Sunday, January 9, 2011

When I dream of pasta...

al pesto
In 2006 my husband, daughters, and I travelled to Europe. We began our trip in England, drove through Austria, and spent a few days with cousins in Slovenia. But the bulk of our stay was in Italy.

The weather was amazing. Our trip spanned mid-September to mid-October, and we had only one day of rain. Actually, not even rain. Just a slight drizzle. The days were warm, but not hot, and evenings were a balmy, shirt-sleeve temperature. Absolutely perfect. Of all the places we visited, my fondest memories are of the Cinque Terre. Our younger daughter had to return home early and so missed this part of this trip. How I wish she could have been with us.

Cinque Terre (5 Lands) is five small coastal villages on the west coast of Italy. There is Monterosso, the northernmost town and the only one that feels "touristy". If you love the Riviera (beach, boardwalk, luxury hotels) this is the place for you. Then there is Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, and Vernazza. These four still hold their old-world charm with narrow crooked streets, bell towers, castellos, fishing boats--and a foot path links all five of them together. My favorite of the five, and the place at which we stayed, was Vernazza.

Aah, Vernazza--a quaint little fishing village, and so much more. Colorful homes cling to the cliffs. A lovely harbor nestles under the shadows of an ancient castle. The hills are dotted with ancient olive trees and wine-producing grape vines which are still tended by hand on steeply terraced slopes.

We arrived in the late afternoon. After checking into our apartment, there was just enough time to walk down to the breakwater and watch the sun sink slowly into the sea. Although it was mid-October, the air was warm, with just a hint of a breeze. As night approached we dined in the courtyard of Gianni's (owner of the restaurant and hotel) . Our meal began with a mixed seafood salad, a basket of crusty bread, and a bottle of Gianni's family wine. We asked our server for his recommendation and he said we must try the Trofie.

It was love at first bite. Trofie is a free-form pasta (no machine required). It is most often cooked with thinly-sliced new potatoes and slender fresh green beans, all tossed with homemade basil pesto. The people of Vernazza brag that pesto was invented in their town. I don't know if that is true, but Gianni's pesto was so wonderful I am willing to spread the rumor.

One word of caution--this is not a meal you can whip up in 30 minutes or less. Making this pasta takes time. So do this one on a rainy afternoon. You could even enlist the kids to help

Make the Dough (can be made the day before):
You will need:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp kosher salt (or 1 tsp table salt)
1 cup cold water

  1. Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the water. Using a fork, start mixing the flour into the water keeping the wet mixture in the center of the well. When the mixture gets too thick for a fork, mix the dough with your hand until all the flour is incorporated and the dough looks cohesive.
  2. Clean your hands and press your thumb into the dough. It should feel tacky, but your thumb should come out clean without any dough stuck to it. If the dough is too sticky, add a bit more flour, kneed for a minute and test again.
  3. Once the dough is the right consistency, it needs some serious kneading. Place it onto a clean work surface and knead for 8 minutes by folding and turning 90 degrees after each fold. Always turn the dough in the same direction. Do not short cut this step! You should end up with dough that is as smooth as a baby's bottom.
  4. Form the dough into a thick disk, sprinkle with flour, wrap in plastic and let it rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour or overnight.
Shape the Trofie (1-2 hours before serving):

  1. Sprinkle a large cookie sheet with flour.
  2. Sprinkle a clean work surface with flour. Place the dough on floured work surface and keep it covered with plastic wrap except when using.
  3. Cut a 2/3-inch strip from the dough with a knife.Roll it on lightly floured surface with 2 hands into a 1/3-inch thick rope. Cut each rope into 1/4-inch wide pillows.
  4. Pick up one pillow with your right hand and place it at the heel of your left hand. Hold your left hand in place over the cookie sheet. Roll your right hand forward in a fast motion applying pressure. Your piece of pasta will turn into a little cylinder with tapered ends. Drop it onto the cookie sheet. Don't roll your hands back and forth or you'll untwist the pasta. Repeat with the remaining pillows of dough, dropping them all over the cookie sheet so that they touch as little as possible.  
  5. Sprinkle the trofie with extra flour and gently toss them around to coat.
  6. Trofie can be shaped 1 hour before cooking and kept uncovered at room temperature.
Assemble the Amazing Meal:

In addition to the trofie pasta you will need

  • new potatoes (Yukon golds are wonderful)--enough to make 2 cups sliced
  • fresh green beans--again, enough to make 2 cups sliced. Look for green beans that are thin/young
  • about 1 1/2 cups pesto (home made is best--see my post)
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (at least 4 quarts). Season heavily with salt (pasta will be in the pot for less than a minute, so your water has to be salty enough to season it).
  2. When the water comes to a simmer drop in the potato slices and cook until almost tender--about 2 minutes. Lift out with a skimmer and set aside.
  3. Next, drop in the green beans. I remove the stem end and cut them in half--leaving the blossom end in tact. Cook about 2 minutes or until tender-crisp, and remove with a skimmer and set aside.
  4. Pour the pasta from cookie sheet into a colander and shake to remove the excess semolina.
  5. When the water is at a rolling boil, pour the pasta into the pot, give it a stir and cover. After 30 seconds, start testing every 15 seconds until the pasta is desired tenderness. It should be supple with a little bite. This usually takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes depending on the size of your pasta and how long it sat on the cookie sheet.
  6. Return the cooked potato slices and cooked green beans to the pot--wait 15 seconds, and then drain the pasta.
  7. Put pasta/potatoes/green beans back in the pot and mix with the pesto. Pour into a serving bowl and top with grated parmesan. Toss and serve.

I cooked this meal for my younger daughter last night--the one who wasn't able to visit the Cinque Terre with us. Although she doesn't share memories of that place with us, I hope she can now appreciate a bit of the love we have for that place, and how much I love her.

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