Pasta & Pesto

Item No. 09 of my 2016 Cooking Challenge

Lets see here, so it’s 2016, meaning it’s been nearly seven years since I studied abroad in Italy as a college student. That experience had such a profound impact on me in so many ways, but largely on my relationship with food.

I could walk to a market and get only the ingredients I needed for that day specifically. I could get some really fresh ingredients and it was the first time I tried to get more creative with the meals I made for myself. Plus I really learned how to appreciate simplicity and execution in certain dishes and I still do.

One of the most valuable experiences I had was being able to take a one-day cooking course. I remember being amazed and surprised at how relatively simple a homemade pasta was, and how much more rewarding it was to make. Also, its taste was far superior.

Sadly, it’s taken me seven years to follow that up by making pasta on my own, but now that I own the proper equipment, I doubt there will be anywhere near as long of a gap until the next time.

Thing I Learned #1 – Funny tidbit I picked up from recent episodes of the Sporkfull- until recently, Italian food in the U.S. kind of held a position now occupied by Vietnamese, Thai, or Cuban cuisines, among others. It was an ethnic food that people preferred to eat in cheaper, more “authentic” establishments rather than in a gourmet form. It kind of reflects different status changes as different waves of migration came to the U.S. Still, it’s crazy to think that about a hundred years ago, garlic was about as spicy as many Americans were willing to go.

Ingredients

For the pesto:

2 cups of basil
3/4 cups of shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon of minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon of lemon juice
Parsley, salt, pepper to taste

For the pasta:

3 large eggs
2 cups of flour
1/2 tablespoon of salt

Totally optional:

Heavy whipping cream

Tools

Pasta roller (preferably with a noodle slicer attachment, alternatively, a really good rolling pin and pizza cutter)
Food processor
Plastic wrap
Strainer
Non-stick pan
Pot

Pesto is one of the best bases for a sauce ever, in my opinion. In its most simple form, it’s a mashup of basil, pine nuts, parmigiano, and olive oil, four very distinct flavors, textures, and tastes that blend together so extremely well. It’s hard to find any drawbacks to making a sauce from a good pesto as long as you have plenty of basil on hand. The one setback might be that pine nuts are a bit pricey, but walnuts or almonds are adequate substitutes. My personal favorite replacement, though? Hazelnuts.

Thing I Learned #2 – Pesto has a predecessor from the Middle Ages, called agliata. The concoction? Quite simple as a mash of walnuts and garlic. Stinkin’ delicious.

1) Process things

 

Back in the day, this would’ve been done via mortar and pestle. Pestle… pesto… hmm… anyways, be glad that food processors exist because they make this so much easier. Processoro isn’t quite as good of a name, though.

In go the basil, parsley, and garlic for about 30 seconds as the blade whirrs around.

Then add the pine nuts and let it go again. 30 more seconds or until they’re finely chopped.

Finally, add in the cheese. You guessed it, 30 seconds.

2) Sippin’ on Oil & Juice

Let the machine run on a low speed and start to mix the lemon juice in. Drizzle in the olive oil slowly as well.

3) In Good Taste

The machine can go off now. Mix in salt and pepper to taste, but remember, pesto is expected to be fairly strong.

I made all of this the night before I worked on the pasta, so I stored it in a jar. Fresh pesto can keep in a fridge for about a week to a week and a half, though the first week is when it’ll be properly fresh. Pour in some oil with the pesto for storage, that will allow it to keep better, taste better, and cook better when you use it.

4) Pasta dough-pro

Pasta dough is quite different from bread dough, but thankfully it consists of some of the simplest ingredients- flour, eggs, and salt.

The most traditional flour to use is semolina, although any plain all-purpose flour would get the job done just as well.

Make a mound like a middle school baking soda volcano, and open the eggs in the center. Pull the eggs and mix them in with the flour slowly and gradually until it starts to be vaguely dough-like.

5) Knead me, baby

It took me somewhere around 5-8 minutes to get the dough workable by mashing it with a spoon and gently stirring until the flour and eggs had mostly mixed. After it’s a bit more clay-like and you can pick it up with your hands, you’ll want to knead it for about ten minutes until it becomes a smooth and pliable dough, and one cohesive golden colored piece without any flour clumps.

