March 25, 2011

Are we all donkeys?

When I turned twelve Nonna told me that I was old enough to swear in Italian. She would teach me a word to use when I was mad or frustrated only if I promised to refrain from using the English counterpart. Though I can’t remember the exact word she taught me, I don’t think it was an actual swearword. Most likely it was Italian for crap. Or donkey.

Nonna likes to tell you how her mother never swore; instead she would just call you a pig or a donkey. Any reference to a barnyard animal indicated that you were in big trouble- except not really. Great Grandma Chinni was not so good with the discipline and would never swat a fly. She would yell, “brutto porco, cicuco, sporco!” (ugly pig, donkey, you filthy) at the kids and they would just roll their eyes.

I am trying to imagine what would happen if, today, our family gathered around the table and started calling each other donkeys and pigs in Italian. It would probably go something like:
“The liberals are destroying our government!”
“Brutto porco, cicuco, sporco!”
“I am a bleeding heart and want health care for everyone.”
“Brutto porco, cicuco, sporco!”
“God is punishing the East Coast with snow because there lives too many democrats.”
“Brutto porco, cicuco, sporco!”
I actually think it would make for great fun. Think of how well we’d all get along if everyone was yelling the same insults? In the end we’d all end up as donkeys. I’m thinking family experiment…

Or maybe we should just keep the spice in the food and stick with niceties at the table… probably the better idea.

Speaking of spice, remember those fabulous peppers I bought last month? They have been dried and ground, and are ready to burn up some palettes! Who needs Italian insults when you have homemade hot pepper flakes?

Habanero Pepper Flakes
10 Habanero peppers

*A food processor

Great Grandmother Chinni would string up peppers and dry them in the attic. I don’t have an attic so instead I to use them as a table centerpiece. 

Cut the peppers in half. Spread out on a tray, skin side down. Let dry for at least 3 to 4 weeks.

Before processing, I leave four or five half peppers in tact and store in a plastic bag. These are great to add to long simmering soups or sauces.

To process, you may want to consider protective eyewear or at least a handkerchief around your mouth. Also, it’s best to open a window. Pulse the peppers for a good two minutes. As they grind down, pepper micro dust will escape the processor and inhabit your kitchen for about an hour... or two.

Store flakes in a jar or plastic bag.  If offering as a condiment warn people of the intense spice… or not and be amused.

March 5, 2011

So much fun

Yes I make my own pasta. No it is not difficult. In fact, it’s really quite fun. Especially when you need to make enough to feed forty people and Nonna's twenty-five year-old pasta-making machine chooses to die... and you have to do the last two batches old school. Christmas 2009. So. Much. Fun.  

Untimely as the breakdown of The Pasta Machine was, it was ultimately saved by a gracious elderly gentleman from the local hardware store who took the whole thing apart, gave it a good cleaning and put it back together again.

I cannot over emphasize my family’s gratitude for this good deed. In a frantic attempt to replace said machine Nonna had dispatched children and grandchildren alike in search for its replacement. We searched restaurant supply stores (on Christmas Eve), we crossed country borders (Canada), we scoured the Internet (you would think that ebay would be helpful) but it was to no avail. The company, which still exists today, no longer makes pasta machines. Bialetti, if you’re reading this perhaps its time to consider the return of the pasta machine. Do it for overworked, pasta-making Nonna’s everywhere.

In the meantime the rest of us will have to make do with suitable alternatives. My alternative comes in pink.

Ironically, it’s not as fast or as sturdy as the twenty-five year-old Bialetti but it works just fine if you don’t have to feed forty people.

Nonna’s Pasta Dough 

Don’t let the long list of steps intimidate you. The end result is worth it- nothing beats the texture and feel of well-made pasta.  And there is something therapeutic about the rolling, stretching and cutting. It’s like playdough for grownups!

2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
3 eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
*Milk or cream, as needed
*The goal is to use as little liquid as possible. It’s best if your dough comes together without the addition of milk or cream

**Special equipment
Standing mixer with paddle and hook attachments and bowl guard
Electronic pasta maker with pasta cutting attachment, or if you’re a glutton for punishment (a hem… Mom) a manual one will work just fine
A large table or bed covered with an old sheet that you’ve floured
**The following are directions based on a using a KitchenAid mixer

To make the dough
This recipe makes about a pound of pasta. I usually make two recipes, which feeds about eight people. Do NOT double the dough recipe- you need to make each batch separately. So says Nonna.

