Monday, July 14, 2008

Spinach Pasta

So the cool weather has returned, as is befitting and expected of April in these climes, but I got my peas in along with spinach, lettuce, radishes and carrots. The garlic is up, as is the rhubarb, and Rosemary’s riot of daffodils everywhere you look. Fiddleheads will be appearing, as well as the wild onion known as ramps. Watch for local spinach as farmers have it growing in their hoop houses.

And speaking of spinach, this week I’m writing about home-made pasta…in fact, spinach pasta. I’m assuming that most of you don’t make fresh pasta at home, but it is easy to do if you have a pasta machine, or a pasta roller attachment to your stand mixer. You can roll it out by hand, but that takes a certain amount of patience and stamina to do it successfully. I have a 4’ pasta rolling pin I got in Italy a few years ago, but I usually use the machine; its quicker and easier.

Pasta can be made from a variety of flours...all purpose, whole wheat, tipo “00” (Italian flour made for pasta), spelt, rice flour, durum wheat or semolina. The flour is moistened with water or egg and/or a flavoring/coloring agent like cooked spinach or tomato paste, and kneaded into a dough. After the dough has rested for an hour or more, it is rolled out and cut to shape, dried briefly while a large pot of water is brought to the boil, and cooked for a minute or so until al dente, or slightly firm to the tooth. It should be either added to the sauce so the noodle and sauce can marry for a few moments, or placed in cold water to arrest the cooking so it can be used later.

I make my pasta in the food processor, although it is almost as easy to make it by hand. Here’s how I make spinach pasta for lasagna.

2 jumbo eggs, or 3 medium
1 lb. of fresh spinach, washed, blanched or steamed, drained
3 ½ cups of flour (I use tipo “00” from Bel Aria)

Squeeze most of the liquid out of the cooked spinach and chop it up real fine with a chef’s knife. Put it in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the flour and eggs and process, shaking the machine a bit, until the dough is pebbly and damp, but not all together. I turn it out on a board and knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic, but you can let the machine do this for you. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour.

Alternatively, put the flour in the center of a large cutting board, make a well in the center and add the spinach and eggs. Use a fork to mix the eggs and gradually pull in the surrounding flour to form a dough. Knead as above and refrigerate.

After it has rested, I divide the dough into 4 parts, flatten each one with a rolling pin, and roll it out with a pasta machine, starting with the rollers spaced at their maximum, and reducing their spacing until I’m at the next to the lowest setting. I place the sheets of pasta, now about 7” wide and 36” long between damp kitchen towels if I’m using it right away, otherwise I hang it on Rosemary’s clothes rack to dry.

If I want fettuccine or spaghetti, my pasta machine has a cutter attachment, and I cut it before it dries out too much, tossing it onto a sheet pan with semolina or corn meal to prevent the individual noodles from sticking to each other.

For lasagna, I boil the whole noodle in about 5 quarts of water, salted after it comes to the boil, and remove the noodle to a pan of cold water after about 1 minute. Remember, it’s going to cook in the oven later, so don’t overcook the noodle at this stage. It’s more about the noodle than the sauce in Italian cooking, where the noodle is the main attraction, and the sauce compliments it.

For a sumptuous lasagna, I layer cooked spinach noodles with a meat sauce, béchamel sauce, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, making 4 layers before topping with béchamel and cheese and baking in a 350 degree oven, covered with foil, for 40 minutes. I remove the aluminum foil and put it back in the oven for 10 more minutes until hot and bubbly. Allow to cool at least 10 minutes before slicing.

See the side bar for specific recipe details. Caio!

Country-Style Ragu or Meat Sauce

3 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
2 oz. pancetta (or substitute salt pork, blanched)
1 medium onion, minced
1 celery stalk with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
12 oz. beef sirloin tips, chuck or hanger steak, if available
4 oz. boneless pork chop
1 oz. prosciutto di Parma or ham
2/3 cup dry red wine
1 ½ cups chicken stock
2 cups milk
3-4 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt & pepper to taste

Saute the pancetta with the onion, celery and carrot in the olive oil, stirring frequently for 10 minutes, or until the onions are slightly colored. Grind the beef, pork and prosciutto together and add to the sauted vegetables. Cook slowly for about 15 minutes until the meats are a deep brown. Drain off any fat and place the contents into a 4-5 qt. saucepan. Deglaze the sauté pan with the red wine, scraping up any fond or residue on the bottom of the pan. When the wine is reduced by half, add to the sauce pan with the meats. Bring the saucepan to a simmer, add ½ cup of stock and allow it to reduce at a slow simmer for 10 minutes. Repeat adding the balance of the stock in two increments, simmering 10 minutes between additions. Include the milk with the last addition of stock, and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour. Stir frequently. Add the tomatoes, crushing as you put them into the pot, and simmer at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes. It will be a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve over fresh pasta with a topping of cheese, or use in lasagna.

Bechamel Sauce

4 Tbl (2 oz) unsalted butter
4 Tbl (2 oz) all-purpose flour
2 2/3 cup milk, scalded
Salt and pepper
Fresh nutmeg

Melt the butter in a 3 qt. saucepan. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk until smooth. Stir continuously for 3 minutes, not allowing the resulting roux to brown. Whisk in the milk a little at a time, keeping the mixture smooth, while you slowly bring it to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 4 to 5 minutes, or until any floury taste has disappeared. Season with salt and pepper, and grate in a little nutmeg if you like.

Use the béchamel, know in Italian as salsa bisciamella, right away, or take a pat of butter and use it to cover the top of the sauce so a skin doesn’t form while it cools.

Add grated cheese to make a cheese sauce for vegetables.

Lasagne Verdi al Forno

Spread a thin layer of béchamel sauce in the bottom of a 3 quart baking dish. Place cooked spinach pasta noodle(s) over the béchamel. Spread noodle with a thin layer of béchamel, top with a thin layer of ragu and 2 tablespoons of grated Parmigianno-Reggiano cheese. Top with a similar layer, making a total of 4 layers. Save a little béchamel for the top and sprinkle with more Parmigianno. Cover the dish with aluminum foil, being careful to tent it up a bit so it doesn’t touch the top of the lasagna. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, remove the foil and cook an additional 10 minutes. Cool a few minutes before slicing.

Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, or 6 to 8 as a main dish.
Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table.

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