If it’s way too dry that the flour isn’t cooperating, add water. If it’s sticky, add flour. The trick is to do this conservatively, though, so only add a 1/2 teaspoon of flour or water at a time.

6) Just… chill

Take the dough ball and wrap it in plastic. It needs to rest for about 40-45 minutes to go through the pasta maker.

Thing I Learned #3 – There are over a thousand different varieties of pasta. Rather than take a long, long time to describe the taxonomy of them all, I’ll just say that I learned that the “List of Pastas” Wikipedia page is one of the more interesting ones out there.

7) Divide and Flatten

Split the lump of dough into quarters and use a rolling pin to get each chunk somewhat flat. If it’s still pretty thick, that’s not too terrible, it’ll be thinned out by the pasta roller.

8) Roll Out

Feed the flattened piece of dough through the pasta maker on a large setting at first. Do this until all the pieces of dough have gone through. If they seem to want to break in half, let it happen.

If the pasta ends up flimsy or falling apart, try refolding it and pass it through the pasta roller the perpendicular direction. The pasta roller helps to work the dough more evenly.

You’ll end up getting each sheet of dough through about three times, each time moving the size smaller and flatter. If you end up with more sheets than you started with because of splitting sheets, that’s fine. Another trick is to fold the sheets of pasta into thirds so that a flat edge is being sent through the machine. It helps keep the sheets square.

If you don’t have a pasta roller, your best bet will be a really quality rolling pin. After all, people have been making pasta since before the good stuff was invented. But it will be clumpier and a lot more difficult. A pizza cutter can cut the dough into strips

9) Cut it Up

My pasta roller had an attachment that allowed you to cut the pasta into either linguine strips or spaghetti noodles. I went the linguine route. Again, you just feed the sheet and crank the roller, although this time, the pasta will emerge in noodle form.

10) Boil it or Bag it

The pasta noodles that come out will probably be a bit damp, but mostly dry and floury. If you’re hoping to store these for future use, you’ll need to dry them further. Use a rack (or if you’re like me and don’t want to buy one, the one inside your oven will do just fine) to let the noodles hang dry like laundry.

If you’re going to cook them, then drying them would just be counter productive. Start boiling up some water. These noodles boil for about 3-4 minutes, give or take based on your al-dente preference. Strain them and BOOM, cooked noodles.

11) Pasta & Pesto: Worlds Collide

To coat and flavor the noodles with a pesto sauce and to give the noodles a more interesting texture, I used a nonstick pan. I coated it with just a bit of olive oil, and put in the noodles. I didn’t want them to get super crisp, I just wanted to have some of them to have just a bit of a crisp sear. I then stirred in a couple spoonfuls of the pesto I made the night before and began to mix it all together until it was evenly coated.

12) Totally optional

I wanted there to be an extra layer of pesto so I made a pesto cream sauce. All it took was using the nonstick pan to heat a layer of heavy whipping cream and mixing in a couple spoonfuls of the pesto sauce.

Serving this Sucker

Presenting this dish seemed pretty simple to me. The pesto coated noodles go first. Then the pesto cream sauce. Then, finally, top it off with some extra parmesean shreds.

In the Future

The one area where I could have improved, I think, was that the pesto could’ve used a bit more punctuation from salt.

While in the process of making this, I already got excited for all the things I could do in the future with the pasta maker. With how simple the ingredients are for pasta dough, they could easily be modified to add more interesting flavors. A sundried tomato paste might make an interesting pasta to go with some clams and vodka sauce. I could use the thinner noodle cutter and combine with pancetta, fried egg, and cheese to make a carbonara.

The potential from the pasta sheets alone was pretty interesting. Those could be used for a homemade lasagna. Or different creative ravioli.

As for the pesto sauce, I’d be interested in trying it a gain with hazelnuts instead of pine nuts. That would give it a true Pacific Northwest spin. Honestly, I’m not sure how often I’d make this, since pine nuts, basil, and oil can all get costly in large quantities. Trader Joe’s also has a pesto concentrate for two bucks that can really be stretched out using heavy whipping cream. Still, the homemade satisfaction is real, and so there will probably be a few future times.

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