Pasta Dream Come True

If you haven’t read about the food adventures in Umbria, Italy please do so now.

OK, ready? After we all came back from Umbria, the group decided to have a reunion dinner so that we could share photos and memories and to provide a narrative about the trip for Marga, who had to stay at home at the last moment. As the schedule reunion dinner approached, I started to dream…

I was overwhelmed with thankfulness – not only that I had been able to go on the trip, but that the trip itself was basically my food dream come true (as in ‘get paid to go to Italy and explore culture and mindfulness through food…’) and that I was fortunate to be part of a terrific, inquisitive, self-regulating group of UVA students. My greatest anxiety before the trip was that I might have to punish or discipline the students for misbehaving; to their credit, the group pretty much took care of itself, which enabled all of us (myself and Leonardo included!) to relax and enjoy the adventure. So with thankfulness in my heart and food dreams in my head, I hatched a plan…

First Step: Assemble the Pasta Dream Team. I called my dear friends Mark and Tim: Mark is a trained chef who happened to work at a catering company in Italy as an intern, and then worked for several months at Palladio (the formal Northern-Italian eatery at Barboursville Vineyards) before becoming the executive chef at Duners in Ivy, VA. Tim is a winemaker and food adventurer who just happens to be a starch-loving Italian. To round out the Dream Team I invited Marga and the students to join us for pasta making before dinner; to my delight Elaine Quick joined us and served both as a skilled set of hands and an audience for Mark’s pasta wisdom.

Pasta begins the evening before at Tim’s house; we make four batches based on the recipe from the Joy of Cooking. Lest this sound too simple, we decide to test different types of flour and eggs to see which yields the best results. As we knead the dough, I realize why Lydia Bastianich has those formidable forearms – this is hard work. Fortunately Tim and don Simon ‘el Brujo’ are working shoulder to shoulder with me; Simon has the dubious job of kneading the batch made with durum flour, which will prove to be the toughest in the end. While we don’t know exactly how the different flours will behave, we can select the best one for each type of pasta based on its structure and suppleness; I suspect the durum will become the garbinelli.

After chilling the dough for 30 minutes, we begin rolling it through the pasta machine, taking turns throwing and catching the sheet which grows successively longer and thinner as we adjust the machine. Not for the first time, we are producing ‘twosies’; for some reason the machine is not fully perforating the fettucine, leaving Christa with the laborious task of separating the noodles. Mark and Lydia arrive, and Mark offers constructive criticism of our process; we speak of gluten development, regulating the thickness of each sheet to maximize yield, the ‘mirror’ or the sheen on the pasta sheet. Miracle of all miracles, when we use Mark’s methods, we transition from twosies to (mostly) onesies and realize we are heading in the right direction.

There is goat ragu with Roundabout tomatoes bubbling away in the newly-complete outdoor pizza oven; in a lapse of judgement I put it in a cast iron skillet, which makes it taste ferrous (go figure) and necessitates a quick transfer of pot and some creative seasoning. So that’s why recipes say ‘in a large, non-reactive pan combine tomatoes…’. I suppose the acidity of the tomatoes reacts with the metal.

The pasta with goat ragu is delicious. I pack up the nine remaining balls of pasta dough and the loaner pasta drying rack (which is essentially a folding wooden rack with removable dowels for lifting and carrying the hanging pasta to the pot) along with some larger dowels that we hope to use for garbinelli the following day at the IRC. As usual, dinner and cleanup are completed around midnight, and when I go to sleep I am already looking forward to more fresh pasta the next day.

So Mark and I stop by feast on the way to the IRC to pick up some essential ingredients, most notably Caromont chevre, local asparagus, butter, herbs (I recognize the ‘good dill’ from Manakintowne, a particularly fragrant and sweet blue-green variety) and a bottle of Cassis Lambic as a thank-you to Mark for leading the charge. It is difficult to ask him to cook on his day off, but once the ingredients are arrayed in front of him I can see his creative chef mind clicking through the possibilities. He speaks in a calm, low voice and natural light streams into the room; while he and Elaine make the pasta I unload the rest of the food, make some hot tea, snap a few photos, put potatoes on to boil for gnocchi, and begin to pull the meal together.

First they make garbinelli, which we surmise will benefit from some drying at room temperature so as to make them less likely to unroll. Mark works the pasta through the machine, admiring the way the dough has firmed up overnight and is ready for its starring role. Starting with a sheet, he cuts rectangles for us, which we roll (at an angle) around the dowels and affix with a bit of egg. They slide off the dowels just fine, and we pile them on a cookie sheet and powder them with flour so they won’t stick together. Then we move on to a form of ravioli (perhaps ‘agnolini’ would be the best description) stuffed with Caromont chevre; Mark has been making this pasta at Duners and has a clear idea of the mouth feel he is looking for. “I want it to be tiny, and creamy and toothy, and just explode in your mouth like a fresh pea.” I insist only that we use the crinkly edge of the cutter. He dabs tiny bits of chevre on the pasta sheet, then folds the pasta over and gently pushes the two sides together around the cheese. Elaine cuts the little rectangles apart, clarifying their shapes by trimming a bit with the crinkly-edge of the cutter. Mark occasionally tells us stories about people he has cooked with through the years; often I can’t hear what he is saying from where I stand in the kitchen but Elaine is smiling and clearly enjoying the narrative, so all is well.

Tim breezes in and starts preparing a caramelized onion and white wine sauce with peas and dill. Several students join us and begin making gnocchi based on our gnocchi lesson with Leonardo in Umbria; this dough is easier to handle (not as sticky) but slightly lumpy because I did not think to bring a moulin. Mark and Elaine move on to the final noodle, which is fettucine and very simple in comparison to the first two tasks. They string the noodles on the drying rack, and Mark joins us in the kitchen to whip up some sauces. Everything smells delicious – the pasta is arrayed on baking trays and seems to be radiating sunshine and good cheer; Brad and Carol have arrived and are complimenting this courageous undertaking; the students are sharing stories and laughing and reliving Italy memories.

We all sit at a large table in the common room at the IRC, pouring sparkling water from bottles on the table that are a symbolic representation of wine bottles (UVA simply would not approve of real wine) and passing around a large green salad with bacon dressing. Lydia joins us and I introduce her around as Mark’s handler; meanwhile he and Tim are cooking and draining pasta, and dressing it with herbs and some cheese before I run it out to the table. We have garbinelli with the caramelized onion and pea sauce; gnocchi with local goat ragu and Everona Piedmont (a local pecorino); fettucine with asparagus, lemon and oil; and finally the agnolini dressed very simply in olive oil. Everyone digs in, forgetting to pass the dishes all the way around in their excitement to eat. The Dream Team joins us at the table and we pile their plates high. Finally, I remind everyone that I don’t believe in leftovers. Buon appetito.

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~ by a local notion on April 28, 2008.

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