There were two sacks of flour in the middle of the table. Called Laura who was teaching me how to make a pasta shape Straszinati, unrolled the tops of the sacks, sending white clouds into the air. Then she suggested I put my right hand in one pocket and my left in the other. Enjoying the happy dip approach, I put a hand in smooth, almost silky skin. That was grano tenero, or soft wheat flour, Laura explained while pouring us tea. My other hand, meanwhile, encountered something entirely different, grainy and sandy – grano duro, durum or durum wheat flour, she remarked as I lifted my hands from the bags. I knew both but had never studied them side by side. Two wheats, one soft, one hard; one dusty white and smooth, the other rough and sandy yellow. I rubbed both hands on my apron.
The word “pasta” comes from Latin, which borrows from Greek πάστη (paste) or a mixture of liquid and flour. Any flour! The pasta universe includes shapes made from chestnut, acorn, rice, field bean, chickpea, barley, buckwheat and corn flour. However, most shapes are made from one of two wheat flours: Grano Tenero, which is often ground to a fine “00” in Italy, and what you need to prepare fresh egg pasta like tagliatelle, lasagne and ravioli; or grano duro, the second most commonly grown species and hardiest variety, the Muhammad Ali of wheat. Durum wheat is yellow in color and its hardness means it breaks when ground. Coarsely ground, it makes semolina for couscous, soups, breads and puddings. Ground twice, it becomes flour, Semolina rimacinata in Italy durum wheat semolina flour in Great Britain the legally required flour for all dried pasta shapes. Look at any pasta packet in your cupboard and the ingredients are two: durum wheat semolina and water. It’s also the sachet you’ll want to put your hand in to make flour and water pasta at home.
While that was years ago, Laura’s two bags are still my starting point for pasta flour, not least because there’s nothing wrong with taking a playful approach to pasta-making and child-friendly instructions are by far the most concise. On your largest surface – wood is ideal, but not necessary – make a mountain out of 400g of durum wheat semolina flour. Next, twirl the mountain with your fist into a wide volcanic crater (Lanzarote’s Caldera Blanca is a good visual aid here). The proportions are approximately 2:1, so measure out 200ml of warm water and pour it into the crater. All at once (in which case prepare for a pinching chase) or bit by bit. Either way, the gathering mound will look hopeless; too dry or too wet. Have faith and pinch, squeeze and collect crumbs until you have a jagged lump that smells like semolina pudding. Italian recipes rarely go beyond that sodo e ben lavorato (“Firm and worked well”). That’s not a bad thing, whatever works, and remember being given a cold lump of plasticine or putty as a kid. Chances are you haven’t thought or worried; You simply squeezed, kneaded, and whipped the jagged lump with your warm hands until it was smooth and pliable enough to be shaped.
What did you do with the lump of plasticine? Worms (vermicelli)? Mouse tails (Code di Topo)? Rings (anelli)? Did you push the dough through the dough press to make strings (spaghetti) or drumsticks? Or roll a lump against a rough surface (gnocchi)? Make fingerprints (strascinati) or push in a ball with your thumb (cavatelli) or pull out an ear (orecchiette)? Even if you were a young Peter Lord sculpting monsters, there’s a good chance you made at least four molds in the process, all preparations for making noodles.
Another preparation is to make a rope. Cut the ball of dough into quarters, place three under an inverted bowl to keep them from drying out, then using the hollows of your palms, shape one quarter into a strand about 1/2 inch thick. Now cut off a 1cm chunk, press your index finger in the middle and pull it towards you, the idea being that it will curve or even turn over and you’ve done it cavato, which does ______________ mean They buckled into the lump and made one Cavatello. Another way to make cavatelli is to roll a lump against something ridged or rough – a butter spatula, grater, or basket.
To make orecchiette, which means little ears, use a knife to pull the clump into a circle that curls around the edges, then twist it back so it looks like an ear or small cup. Put some music on, pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of tea and make another and another and another.
Of course, pasta made from flour and water can also be rolled through a pasta machine and cut into neat strips or poorly cut diamonds (Maltagliati). It’s also reassuring to know that cavatelli, orecchiette and lasagne sheets can also be bought dried to break up in maltagliati. Fresh or fried, orecchiette pair well with tomatoes, anchovies and breadcrumbs, cavatelli with lamb and saffron ragù, while maltagliati with arugula and pea pesto make for a well-formed lunch.
