Saturday, April 04, 2009

Pasta to Please Masterclass

Pasta to Please Masterclass. From the economical side of the fence we could use almost any pasta even when a particular one is called for, although certain shapes hold sauces better than others. However, some pastas look so attractive that they are worth using. Even when it comes to the sauces we can cut a few pennies from the corners, but for a proper Masterclass, we climb over the fence up to the top of the ladder (am I mixing metaphors here?), and once we have learned 'the right way' to make/cook things properly, and are given hints and tips on how to do so, then we can begin to unravel some of it and weave our own cost-cutting magic.

There is a huge variety of different shapes and names (even colours) of pasta, and if we wish to cook pasta dishes as they should be cooked then the first tip is to use long thin pasta such as spaghetti or tagliatelle with seafood and tomato or egg sauces, and use the heavier stubby pasta (macaroni, penne, and 'curvy shapes') with a heavier, meaty sauce as this will then be able to be trapped in the folds. But even this is not set in stone.

My personal choice (basic and economical level) is to use quick-cook pasta, for not only is it inexpensive, it also saves fuel time when cooking. However the more costly pastas do have better texture and flavour, and for a few pennies more it is worth buying the best, when the best is needed. For keen cooks, home-made pasta is the very best, and also economical, and as it cooks within a very few minutes when freshly made it makes both economic and 'cheffy' sense to make our own.

to cook pasta:
Pasta should always be cooked by adding to a pan holding plenty of fast boiling water. Once the water boils add salt as this will bring out the flavour of the pasta (try with and without salt and you can really taste the difference) and also helps to raise the boiling point (temperature) slightly. Using a large amount of boiling water prevents the pasta from sticking together and will return to the boil more quickly once the pasta has been added. Some people like at add a little oil to the pan before putting in the pasta, but this is not really necessary as it end up floating on the top anyway. The recommended amount of water to use is 2 pints (1 - 1/2 litres) of water and 2 tsp salt for each 4 oz (100g) of pasta. An average serving of (uncooked) pasta per person would be 2 oz (50g) for a first course, and 3 - 4 oz (75 -100g) for a main course.

Add the pasta to the water when it has come to a rapid boil and after the salt has been added, then stir for a few seconds to prevent it sticking. When cooking long thin pasta such as spaghetti, you have to hold it in one hand and slowly ease it down into the pan until the bottom of the strands soften enough for you to curl it round enough to push the rest down into the pan using a wooden spoon. Stir gently, and cook at a fast boil, reducing the heat if there is a tendency for the water to boil over.

All packet pasta will give the cooking time on the pack, but if decanting dried pasta into jars, either cut out the cooking direction and stick them to the jar, or write them in a book, OR remember that the thin, long pasta takes between 5 - 10 minutes to cook, while the more shapely ones can take as long as 15 - 20 minutes.
Ideally the pasta should be 'al dente' (firm to the bite) when ready to eat, so always test five minutes before the end of the suggested cooking time by removing a piece and biting through it. Overcooked pasta becomes too soft and mushy. Quick-cook pasta requires care as it easily gets 'soggy'. Home-made egg pasta is cooked exactly as above (salted boiling water) but cooks in only 2 - 3 minutes.
Note: pasta that is going to be added to dishes that will be then be backed should be undercooked by 3 - 5 minutes, to the stage where it has begun to soften but the centre 'core' is still hard. It will continue to cook in the oven.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain immediately in a colander, shaking to remove most of the water - very necessary when 'curly' shapes are used as they hold water in their folds. Put back in the pan and immediately add a knob of butter and toss - this is extremely important, because without the butter (or you could addd a slup of olive oil) the pasta will stick together.

home-made pasta:
a few recipes have already been posted for making this, and these may vary. This is using a classic recipe, but depending upon the cook, the flour may differ (using plainwhite flour, brown flour, 00grade flour - and stong flour - but I've made good pasta using ordinary plain flour) but the proportion of flour to egg always remains the same: 4oz (100g) flour to each medium to large egg . Another way of working this out is use twice the weight of flour to the weight of the eggs used.

