One of life’s simplest pleasures must be watching someone skilled working with their hands. It should be something we don’t see as much anymore in an age of supposedly being so far removed from production. Yet more and more, kitchens open up so we can see fish filleted and dishes dressed, and Instagram welcomes us into studios to see potters throwing pots, or wood being whittled. Yet nothing quite compares to seeing it in person, when it isn’t a fabricated moment, but something that happens naturally. And crucially, nothing quite compares to when it fulfils the stereotype of an Italian rolling pasta.
Back in 2012, I posted a video to accompany my timballo recipe of la signora delle orecchiette. The simplicity of the video, the monotony of the process and the effortlessness of the whole situation gripped me. It not only served to show how to roll the orecchiette, but to transport you to this perfect, almost otherworldly setting to sit with these ladies and join their conversation.
So earlier this year, in the depths of a Roman winter, when it was suggested that gnocchi al forno should be made, and zia Anna started rolling out the dough as if she did it everyday (she doesn’t), I found myself mesmerised again by the whole moment. I pulled out the camera to film her at work. It takes me back to the whole calmness of it: the saxophone soundtrack to our impromptu pasta class, the satisfying sounds of dough being rolled, scraped and cut, and Anna’s pointers that capture such a laidback approach to cooking. All of these just about get me past the blurriness and shakiness of the recording on a prime lens![vimeo 189204648 w=640 h=360]
This is a next level pasta bake, and this no-egg gnocchi is so simple to make that there’s no excuse not to try and make something with your own hands. Good quality tinned tomatoes and mozzarella (smoked if you can get hold of it) will make the dish.
Scale up to quantity needed – the below works for two hungry people.
100g plain flour
Dissolve a large pinch of salt into the boiled water
Make a well in the flour and add the water. Mix with a spoon to form a dough
Tip onto a board and knead to form a tighter dough, around 3-5 minutes, adding more flour if it is too wet. Form into a round ball on the board. It should sag a little when left, but not a lot.
Cover with the mixing bowl you used and leave to rest for 20 minutes.
Better than me explaining it is to watch the video above.
Have a baking tray lined with a tea towel ready. Dust this liberally with flour.
With a dough cutter or knife, cut off a handful of dough from the rested ball.
On a large board or work surface, begin rolling the separated dough, starting in the middle and working your hands outwards to form sausages. Make sure there is little to no flour on this part of the board or the sausages will slip and not roll thinner. Put the rolled sausages to one side on a little flour.
Repeat with small amounts of dough until you have a few long sausages. Line them up and use the dough scraper to into cut 2cm rectangles.
With two fingertips, press down on the rectangles and roll towards you.
Dust the rolled gnocchi with flour, pick up as gently as possible so they maintain their shape and transfer to the floured tea towels.
Gnocchi al forno
Quantity of gnocchi as above
Quantity of your favourite homemade tomato sauce
Mozzarella (or Provola – smoked mozzarella) – in chunks
Preheat the oven to 180C
Drop the gnocchi into salted boiling water and cook for until they rise to the surface – 2-3 minutes. Drain.
In a baking dish, mix the drained gnocchi with the tomato sauce and mozzarella. Scatter parmesan on top.
Bake for 20 minutes. Rest for 10. Serve.
Pasta in Italy is a wonderful demonstration of adapting to the ingredients one has to hand. Fillings, shapes, sauces and even the names attributed to this commodity reflect the diversity of the country’s ingredients, people and cultures from the snow-peaked mountains of the North to the sun-drenched expanses of the South. With that in mind and having transformed half of the garden into a vegetable patch confused as to whether summer was coming or going, it was time for some homegrown beets to get the Italian treatment.
The diversity of pasta lends itself to something that can be wonderfully humble and unpretentious – spaghetti aglio e olio or spaghetti al limone, for example – through to more complex and delicate filled pastas. In this dish, the filling of leaves provides an earthy and crunchy contrast to the creamy cheese and pasta parcel, a silky puree of beetroot adds a sweet touch and a touch of nutty walnut paste tops it all off.
Recipe a reduced version from Giorgio Locatelli’s excellent Made In Italy: Food and Stories
300g shelled walnuts (double if not shelled)
1 small garlic clove
good olive oil
Prep the walnuts by toasting them in a 170C oven for 4-5 minutes, wrap in a cloth and rub to loosen the skins. Shake and pick out walnuts to cool, removing any large remaining pieces of skin with a knife.
Crush the garlic in a mortar, add the walnuts and work to a smooth-ish paste. Stir in olive oil slowly (around 2 tablespooons) to loosen and create a lovely texture.
This can be stored in sterilised jars for around 4 weeks.
400g raw beetroot, leaves and stalks removed (or spinach, kale, swiss chard etc)
good olive oil
Cook the beetroot in your preferred way – I roasted for one hour in a 180C oven with some oil and seasoning. I’m sure boiling them would be just as good.
Remove skins and roughly chop. Blend the flesh adding a slow trickle of olive oil at the end to emulsify slightly. Season to taste and set aside.
For an extra fine puree, pass mix through a fine sieve before adding oil.
