Tuesday, 12 October 2010

In Which I Make Homemade Orecchiette

Orecchiette - Little Pasta Ears
"Wretched excess is just barely enough". These are the famous words of larger-than-life celebrity chef Mario Batali, for whom food and drink are pleasure, play, business, art and sport.
In his heyday, it was not unusual for him to go through 40 plates of food and 10 bottles of wine (himself), in bacchanalian feasts that would last well into the wee hours of the night. And then hit the after hours clubs for a drink, all that feasting can leave you parched. He's my hero. He is also quite intense in the kitchen, as Bill Buford found out as a resident reporter/intern for The New Yorker.

In his book Heat, our Cook the Books bookclub selection of the month, Bill immerses himself in the whirlwind life of the Babbo kitchen. Initially as a 6-month stint for a story, Bill is quickly hooked by the adrenaline of the professional kitchen and extends his kitchen stay for over a year, ultimately leaving his job as editor to be a full-time kitchen slave. This is a rare inside look into Batali, the Babbo kitchen, and the workings of a three star restaurant. Warts and all.

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
Bill Buford

From his year as kitchen slave, Bill follows in his mentor's footsteps and goes to Italy to learn the art of pasta making from the old country because, "you learn pasta by standing next to people who have been making it their whole lives and watching them."

For my book-inspired dish I decided to make pasta. One that I had never made before. Orecchiette, little ears. I found a Batali recipe and sat down to make them. It took me 2½ hours, and the first batch of the little ears were rather irregular in size, but by the second I had the hang of it. Bill's right, you only learn by repetition. And lots of it. 

Me, in action. I'll be an Italian nonna in no time!
adapted from Mario Batali
Simple Italian Food, Recipes from My Two Villages

2 cups semolina flour (mine says durum semolina)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 - 1¼ cups warm water, to start

In a large, wide bowl, mix the flours together. Add the water and mix by hand to make a firm dough that comes together. You may need to add a little more water. Knead on a board like bread dough for 10 minutes. Then form into a smooth ball and let rest, inverted bowl over it, for 10 minutes.

Divide into 8 pieces and leave the ones that you are not using under the bowl. Set up a floured board to roll, shape the orecchiette, and one to put the finished ones. (I needed three in total for the finished orecchiette)

Have some flour nearby, and sprinkle some on the board/pasta as necessary. Roll the first ball of dough into a snake about ½ inch thick. Slice off small slices, press and twist with your thumb, and place on the finish board. You will get better at it as you go along, it takes a bit to find your groove. By the second board of them, I had it down pat.

Repeat until you have finished all of the pasta. (You will likely want to sit down for this, it takes a while. Pull up a stool and turn the telly on.)

*I used 2/3 of the orecchiette for this recipe, below, and froze the rest.

For my finished dish, I had grilled 4 hot Italian sausages, and three red peppers - quartered and trimmed of ribs and seeds. Drizzled with olive oil, and the peppers seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper, I gave them a nice char on the grill and then set them aside, covered with foil to keep warm.

In a large pasta pot, start the water to come to a boil, and in a large pan give a generous glug of extra-virgin olive oil.
Heat the oil gently with ½ tsp chili flakes, and 6 cloves chopped garlic until fragrant.
Slice the sausages and add them to the pan, then the peppers, in bite-sized pieces.
Boil the orecchiette until tender in well salted water and scoop them out with a slotted spoon or spider and add to the pan. Keep the pasta water! Add it one ladle at a time as you toss the pasta, sausage and peppers together. Allow them to continue to cook together in the pan as you season with a little red wine vinegar, kosher salt, black pepper, and fresh parsley. Keep tasting.
When you are satisfied, serve in shallow bowls with a dusting of Parmigiana.