To make pasta the Masterclass way, clear a large work surface so there is room to spread out the pasta, allowing it to dry slightly between rollings.
Traditionally the flour is placed in a heap on the table, a pinch of salt scattered over, a well made in the middle and into this is broken the eggs, then slowly, using the fingers, work the flour into the eggs until a dough has been formed. Today we tend to prefer a less messy way of cooking, so the pasta can be made by putting the flour, salt and eggs into a bowl, then mix together first with a fork, then with the hands until it just holds together. Although slightly sticky, the dough should not be too moist - if so add a little more flour. If you have no pasta machine, keep kneading the dough until very smooth and all stickiness has gone - this may take a few minutes - then put into a poly bag and leave to stand for half an hour before rolling out as thinly as possible using a rolling pin.

Ideally, use a pasta machine as this does the kneading for you while rolling. Take a lump of in-kneaded dough about the size of a lemon and feed it through the rollers starting with the widest opening, then when rolled through, fold in half (end to end) and feed through at the same setting several times, sprinkling a little flour on the pasta (or rollers) if it begins to stick. Once the dough is smooth and a rectangular shape, lay out flat on a floured cloth and repeat with remaining lumps of dough.
Once these have been done, reset the rollers to a narrower setting and run each strip of dough through these, just the once, starting with the first, and keeping in order so they all dry out evenly. When all rolled out, reset to an even narrower setting and repeat. Eventually all should have been rolled out (in order) as many times as there are roller settings, or to the thickeness you want, each strip becoming longer and longer (for easier handling they can be cut in half).
When at the desired thickness, they can be cut into chosen shapes. Wide strips for lasagna, or fed through the cutters on the machine to make noodles (or the pasta can be floured and rolled up into a sausage and cut into strips with a knife. Leave the noodles to dry out a bit (best done by hanging over a stick, chairback, even a wooden clothes horse).
If using the pasta for lasagna, cannelloni, or ravioli etc, use immediately (or cover with cling film to prevent drying out), with noodles these can be made in advance and laid on a tray covered by greaseproof paper. They can also be frozen - first loose on trays then when solid, packed together in a container (taking care not to break them).

colouring pasta:
As well as the white pasta, there are green, red and black versions. The black uses squid/octopus ink I believe, so lets not go there today. The red uses beetroot juice, and more flour is needed to absorb the extra liquid. Green pasta is make using cooked, very finely chopped spinach - squeezed as dry as possible - to the eggs and flour (working on 2 oz (50g) spinach to 3 eggs and approx 11 oz flour).

pasta sauces:
There are several sauces that go well with pasta, from the Bolognese meat sauce, to the creamy egg sauce with Carbonara, and in Italy they prefer more pasta and less sauce with their dishes than we do and although their recipes suggest 1 pint (600ml) sauce for each 1 lb (450g) pasta (to serve 4 - 5 as a main course), we may prefer to use more.
Note: the correct way to serve pasta with a sauce is add the pasta to the sauce and mix gently together NOT putting a pile of pasta on a plate with the sauce dolloped on top (as we still tend to serve it in this country).
Four traditional sauce recipes are given today, and all - except the Bechamel - can be made in advance and kept chilled for 2 - 3 day, or frozen.

traditional Bolognese sauce: makes 1 pint (F)
1 tblsp light olive oil
1 oz (25g) butter
2 oz (50g) unsmoked streaky bacon, diced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
8 oz (225g) quality minced steak
2 oz (50g) chicken livers, chopped OR lean minced pork
5 fl oz (150ml) wine, red or white
8 fl. oz (225ml) stock
2 tblsp tomato puree
1 small bay leaf
pinch dried oregano/marjoram
few parsley stalks
pinch grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
Heat the oil and butter in a large pan and fry the bacon gently until it begins to brown. Add the vegetables and stir together, then cook for a few minutes until they are beginning to colour. Next break up the beef with the fingers (this prevents it sticking together in clumps, and some Italian chefs like to work a little olive oil through the beef before cooking to prevent this happening), add the beef to the pan and when lightly browned stir in the chicken livers. When these have begun to colour, add the wine, turn up the heat and boil fairly rapidly until most of the liquid has evaporated (the flavour remains). The add the stock, tomato puree, and herbs. Place on lid and cook over a very low heat (barely simmer) for at least one hour. Check now and again and if becoming too dry add a little water. When cooked, add the nutmeg and a little salt to taste, and as much pepper as you think it needs. Remove the bay leaf and parsley before serving (or freezing).

