Perfect pasta

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

The Pasta Police are coming!

Recently the Italian government created a bureau to monitor the quality of pasta around the world and to award a seal of approval to those establishments which have not compromised authenticity. Fed up with inferior imitations of the national cuisine, Italian Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno is spearheading the effort, and he sounds serious. No one knows where or when the culinary constables may strike, but if you have any cans of Beef-a-Roni in your cupboard, I'd advise you to destroy them immediately.

You can't blame Italians for taking a proprietary interest in pasta. After all, as Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat points out, "Of all the countries which claim to have invented and popularized pasta -- China, Japan, Korea, Germany, France and Italy -- Italy stakes her claim most vehemently." Her claim is certainly not without justification. It is now clear that pasta was known in Italy long before Marco Polo supposedly brought it back from China in 1295. Indeed, that story is catalogued in the "Oxford Companion to Food" under the heading "culinary mythology."

It turns out that Italian pasta-making can be traced as far back as the 4th century BC to an Etruscan tomb of that period in which were found tools that look all the world like they were used to make lasagna. The first mention of a concoction that resembles pasta can be found in the writings of Apicius, who lived in Rome in the 1st Century AD. The first documented recipe for pasta appears in an Italian cookbook about macaroni published around the year 1000. Moreover, the very word "macaroni" is clearly of Italian derivation.

Certainly production of pasta on an industrial scale began in Italy -- in Naples in the early 15th century with men treading barefoot on pasta dough to make it manageable. (Mechanization wouldn't come until the 19th century when it caused riots.) By 1785 the city had nearly 300 pasta shops with their wares hanging out to dry on balconies and rooftops. The noodles did not keep very long until someone invented a way to dry them really well. That, too, was an Italian discovery. No wonder, then, that there's a pasta museum, the only one of its kind in the world, situated in the heart of Rome.

Still Italy's case is not ironclad. As Alan Davidson notes, the crucial question is who first thought of preparing pasta by boiling it? After examining the record, he concludes that was "an innovation made well to the east of Rome." The Persians, who may have taught the Chinese the technique, were making and boiling noodles as early as 200 BC.

The truth is, nobody knows for sure just who invented pasta. As the "Oxford Companion to Food" explains, that's because pasta is so elementary a food it's hard to distinguish it from other primitive foods made from the same ingredients. What is more, not being an aristocratic food its history has not been carefully documented.

But even if the Italians didn't actually invent pasta, they've surely perfected it. They've created so many pasta shapes, most still going by their Italian names, that you can eat a different one each day of the year and never eat the same one twice. Therefore, if you want to make perfect pasta, emulate the Italians.

That's exactly the approach taken by Sue Hunt and Beverly Noffel who are teaching a course on the subject next week for Southeast Missouri State University. These two ebullient cooks, who are serious students of Italian cuisine (Hunt studied in Tuscany and Noffel trained with the distinguished Marcella Hazan), believe that you should try making your own pasta, not because fresh pasta is necessarily better than dried (the Italians themselves don't believe that), but just for the fun of it. The entertainment value alone is worth the trouble, they contend, particularly as a communal activity where everyone pitches in to mix the dough, crank the pasta machine a few turns, or cut the finished product.

Making fresh pasta isn't difficult, they maintain, especially if you use a food processor. Moreover, you don't need any special ingredients. Though the best dried pasta is made with semolina flour to make a tough dough that holds up well, all-purpose flour is preferable for homemade pasta. If you want, you can simulate the soft "type 00" flour Italians use by blending five parts all purpose flour with one part cake flour. Hunt and Noffel prefer White Lily brand flour.

Since all-purpose flour doesn't have the high gluten level of semolina flour, homemade pasta must be thoroughly kneaded to make it elastic. Hunt and Noffel recommend using a pasta machine for this purpose, but not the expensive electric extrusion types advertised on TV. In the words of their mentor, Hazan, such machines produce "a mucilaginous and totally contemptible product." Besides, they're a pain to clean. Rather, they advocate the hand-cranked variety that costs as little as $30.

Such devices operate like an old-fashioned clothes wringer to squeeze the dough on progressively narrower settings until it is as thin as you like. To maintain some bite in your pasta, stop at the next to last setting. The key to rolling the dough in a hand-cranked machine is keeping it lightly floured so it won't stick or tear. Most machines have cutting attachments, or you can cut the dough by hand.

Finally, Hunt and Noffel note that fresh pasta cooks much faster than the dried variety. Maybe not as fast as directed in a 15th century recipe which specified cooking it only as long as it takes to say three Paternosters, but fast nonetheless -- usually no more than two minutes if you want it cooked the Italian way, which is al dente, or still chewy.

When you make your own pasta at home following these guidelines, like Hunt and Noffel, you need never fear a knock at the door from the pasta police.

Spinach, Beet, or Carrot Pasta Dough

Though any one of these colored pastas is attractive served by itself, they are even more impressive when served together. Simply make a batch of each flavor, cut into fettuccine, twirl a nest of each color onto a plate, and top with a white sauce. The recipe is adapted from Better Homes and Gardens.

Ingredients:

3 3/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 teaspoon olive oil

10 oz. frozen chopped spinach, cooked and drained or 16 oz. can beets, drained and mashed or 16 oz. can carrots, drained and mashed

Directions:

Process flour, salt, and eggs in a food processor until the consistency of cornmeal. Add spinach, beets, or carrots and process until a ball forms. Add oil and process until smooth. Divide dough into thirds and roll out by hand or with hand-cranked pasta machine. Cut as desired.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Fridays and at 11:59 a.m. Saturdays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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