400g fresh pasta dough (see here for a good start)
Leaves and stalks from beetroots, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove
100g ricotta or queso fresco (this worked really well and worth trying at home – a world apart from supermarket ricotta), seasoned with pepper
Lightly fry the garlic in olive oil and add the leaves, stirring on a medium-high heat. Once slightly wilted, take off the heat and set aside.
Roll the pasta dough a handful at a time, leaving the remainder wrapped in the fridge. Roll through each setting of the machine before folding over 3 times and repeating until you have a silky textured sheet with smooth edges, as thin as possible without it breaking during filling.
Lay the sheet on a floured surface and cut a few squares from it. Place a teaspoon of the cheese and of the beetroot in each and fold over into a triangle, getting as much air out as possible. Use a little water to moisten finger if to dry to seal. Join the two long corners together to form a ring. Set aside on a floured surface.
When all the parcels are made (I’d do four at a time and then bring out the remaining dough to start again to avoid drying out), drop into salted water at a rolling boil. Leave for 2-3 minutes until cooked before draining.
Toss in a little olive oil or melted butter to prevent the tortellone from sticking.
Quickly reheat beetroot puree and place a large spoonful onto each plate followed by pasta. Add drops of walnut paste and fried sage leaves.
With my girlfriend visiting and some scorching temperatures in Valencia I decided to have a short break from the labour-intensive pig parts and cook some lighter dishes. This is a wonderful flavour combination and inspired by a ludicrously expensive Italian stall in the market. I have been desperately searching for the origins of this pasta but to no avail. Naples, Sicily and Florence are all possibilities but no sign of the Ricotta combination, instead many using Gorgonzola or Taleggio.
I haven’t put a recipe down for fresh pasta because if you have made it before then you probably know what works for you, and if not then there are many resources that can explain the process much better. If you have access to fresh, large eggs then the classic combination of 100g flour : 1 egg should work for you. Most of us will find the need for extra egg yolks to compensate for the industrial quality eggs available. A good knead and rest time will make all the difference. I also find rolling quite satisfying and therefore people shouldn’t be put off if they don’t own a machine, just remember you’re aiming for a level of thinness where anything underneath the dough can be made out when held to up to light.
These pretty little ‘bows’ are a bit more special than the standard ravioli, but of-course this filling can be used to fill any shaped pasta.
Fiocchetti di Pera e Ricotta with Sage and Walnut Butter
500g fresh pasta dough, rolled to a thin sheet
3 medium pears, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons brown sugar
100g ricotta, drained
seal salt and black pepper
small handful of sage leaves
small handful walnut kernels
Heat 10g of the butter in a saucepan on a medium heat, add the sugar and a large pinch of sea salt, when dissolved add the pears. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until caramelised and cooked throughout.
Remove from the heat and blend well until a thick liquid consistency. Set aside to cool.
When cool, mix well with the ricotta and season with pepper and a little salt.
Cut the pasta into small rectangles and place a teaspoon of the filling in the centre. Pinch opposite sides together working your way around until the centre above the filling is pinched firmly closed and the pasta above fans out.
But the fiocchetti on a baking tray or plates and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes to dry a little.
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil and when ready add the fiocchetti. Stirring carefully once to separate them. Leave on a high heat for around 2 minutes. They should start to rise to the surface when ready.
Whilst cooking, place the rest of the butter on a saucepan on a medium heat.
When cooked, remove carefully with a slotted spoon to a colander set above a large bowl.
Add the walnuts and sage to the now melted butter and combine. Add the pasta, stirring to coat it well but being careful not to break the casing. Taste one and add any further seasoning if required. Serve.
Continuing with the series of lesser known pasta dishes this one probably rates amongst the more unhealthy and laboured plates of pasta you will make. But it is such a joy to eat and watch people’s faces light up upon cutting into this ‘drum’ that the extra work is well worth it. Besides it makes it dinner party material. My Italian flatmate and I served this to a table of Italians as part of a 5 course ‘fritto’ menu amongst olive all’ascolona, coniglio fritto and around 2 litres of oil – keeping things light.
I cooked this recipe from a picture I had seen but having researched a bit it appears there are hundreds of variations of Timballo (I should have guessed that with it being Italian) with fillings from rice to meat. The common theme being that it is baked, normally in a springform tin, however as you will see from my photo at the bottom, I tried to create individual portions by hand as I didn’t have the smaller tins. If you do, then you can save yourself the hassle of trying to create a leak-proof layer of fried aubergines, alternatively just make a large timballo and slice like a cake to serve!
There’s something so satisfying about making your own tomato sauce, not just in the rich taste but in filling the house with their aromas and making a big batch on the weekend can sort supplies out for months. I normally go along the lines of Marcella Harzan’s Sugo Fresco di Pomodoro – slow-cooked and kept simple. Paired with the ‘little ears’ that are Orecchiette to hold the sauce, some tender and crispy coated eggplant, each mouthful is amazing.
