there were two sacks of flour in the center of the table. Laura, who taught me how to make a pasta shape called strascinati, the tops of the bags unrolled, sending white clouds flying into the sky. She then suggested that I put my right hand in one bag and my left in the other. Enjoying the happy dive approach, I put a hand in a smooth, almost silky shade. That was grano tenero, or soft wheat flour, Laura explained, pouring us tea. My other hand meanwhile met something quite different, grainy and gritty – grano durohard, or durum wheat flour, she noted as I took my hands out of the pockets. I knew both, but had never studied them side by side. Two wheats, one soft, one hard; one dusty white and smooth, the other rough and sandy yellow. I rubbed my apron with both hands.
The word “pasta” comes from Latin, which is taken from the Greek πάστη (paste), or a mixture of liquid and flour. Any flour! The universe of pasta includes shapes made from chestnut, acorn, rice, fava beans, chickpeas, barley, buckwheat and corn flour. However, most molds are made from one of two wheat flours: Grano Tenero† What’s? often ground to a fine “00” in Italy, and what you need to make fresh egg pasta such as tagliatelle, lasagna, and ravioli; or grano-duro, the second most cultivated and toughest variety, the Muhammad Ali of wheat. The yellow color, hardness of durum wheat means it breaks when ground. Coarsely ground, it produces semolina for couscous, soup, bread and pudding. Grinded twice, it becomes flour, semola rimacinata in Italian, durum wheat semolina in the UK, the statutory flour for all dried pasta forms. Look at a pasta package in your cupboard and the ingredients will be two: durum wheat semolina and water. It’s also the bag you’ll want to put your hand in to make flour and water pasta at home.
It’s been years now, but Laura’s two bags are still my starting point for pasta flour, not least because a playful approach isn’t a bad idea when making pasta, and childish instructions are by far the most concise. On your largest surface – wood is ideal, but not necessary – make a 400 g mound of durum wheat semolina. Then use your fist to swirl the mountain into a wide, volcanic crater (Caldera Blanca in Lanzarote is a good visual aid here). The proportions are about 2:1, so measure out 200 ml of warm water and pour it into the crater. All at once (then get ready for a tight chase) or little by little. Anyway, the collecting mound looks hopeless; too dry or too wet. Have faith and keep squeezing, squeezing and collecting crumbs until you have a steep clump that smells like semolina pudding. Italian recipes rarely give kneading advice until sodo e ben lavorato (“sturdy and worked well”). This is not a bad thing, which also works, and remember that as a child you were given a cold lump of plasticine or play dough. Chances are you haven’t thought or worried; you simply squeezed, kneaded and stamped the steep clump with your warm hands until it was smooth and pliable enough to be shaped.
What did you do with the lump of plasticine? Worms (vermicelli)? Mouse tails (code di topo)? Rings (Anelli)? Did you push the dough through the rolling pin to make strings (spaghetti) or penises? Or rolling a lump against a rough surface (gnocchi)? Making a fingerprint canoe (strascinati) or injecting a ball with your thumb (cavatelli), or pulling out an ear (orecchiette)? Even though you were young Peter Heer and sculpting monsters, chances are you made at least four shapes in the process, all preparing for pasta making.
Another preparation is making a rope. Cut the dough into quarters, place three under an upturned bowl so they don’t dry out, then use the hollows of your palms to form a quarter into a rope about 12mm thick. Now cut off a 1 cm lump, press your index finger in the middle and drag it towards you, the idea is that it bends or even turns over, and you have cavato, which means you collapsed and made one cavatello. Another way to make cavatelli is to roll a lump against something ridged or rough: a butter scoop, grater, or basket.
To make orecchiette, which means little ears, use a knife to drag the lump into a circle that curls at the edges, then twist back so it looks like an ear or a cup. Put on some music, pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of tea, and make another, and another, and another.
Pasta with flour and water can of course also be rolled through a pasta machine and cut into neat ribbons or badly cut lozenges (maltagliati). It’s also a comforting thought that cavatelli, orecchiette and lasagna sheets to break into maltagliati can also be bought dried. Fresh or fried, orecchiette is delicious with tomatoes, anchovies and breadcrumbs, cavatelli with lamb and saffron rags, while maltagliati with arugula and pea pesto makes for a catered lunch.
Orecchiette with tomatoes, anchovies, arugula and potato
This is a variation on a recipe from Foggia in Puglia. It’s smart that the potato and arugula are cooked together with the pasta, giving them flavor, then slumping enough to wrap the pasta and, in the case of the potato, provide starchy tenderness. Everything is then mixed with garlic, anchovies and tomatoes.
