electronic Gourmet Guide


You Don't Have To Be Italian

by Prof. Steve Holzinger


You don't have to be Italian to love pasta.

As a matter of fact, the most interesting pasta I've eaten was in China. There was a small Muslim restaurant in downtown Shanghai that had a white tiled kitchen in the window with a built in wok filled with boiling water, and a small work table. There the chef took a piece of dough, holding it with both hands, and pulled his hands apart, stretching the dough out. Then he brought his hands together, doubling the dough. He repeated the process a few times, doubling and stretching the dough to arms length, and when he was done, he had many strands of la mien, pulled noodles. The ends were twisted off, and the strands were turned around his hand to form a ball, and rested on the floured bench, awaiting a customer, while he did the next batch. It was a theatrical performance, much like the pizzas that get twirled into the air to stretch them. I watched a few times, and then went in and had a bowl of freshly cooked noodles in clear mutton broth. The texture of the noodles was unique, extra chewy yet tender, and the steaming broth was rich and salty. I never got the recipe for these noodles, but I do have a basic recipe for egg noodles that you can use for soup noodles. Talk about cultural diffusion, it also makes great won-ton wrappers. Change the filling from pork and you have kreplach, a great Jewish favorite. Its all there in the recipe.

The technique of pulling noodles is perhaps beyond you and I, but I had another dish there on one of my too few visits, of noodle dumplings and cabbage. The cook took a small ball of dough, and pinched off little dumplings between his thumb and forefinger, and dropped them on a plate. When he had finished the ball, he swept them into the boiling water and cooked them, and fished them out with a bamboo strainer and sent them to the kitchen, where they were sautéed and tossed with lightly steamed cabbage seasoned with yu-lada, hot red chili oil. As a child, my experience with pasta was very Polish! Kasha Varnishkes was one of my favorite dishes that my grandmother made for me, and to this day, when I make it, I remember her. My son loves this dish too. Most people who were not brought up eating kasha, which are buckwheat groats, hate it, but in combination with egg pasta bow ties, seasoned with parsley, garlic and chicken fat, it is delicious, and very Polish (or Russian), as noodles are a much loved food there. Kasha is a very difficult grain to cook, if you don't know how, and I will let you in on the secret of frying the groats (cracked grains) and coating them with egg, to make them light and fluffy. The recipe is on the box, but I don't think they explain it well. You really need to get the groats really hot, by frying them in the chicken fat, so that the beaten egg coats them. Never stop stirring until the egg is all absorbed, and the kasha looks dry again. Then add stock or water, twice the volume of the kasha. After it boils up well, turn the fire low, and let it cook very slowly. When you think it is done, it isn't! Turn the fire off and let it sit there covered for fifteen minutes, to give it a chance to steam through. This makes it light. The parsley and garlic really accentuate the 'chickeny' flavor. Kasha is also good as a side dish, like mashed potatoes, and greatly benefits from a ladle of rich mushroom gravy. As further proof of the international appeal of pasta, I entered the one word, pasta, in my favorite search engine (in 1997), and got...(can you believe it?) 100,000 references! I discovered that last year Americans ate 1.3 billion pounds of pasta. Not bad for a country that produces some of the finest hard wheat in the world. As a matter of fact, when I looked at my box of Publix brand spaghetti, it said, made from North Dakota Durum wheat. The cooking time for this pasta is longer, around 11 minutes after the water has been brought to the boil, more like the imported DeCecco brand that I have eaten for many years, but is half the price. The sin qua non of good pasta is the "al dente" chewyness of the cooked pasta. Al dente translates "to the tooth," and properly cooked pasta has a feeling in the mouth that you will always recognize and want, once you have tasted it.

Cooking spaghetti al dente is not difficult, if you use enough boiling salted water with a little oil in it. Four quarts to the pound is the recommended amount. Keep the water boiling as hard as you can without having it boil over. Many prepared dry pastas are done in nine minutes from when the water resumes the boil, so start checking then. As pasta cooks, it cooks from the outside to the inside, leaving a brighter white "bone" in the center that gradually grows smaller and disappears. When it just disappears is when the pasta is done, any longer and you will overcook it and it will get soft and loose its proper texture. No need to rinse it if you are using it right away...as you should.

Barilla pasta, a favorite brand in Italy, is very resistant to overcooking, it has an extra firm mouth feel, if you like that. They also make a fine line of prepared tomato sauces in very nice glass jars. (I reuse them for making flavored vinegar). I cook up some fresh ingredients and use their sauces as a base to save time, and I have been very happy with the results. For example, I sauté some extra garlic, fresh basil and onions, and add their Arribbiata (spicy) sauce. Then I sauté some shrimps or steam some mussels (reduce the broth before you add it) and add them to the sauce, and have a meal ready by the time the pasta cooks. A tossed salad and a cup of expresso finish the meal. of course, my favorite spaghetti dish is with butter and olive oil mixed, and plenty of grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and a simple salad of sliced vine ripened tomatoes and peppery Tuscan olive oil and vinegar. This is slow food, (as opposed to fast food) but done in a short time. I should tell you that 8 oz of pasta will make 4 cups cooked, and that 8 oz of spaghetti fits in a 1-1/2 inch circle. Most sources say 1 lb of pasta serves six to eight, but not in my house.

Better say serves four to five. I discovered this at the home page of the American Pasta Institute (in 1997), where they have a chart of 23 different pasta shapes and an excellent FAQ, as well as many good recipes. Certainly no short list of pasta sites on the web would be complete without the page that showed everyone on the net how to do it! I mean eat.com's "Mama's Page," where there is scads of information on Italian cooking, recipes, and Mama's Cooking 101. You can even win a trip to Orlando Florida, or learn to speak Italian. Mangia!

The last pasta dish I will tell you about in this article, which barely skims the surface of the subject, is that great American favorite, beloved of newlyweds, Spaghetti and Meatballs. For my wife and myself, newly married, at college on the GI Bill, it was a staple and our 'company' dish. We didn't have much money. My wife worked as a secretary at the college, and I cooked hamburgers on the grill at the dorm cafeteria to make ends meet, while I went to the Cornell Hotel School. I had been cooking for some time before I went to Cornell, so I could have been cooking classic cuisine at the Statler Inn, but the Dorm Caf paid a quarter an hour more. You can understand that economical dishes were the sin qua non of our existence, and yet we never felt we were missing a thing. We entertained our friends on the weekend BYOB style, with a great pot of spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread and salad. What could be better? Youth was a great sauce. If you want to read more about making your own pasta, and what to do with it, check out Guiliano Bugialli's Classic Techniques of Italian Cuisine, or his book or video on pasta. The Classic Techniques is a well illustrated masterpiece that has a place of honor on my bookshelf. Now that's Italian!  

© 1997, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.

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