This next recipe is the way to make the pesto sauce that we often buy ready-made in bottles. Traditionally made in using a pestle and mortar, it is so easily made using a blender that this is the way suggested. This sauce freezes very well if the butter and cheese is omitted, to be added when thawed. It will also keep for weeks in the fridge in an air-tight container/jar. Grow the basil on your windowsill, pinch out the longer stemps, put these in water until rooted, then pot them up and you will have more than enough basil to make this sauce.
pesto alla Genovese: for up to 1 1/2lb (675g) of pasta (F)
2 oz (50g) fresh basil leaves (without thick stalks)
4 fl oz (110ml) olive oil
3 oz (75g) pine nuts OR walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
pinch of salt
2 oz (50g) butter, softened
3 oz (75g) Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Put the basil, oil, nuts, garlic and salt in a blender, and blitz to a puree (it can be frozen at this stage). Transfer to a bowl and mix in the butter and cheese. To make a pouring sauce, add up to 7 tblsp of the water the pasta has been cooked in.

A quality - preferably home-made - tomato sauce goes so well with pasta. Grow plum or beef tomatoes if you wish to get a richly flavoured tom, alternatively use canned plum tomatoes (not the chopped ones) as these have exactly the right taste. Make sure the cans are the correct weight (or nearly) as they come in different sizes. The sugar is necessary to offset the acidity of the tomatoes.
sauce pomodoro: makes 1 pint (600ml) (F)
2 x 397g cans tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 tsp sugar
5 tblsp olive oil
few fresh basil leaves, or pinch dried oregano/marjoram
salt and pepper
Put all the ingredients except the seasoning into a saucepan and simmer over LOW heat for at least an hour. Then spoon into a blender and blitz to a puree. Add seasoning to taste.

Final sauce given today is a classic, and used for many dishes other than pasta. The French version has a stronger flavour and the recipe for this will be given on another day. Today we use the one given below for pasta, and perhaps recognised more as the sauce that is used when baking lasagna, cannelloni, and macaroni cheese. Depending upon the dish, make the sauce as thin or as thick as you wish by using more or less milk.
Italian bechamel sauce: makes 3/4 pint (450ml)
1 pint milk (600ml)
1 small bay leaf OR pinch ground nutmeg
2 oz (50g) butter
2 oz (50g) plain flour
Put the milk into the pan with the bay leaf (if using - but not the nutmeg) and heat to not quite a simmer, but do not bring to the boil. Set to one side whilst melting the butter in another saucepan. When the butter bubbles (do not let it brown) stir in the flour and cook over very low heat for about 3 minutes. It is important not to let the flour discolour, but the cooking time gets rid of any unpleasant 'floury' taste.
Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the hot milk, then return to the heat and stir/whisk until thickened and smooth ( if there is a problem with lumps, pour the sauce through a sieve into the pan, rubbing the lumps through with a wooden spoon). Continue cooking, uncovered, over a very low heat for about 15 minutes, then add the nutmeg (if not already flavoured with the bay leaf).
Pour into a jug, and if not using immediately pour a little melted butter over the surface or cover with a piece of cling film or fitted piece of greaseproof to stop a skin forming. Keep at room temperature, but use the same day.

stuffed pasta:
Stuffed pasta, when made properly, both look and taste wonderful, with a subtle filling and the pasta melting in the mouth.
Easy enough to make the pasta sheets using a machine, but not that difficult when the dough is rolled by hand (after all this was the traditional way for centuries). Green (spinach) pasta is especially good to use as it contains extra moisture and seals itself together well. You can choose any stuffing you wish (that will cook in the time) and vary your sauces. Some stuffed pasta is cooked in boiling water, other (to give added flavour ) are cooked in meat or vegetable stock.
Cook as with 'ordinary' pasta, but reduce the hob temperature from high (rapid boil ) to medium (gentle boil, but above simmer). The cooking time varies with the thickness and dryness of the pasta dish, but takes approx. 10 minutes. Again test for 'al dente' by biting into one piece.