Preparation 10 minutes
Cook 15 minutes
1 garlic clove, peeled and mashed, but left whole
1 pinch of red chili flakes
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
12-15 cherry tomatoescut in half
3-6 anchovy filletsdrained, to taste
1 large potato (about 250g), peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
500g fresh or 400g dried orecchiette (or cavatelli, fusilli or linguine)
150 grams arugulatough stems thrown away
Toasted breadcrumbsto serve (optional)
In a frying pan over a low heat, fry the garlic and chili pepper in the oil for a few minutes. Increase the heat, add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes, pressing down with the back of a spoon, until tender. In the last two minutes, add the anchovies and press with a spoon to break them up.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt and then add the potato. If using dried pasta, add it two minutes after the potato and the arugula six minutes later; if fresh, add it six minutes after the potato, along with the arugula.
Once the pasta and potato are cooked, drain them, add them to the sauce in the casserole and toss them around. Serve with some breadcrumbs on top, if desired.
Casarecce with lamb and saffron ragout
Inspired by a recipe from Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region, this lamb stew in bianco (white instead of red, with tomato) also contains saffron for a deep, warm taste. Keep an eye on consistency, add more liquid if necessary or boil off excess; the end result should be a tender stew with just a little rich liquid, and meat so tender that it breaks gently. The pecorino tossed with the pasta first is functional, helping the meat sauce to stick. A traditional form is cecatelli (small and canoe-like), but I also love cavatelli, casarecce, fusilli or tagliatelle here.
Preparation 15 minutes
Cook 1 hour 30 minutes
1 onionpeeled and finely chopped
1 small carrotpeeled and finely chopped
1 stalk celeryfinely sliced
2 bay leaves
1 small dried red pepperfinely sliced
6 tbsp olive oil
700 g braised lambcut into 2 cm cubes
Up to 750 ml white wine
1 generous pinch of saffronsoaked in 200 ml warm water, lamb or light vegetable stock
500 g fresh or 400 g dried casarecce, cavatelli or cecatelli (or fusilli or tagliatelle)
Place the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, chilli, oil and a pinch of salt in a large heavy-bottomed pan and cook, stirring often, over a low heat for seven minutes, until softened.
Increase the heat slightly, add the lamb and cook, stirring, until browned on all sides. Add another pinch of salt, turn the heat up a notch, then add the wine and let it bubble for two minutes. Add the saffron and soaking liquid, cover and simmer gently for an hour and a quarter, stirring occasionally and adding more wine if the mixture seems dry. If there is too much liquid at the end, cook uncovered for the last few minutes to reduce. Taste and adjust the spices.
Towards the end of the cooking time, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water, drain, place in a bowl and sprinkle with a handful of pecorino. Pour in the sauce, toss well and serve with more pecorino on the side.
Maltagliati with arugula, basil and pea pesto
Inspired by the classic pesto alla genovese, this pesto (meaning “mashed sauce”) is delicious. The arugula and basil bring spice heat, while the peas add sweetness. I have given quantities, but it is really a recipe that invites improvisation according to taste. As always, a little of the pasta cooking water helps loosen the pesto so it coats the pasta, while adding a little milk to the ricotta means it’s softer to spoon on top.
Preparation 10 minutes
Cook 10 minutes
1 handful of basilplus extra to finish
1 bunch of rocketonly leaves, hard stems removed
100 g peasbriefly boiled in boiling salted water
20 g almonds or pine nuts
1 garlic clove
120-150 ml olive oil
50 g Parmesan cheesegrated
200 g ricottamixed with half the Parmesan cheese and a little milk to make it soft and spoonable
500 g fresh maltagliatior freshly cut lasagna sheets, or 450 g dried linguine or tagliatelle
In a food processor or blender, pulse the basil, arugula, peas, nuts, garlic, a generous pinch of salt and about 2 ounces of oil into a rough but consistent paste. Stir in half of the Parmesan cheese and the rest of the oil – slowly, as you may not need all of it – until the pesto is your desired consistency, then place half in a large, warm bowl.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in well-salted water until al dente. Lift the pasta into the pesto bowl with a slotted spoon – the water that sticks to it will help loosen the pesto. Place the rest of the pesto on top, toss and divide among four bowls. Sprinkle each serving with a dollop of ricotta and a few basil leaves and serve.