  1. Place 2 cups of flour in the bowl of the mixer. Push the flour from the middle of the bowl to the sides to create a well.
  2. Place the eggs in the well.
  3. Using the paddle attachment and mix flour and eggs on medium speed for about thirty seconds. If the dough does not come together add a small amount of milk or cream to bring the dough together. Use as little liquid as possible- you do not want the dough to be sticky.
  4. Once the dough has come together use the hook attachment on medium speed to knead the dough for about one minute.
  5. Flour a work surface and your hands. Remove dough from bowl and using your hands knead it two or three times. Wrap it in plastic wrap until you are ready to roll it out.
Rolling the dough
  1. Tear off a piece of the dough roughly the size of the palm of your hand. Be sure to keep the remaining dough wrapped when not working with it.
  2. Form dough into a rectangle of even thickness. Sprinkle with flour so that the dough is not sticky. Turn roller on setting “2” (the second widest setting), turn mixer on to speed “2”. Put the dough through the roller. Re-fold into a rectangle, flour and put through roller until you have done this five times in total. On the last time through setting “2” do not refold- leave dough as is. Be sure to properly dust with flour to prevent sticking.
  3. Proceed to move the pasta roller setting to “3”. Put the dough through the roller once. DO NOT FOLD THE DOUGH. Adjust setting to “4” and roll. Continue this process until you have rolled through setting “6” (or desired thickness of pasta).
  4. Transfer the rolled dough to your floured table. Dust dough with some more flour.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you’ve rolled out all of your dough.
  6. More than likely your rolled dough will stretch to about 3 feet. You will want to take a sharp knife and cut the dough in half so that you don’t end up with extra long spaghetti!
Cutting the dough
  1. Using the pasta cutting attachment of your choice (I prefer fettuccini) run the rolled dough through being careful to catch the pasta as it is cut.
  2. Return the pasta to the table. Separate it out so that no individual piece is touching.
  3. Continue until all dough has been cut.
A few notes on cooking and storing

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta.

Fresh pasta takes less time to cook than the dried stuff so keep. I tend to stand over the pot and watch it cook so that I can pull it off the heat precisely the right moment. Over cooked fresh pasta can taste gummy.

The sooner you cook the pasta after cutting it, the less time it takes to cook. Usually I let it dry out a bit (an hour or so) and gather it in a large box lined with paper towels. It will keep for a couple of days if covered, or you can freeze it.

March 1, 2011

Morning bribes

I am not a morning person. Never have been. On more than one occasion I have been known to burst into tears when looked at before 8:00 am. When I was about five I went through a horrendous meltdown phase (I know, surprising) that left my parents at their wits end. Ever the pragmatist, Nonna’s solution was to bribe me. She said that if I could go two full weeks without a temper tantrum she would buy my doll a new dress. It was fantastically tempting. After considering her proposition for a day or two, I picked up the phone and called Nonna with a counter-offer. “Nonna,” I began, “could the day start after 10:00 am?” She was so tickled that she readily agreed. I didn’t make it the full two weeks even with the time adjustment, but not unexpectedly my doll still got a new dress.

One of the consequences of not being a morning person combined with a rather willful disposition was that I rarely ate breakfast. My mom would go to great lengths to try and entice me to eat something to start the day, but if it was before 8:00 am I would have nothing to do with it. A few bites of toast maybe, but that was it. When I got a little older my mom got a little more creative.

Breakfast was my first introduction to cooking. Well, maybe not cooking, but preparing food to eat. My mom showed me how to soft boil the perfect egg and to melt cheese on toast in the oven. Something about having to taken an extra step or two to get breakfast ready gave me more time to become human and find my appetite. 

I wish I could say that my morning disposition improved with age. It certainly has been helped by coffee. Tom and I abide by very strict morning rules- no talking before coffee, and even then proceed with caution.  And if I go two weeks without picking a fight before 10:00 am I get a brand new, shiny teapot.

Just kidding. I got the teapot just for being me (willful disposition and all) and turning another year older.

Whipped Ricotta with Orange and Nutmeg

This is a nice substitute for cream cheese and is especially delicious on raisin bread. It makes for a very pleasant breakfast on a rainy Sunday morning and an even better not-too-sweet afternoon snack with tea. You can substitute low fat for whole milk ricotta if you must.

1 cup whole milk ricotta
¾ tsp orange zest, finely grated
1 tsp nutmeg, grated
1 ½ tsp sugar
2 tsp milk
Raisin bread for toasting

Drain the ricotta.

Combine ricotta, orange, sugar, nutmeg and 1 tsp of milk. Using an electronic mixer whip on medium speed for about a minute. Check the consistency and add more milk if needed.  Whip for another minute or two.

Adjust sugar, orange and nutmeg to flavor as desired.

To serve

Turn on the broiler

Spread a thin layer of ricotta on slices of raisin bread

Broil until the cheese is just melted, maybe two minutes.
*Warning- the second you walk away from the oven the ricotta will burn and you will have to begin again. Not a good way to start your morning.