A beautiful insight into the art making Orrecchiete in Puglia (video by Tailored Media):
I found it’s also important to really dry the aubergines out before the baking, so drain in between layers of paper towel to absorb residual oil for at least half an hour. That way they will stay nice and crisp throughout baking.
This is the most basic Timballo around so experiment and let me know the results!
Eggplant with Orecchiette al Pomodoro
serves 4 as individual starters
For the Eggplant
4 eggplants, sliced thinly lengthwise into around 7 slices
2 eggs beaten
250ml oil for frying
Place eggplant slices in a colander and salt well, rinsing them in fresh water after 20 minutes and then drying with paper towel.
Heat the oil to 180C. Dip the slices in the egg then in the breadcrumbs.
Fry until golden on each side and drain well on paper towel.
200g orecchiette pasta
200g tomato sauce
handful of basil leaves
3 tbsp parmesan, grated
1 ball of mozzarella, sliced
Oven to 160C
Cook the pasta al dente. Meanwhile heat the tomato sauce adding basil leaves just before mixing with the drained pasta.
Line the prepared eggplant slices how you wish, in a large baking tin or individual moulds. Divide the pasta equally, placing in the centre over the aubergines.
Wrap the eggplant ends around the pasta. Top with a slice of mozzarella and some grated parmesan then bake for 10 minutes until the mozzarella is melted. Remove from the tin onto a plate, garnishing with basil leaves.
I imagine the humble pistachio to be in many eyes as it is in mine, just a humble snack and occupation for bored hands, occasionally stretching its uses to ice cream and fancy biscuits. Probably with good reason, because for any decent quantity that precious commodity time is required: frustrating, nail-breaking shell-breaking. But that is no excuse not to try this recipe, stick on some music, get something to read, reflect and get cracking. This is such a pleasure to eat, it has an amazing nutty flavour and texture whilst the alcohol lends a sweet almost caramel taste all balanced by the fat and saltiness of the pancetta.
Before writing this I thought hard about whether I should post pasta recipes, for everyone knows about pasta and the web is awash with recipes for every kind of pasta imaginable so should I try and stay away from the obvious? But there is such a beautiful simplicity to pasta in all its forms, the story of fuss and controversy over what started as two ingredients has endured over 1000 years and is one full of myth and lore.. It just fascinates me. So I will continue sharing this love here, aiming for the more obscure, unknown and unique dishes from Italy; simple yet interesting and full of flavour and obviously true to the generations of Italians cooking it beforehand.
This recipe is taken from Al Dente by William Black, a truly inspiring read for anyone even slightly interested in Italy and its food. The recipes contained are usually straight from an Italian ‘nonna’ and left unadulterated, so you know it’s the real thing.
As for ingredients in this one, I have read brandy can be substituted for dark rum; I used Jerez and some use white wine. I can’t think of many places that offer a large range, but if you do, aim for the flavoursome Sicilian Bronte variety, whose wonderful red shell gives way to the greenest of nuts – the true King of Pistachios. And feel free to point me in the direction of some more recipes using these please!
Penne al Pistacchio
30g unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped finely
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely
50g pancetta, diced
1 tablespoon reduced chicken stock
50g pistachios, finely chopped or given a quick whizz in a blender.
100 ml brandy
200ml single cream
salt and pepper
Cook the penne in the normal way until al dente.
Meanwhile, in a large pan on a medium heat melt butter and soften onions, adding garlic after 3 minutes and making sure only slight caramelisation occurs.
Add the pancetta then the stock and a ladel of pasta water. Cook for 5 minutes more. Check the penne.
Stir in pistachios (reserve a sprinkling as a garnish, add brandy and flame with a long match.
Add cream and season to taste then add drained pasta to pan stirring for 1 minute.
A few weeks ago I returned from my first ever skiing holiday, I had loved every part of it from the beautiful scenery to the wonderful sense of freedom derived from throwing oneself down a mountain. But after my 8 days there I seriously needed some sunshine and fresh food.
I strolled through the Mercado Central the next morning amongst what seemed the freshest, most colourful produce I’d ever seen and was drawn by a huge mound of lemons. The yellow page of The River Cafe Cook Book sprung to mind and I knew what I’d be having for lunch.
A dish that fills the air with unctuous parmigiana, fresh citrus and basil, ticking all the boxes for a fresh summer dish
Spaghetti al Limone
Adapted from the fantastic River Cafe Cook Book by Rose Gray and Ruth Rodgers
Juice of 3 lemons, zest of 1-2
150ml ml olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
Small bunch fresh basil chopped
Drop the pasta in boiling salted water (around a 1:5 ratio of pasta:water), stirring once submerged, leave to cook.
In an empty screw-top jar add the juice of the lemons and the olive oil, shake vigorously until well combined and emulsified.
Pour this mix into a new saucepan and stir in the grated parmesan (reserving a small amount to garnish) until thick, creamy consistency. Season well.
When al dente, pick spaghetti straight from water using pasta tongs, hold 3 seconds for some water to drain off then add to the saucepan containing lemon oil.
Once spaghetti added, place this saucepan on a low-med heat, stir well so pasta well coated whilst adding zest and basil. Serve.