Home-made ravioli is simple to make and truly melts in the mouth. Obviously there are many recipes for different fillings, but this is one of the simplest and eats well with the above Pomodoro sauce. The amount of pasta needed for this dish is one made with two eggs (therefore with 4 oz flour).
Ravioli stuffed with cheese: serves 6 as a first course
8 oz (225g) ricotta or curd cheese
1 egg yolk
2 oz (50g) grated Parmesan cheese
2 - 3 tblsp very finely chopped fresh parsley
pinch ground nutmeg
white or green pasta (made with 2 eggs)
half pint Pomodoro sauce (recipe above)
Put all ingredients - except the pasta and sauce - into a bowl and mix well. Check the flavour before adding salt as some cheese are saltier than others.
Roll the pasta sheets as thinly as possible, but not so thin they easily tear when stuffed (chefs usually use the last but one setting on the pasta machine when making pasta for ravioli). Keep any unworked dough covered to prevent drying out.
Take strips of the pasta - approx 3" (8cm) wide and place small teaspoons of the stuffing along the strip at 1 1/2" (4cm) intervals in a line, about the same distance from the edge. Dampen along the front edge and betwen the stuffing and fold the opposite edge of the pastry over. Press between the stuffing and along the cut edge to seal the pasta together, then cut with a pastry wheel (or knife) between each lump to make small 'packets'. If you wish to make quite a number, roll out two large sheets of pasta, one slightly larger than the other, then dot the filling evenly spaced and in lines over the smaller sheet, dampen between and around the edges as above, then lay the second (larger sheet) over the top, pressing down between each lump to seal. Once cut, if the packs have not sealed too well, dampen with water and press together with a fork.
Put the raviol onto a floured cloth to dry out for for one hour, then turn and leave to dry for at least a further 30 minutes to allow the underside to dry.
Cook in gently boiling water or stock for about 15-20 minutes, then remove carefully, using a slotted spoon, and serve immediately with the tomato sauce (or other sauce of your choice).

The above is my first Masterclass and hopefully enough info for you to get the measure of pasta and sauces. As to pasta dishes, these are numerous, hope that you will feel armed with enough info now to begin tackling any you come across.

It would be most helpful if you could let me know whether any of the above has been useful, or whether you wish me to 'Masterclass' a dish rather than covering just the 'basics'. When it comes to economics, once we know more about the traditional (basic) methods, almost always it works out cheaper. Believe me, my home-made-pasta cannelloni is still talked about, yet was exceedingly inexpensive to make. It also freezes well, and graced many a dinner table and even requested at buffets. To make my version is more a method than a full blown recipe. Form a cold and very thick Bolog. sauce into thick sausages and roll a strip of home-made pasta (lasagna size - that has previously had two minutes boiling) around the 'filling'. Open freeze, then box up and keep frozen for up to six months. To cook: thaw, pour over Pomodoro sauce (or could be Bechamel topped with cheese), cover and bake at 180C etc. for about 25 minutes or until well heated through. Remove cover halfway through if wishing to add more cheese and brown this off.

If this is the type of Masterclass you wish, then one will be given each week, but not yet sure whether Friday or Saturday. Plenty of time for you to let me know. The more that do let me know the better, for if only three come back saying yes, this could mean a great many more are not interested, and my aim is to please everyone. You note I have mentioned 'Masterclass' in the title, so it can easily be retrieved by searching through archives. The sauce recipes will eventually be added to the ' Pasta collection'.
Looking forward to your replies - so back with you again tomorrow. Have a good weekend.