 2010

Pasta Woes

Fig.1. Old wooden tools once used to cut pasta. I picked these up in Italy. You can buy them here at Quincaillerie Dante.

I’ve been experimenting a lot lately with locally grown flour. I’m making pasta with just about any Quebec flour I can get my hands on: local whole wheat, spelt, kamut, barley, all purpose, and even Italy’s favorite, local durum wheat semolina, all grown and milled within a 100 kilometer radius of Montreal.
These experimentations have stressed me out. My head hurts constantly, I can’t sleep, and, if that wasn’t enough, my dandruff’s back. (Stress is a major contributor to dry scalp) Imagine Woody Allen coated in flour. It’s not the actual procedure that’s stressing me, (I’m getting adequate pasta from all of the above flour varieties) my internal conflict stems from whether it’s necessary to change something I know to be good in order to do something that is right. Using local flour helps local farmers as well as the environment, but for the moment at least, appears to be detrimental to my taste buds.
There are hundreds of variants at play here, the combination of flour, water and eggs being the least of them. The climate in Italy; from the sun’s heat to the gentle winds that cause the wheat stalks to sway back and forth; the altitude of the grains, are the fields caressed in a valley or standing erect at the top of a heat-soaked hill, to the time of year the wheat is harvested.
Italian durum wheat makes strong, flavorful pasta; tough enough for tossing with rapini and humble enough to take a backseat to the forceful, flavors of a carbonara. Italian 00 flour, is very, finely ground, combined with eggs it makes the most delicate of noodles, a pasta that embraces any and all rich tomato or meat sauce it comes in contact with. Pasta di farro (not to be confused with spelt pasta) is made from emmer wheat and is believed to be the second oldest pasta by Italian food historians, Italian’s were making farro pasta long before whole wheat flour came into the picture. Pasta made from farro has a wonderful cereal taste, it's a bold pasta that should never be drowned in sauce.
Italian flour producers have pasta on the brain. Italian flour, whether by destiny, design or both, has evolved to fashion magnificent pasta, but evolution is time, and while flour is in abundance in Canada, the attitude toward it is more business oriented than it is culinary. But that seems to be changing too: local, organic flour producers deserve a chance—if given a choice between two, equally, flavorful pastas, I would have to choose local, so why do I feel like I’m trying to sever an umbilical cord connecting me to the old country? What I need is pasta advise from a wise old man (or woman) perched at the top of a mountain, not so sure the archetype exists in Italy.

Pasta all’uovo,

Serves 10 to 12 as a main course

The package of 00 flour reads “better suited for baking”. Many also say that 00 flour is too fine to yield a good pasta, but I know countless chefs, grandmothers, and foodies in Italy (as well as Montreal) who use it every time they make pasta. When you first start using 00 flour, don’t make the pasta too thin, with time and practice, you’ll be able to knead it to a point where you’ll start to notice a difference in the pasta’s strength and elasticity (this is the gluten at work, the more you knead the dough, the more gluten produced.) Once you get used to working with 00 flour, feel free to roll it as thin as you want. Pasta freezes well, just make sure you toss it in flour and corn meal before you do.


1 kilo 00 flour, plus extra for dusting
10 eggs


Make a mountain with your flour and make a well in the center. Start by adding 8 eggs in the center, with your finger or a fork, begin incorporating the flour and eggs together. Once everything is mixed together (your mixture will not hold in a cohesive mass at this point) add another egg and begin kneading. Your dough should start taking shape at this point, scrape up any loose pieces of dough, add the last egg and knead until it all comes together. Continue kneading for 10 solid minutes while dusting with flour. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and let your dough rest for 30 minutes.

This recipe can be halved: ½ kilo flour to 5 eggs. Generally, the rule of pasta is 100g of flour for every egg. Also keep in mind, altitude, dryness and humidity can change the dry to wet ratio, this is why it’s better not to add all of your eggs at once.

Fig.1. I roll the pasta out using my pasta machine and then pass over it with the pappardelle rolling pin.

Fig.3. The pappardelle need to be pulled one by one, the wood is not as sharp as a knife. If you wish to speed things up, roll the pasta sheet (make sure you sprinkle with flour before you do) and cut the roll with a sharp knife.

Fig.4. Coat the pasta with some flour and cornmeal, sprinkle some on the cookie sheet, and place your pasta in neat bundles. Cover with plastic wrap and store in the fridge if you"re cooking the same day, otherwise place the whole cookie sheet in the freezer. Once pasta is frozen, transfer to a large freezer bag.

Monday, November 22, 2010

They're not all bad

Fig.1. Cavolo nero pesto served over baccala and polenta.