Orecchiette with tomatoes, anchovies, arugula and potatoes
This is a variation of a recipe from Foggia in Puglia. It’s clever in that the potato and arugula are cooked with the pasta, which adds flavor, then collapse enough to wrap around the pasta and, in the potato’s case, provide starchy softness. Everything is then mixed with garlic, anchovies and tomatoes.
preparation 10 mins
Cook 15 minutes
1 garlic clove, peeled and beaten, but left unperturbed
1 pinch red chili flakes
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
12-15 cherry tomatoescut in half
3-6 anchovy filletsdrained, to taste
1 large potato (approx. 250 g), peeled and cut into 1 cm cubes
500g fresh or 400g dried orecchiette (or cavatelli, fusilli or linguine)
150 g arugulahard stems discarded
Toasted breadcrumbsserve (optional)
In a frying pan over low heat, sauté the garlic and chili in the oil for a few minutes. Increase the heat, add the tomatoes and cook, pressing down with the back of a spoon, until tart, 10 minutes. In the last two minutes, add the anchovies and press with the spoon to break them up.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt, then add the potato. If using dried pasta, add it two minutes after the potato and arugula six minutes later; If fresh, add six minutes after the potatoes, along with the arugula.
Once the pasta and potatoes are cooked, drain, then add to the sauce in the pan and toss. Serve sprinkled with breadcrumbs, if you like.
Casarecce with lamb and saffron ragout
This lamb stew is inspired by a recipe from Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region in bianco (white versus red, with tomato) also contains saffron for a deep, warm flavor. Keep an eye on the consistency, add more liquid or boil away excess liquid if necessary; The end result should be a tender stew with just a little rich liquid, and the meat should be tender enough to break gently. The pecorino tossed first with the pasta is functional and helps the meat sauce stick. A traditional form is cecatelli (small and canoe-like), but I also love to pair it with cavatelli, casarecce, fusilli or tagliatelle.
preparation 15 minutes
Cook 1 hour 30 minutes
1 onionpeeled and finely diced
1 small carrotpeeled and finely diced
1 stick of celeryfinely diced
2 bay leaves
1 small dried red chilifinely chopped
6 tbsp olive oil
700 g braised boneless lambcut into 2 cm cubes
Up to 750 ml of white wine
1 large pinch of saffronsoaked in 200ml warm water, lamb or light vegetable broth
500 g fresh or 400 g dried Casarecce, Cavatelli or Cecatelli (or fusilli or tagliatelle)
In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, add the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, chilli, oil, and pinch of salt and sauté over low heat for 7 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender.
Increase the heat a little, add the lamb and cook, stirring, until browned on all sides. Add another pinch of salt, increase the heat one more level, then add the wine and let it bubble for two minutes. Add the saffron and its soaking liquid, cover and simmer gently for an hour and a half, stirring from time to time and adding more wine if the mixture seems dry. If there is too much liquid left at the end, cook uncovered for the last few minutes to reduce. Taste and adjust the spices.
Towards the end of the cooking time, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water, then drain, tip into a bowl and sprinkle with a handful of Pecorino cheese. Drizzle with the sauce, toss well and serve with more pecorino on the side.
Maltagliati with rocket, basil and pea pesto
Inspired by the classic Pesto Alla Genovese, this pesto (meaning “puree sauce”) is delicious. Arugula and basil bring herbal warmth while the peas add sweetness. I’ve given quantities, but it’s really a recipe that invites improvisation according to taste. As always, a little pasta cooking water will help fluff up the pesto so it coats the pasta, while adding a little milk will soften the ricotta for spooning.
preparation 10 mins
Cook 10 mins
1 large handful of basilplus extra to finish
1 bundle rocketLeaves only, hard stems removed
100 grams of peascooked briefly in boiling salted water
20 g almonds or pine nuts
1 clove of garlic
120-150 ml olive oil
200 grams of ricottamixed with half the parmesan and some milk to make it soft and spoonable
500 g fresh maltagliatior shredded sheets of lasagne or 450g dried linguine or tagliatelle
In a food processor or blender, puree the basil, arugula, peas, nuts, garlic, a good pinch of salt and about 2 cups of oil into a coarse but smooth paste. Stir in half the Parmesan and remaining oil—slowly because you may not need all of it—until the pesto is the consistency you like, then transfer half to a large, warm bowl.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta al dente in well-salted water. Using a slotted spoon, lift the pasta into the pesto bowl – the water that sticks to it will help loosen the pesto. Top with the rest of the pesto, then toss and divide among four bowls. Garnish each portion with a dollop of ricotta and a few basil leaves and serve.