My rant a few posts ago sparked some noise from a fervent flurry of patrons, who, I’ve been scolded, are more than satisfied with their favorite Italian restaurants. “What’s wrong with meat sauce; you’ve never had the Alfredo sauce at {insert restaurant name here}; the fried calamari at my favorite restaurant is the best.” Nevertheless, the passion in which the food and restaurants is being defended, by you, the patrons, in my mind does not reflect the same passion being mustered up by the majority of Montreal Italian restaurants. My article was aimed at the complacent, status quo menus that seem to repeat themselves in one Italian restaurant after another. There are, however, some Italian restaurants in Montreal doing some pretty outstanding things, and I believe it only fair that I balance the negative, culinary ying with a positive gastronomic yang.
Very talented chef Maurizio Mercuri of Ristorante Basi is making a manicotti stuffed with pumpkin and prosciutto, a great example of Italian seasonal cooking. Also in Little Italy, (as well as in Laval) Bottega Pizzeria, aside from making what is arguably the best “Napolitano” styled pizza in the city, represents Napoli fittingly well with menu items such as Mozarella in Carrozza, Salsiccia e rapini and polpo e patate. Rosalie’s menu is very impressive lately (now that Joe Mercuri has taken over the kitchen) and in keeping with cooking seasonal and local, with items such as corn ravioli with aged cheddar and spaghetti with Saint Elizabeth blue cheese, red chilies and black pepper. And last but not least, Le Muscadin in Old Montreal (aside from the seasonal offering of shaved white Alba truffles) put an inspiring new seasonal spin on an old classic: Pesto made with cavolo nero. Replacing basil leaves with cavolo nero makes perfect sense in the Autumn months: the leafy greens are in season and have hit the highest point of flavor. They were nice enough to share their recipe with me.

Pesto di Cavolo Nero (from Chef Leo Iacono of Le Muscadin)
Makes 3 cups

Fig.2. Pesto freezes well, pop a few cubes from an ice tray into a pan well coated with olive oil along with your pasta and you got a 10 minute meal Rachel Ray would be proud of.

If you can’t find cavolo nero, (and you didn’t freeze any like I told you to in this post) no worries, you can substitute the cavolo with rapini or Swiss chard. Pesto, while great on pasta, is equally as good served with grilled meat or fish. You can also freeze the pesto.

1 1/2 cups cavolo nero, blanched, (or other leafy green such as rapini or Swiss chard)
5 large garlic cloves,(or 7 to 8 smaller ones)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (the better the oil, the better the pesto)
¼ cup of walnuts, roasted. (pine nuts also work well)

Chop the leafy greens into manageable pieces and blanch in boiling water for 5 minutes. Remove the greens from the boiling water and immerse in an ice bath. Using your hands, squeeze out as much water from the greens as you can. Put the greens, garlic and walnuts in a food processor and puree, add the olive oil in a steady stream and continue to puree until pesto is slightly runny. (you might need more olive oil)

Fig.3. Put all of your ingredients in a food processor, turn it on, and add the oil in a steady stream. You want to use the best olive oil you have.

Le Muscadin- 639 Nortre Dame Ouest. Old Montreal. 514-842-0588

Basi-77 ave Shamrock (corner Casgrain) Montreal (Little Italy) 514-750-0774

Rosalie-1232 De La Montagne. Montreal, 514-392-1970

Bottega-656 St Zotique east, Montreal (Little Italy)514-277-8104
Bottega Laval-2059 St Martin West, Laval (corner 15) 450-688-1100

Monday, November 8, 2010

Griliata Mista

Fig.1. Keeping warm next to hot meat can only be appreciated when it's cold outside. So don your kitchen tongs and get out there.

It might be getting cold out there but there are still plenty of perfectly, good barbecue days left before the grills get put away for the winter. (If you're one of those who grills all year round, good on you) The desire to grill in cold weather does lessen, but rather than running into the house while your food cooks, stand close to your grill (not too close) and keep warm. It's like a camp fire that sizzles and smells of blissful fat.

Grigliata Mista
Assorted Grilled Meat

Fig.2. Sometimes, vegetables are not required. Squirt with lemon and eat.

Misto translates into mixed, so use whatever meat you want. In this recipe, I used sausages, chicken thighs, lamb thighs, flank steak, pork chops, and quail. If you have any herbs left in your garden, use them in this recipe. I let the meat marinate overnight in olive oil, white wine, fresh herbs (I used whatever I had left in my garden, in this case, oregano, sage, parsley and thyme.) salt and pepper. If you grill a lot of meat at the same time, it's a good idea to clean your barbecue first. All of that dripping fat will cause flames, trust me, my forearms are now hairless. Have a spray bottle full of water next to you.




Grill and serve with lemon wedges.