At the pasta makers

At the pasta makers

By
Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi
Contains
17 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742707730
Photographer
Helen Cathcart

Marco Polo is one of Venice’s most famous characters, and I would love to credit him with bringing pasta from China to Italy but, as we now know from many sources, although he ate various forms of Asian or noodles, these actually existed in Italy from at least as early as 1279, sixteen years before Marco Polo returned home. A legal document dated to this time, found in the possession of a Genovese soldier, mentioned ‘una bariscella plena de macaronis’ – a basketful of macaroni.

Ravioli was a favourite in medieval cooking, often containing herbs and spices, mixed with cheese and eggs, then cooked in broth, and finished with more spices and sometimes sugar. Lasagne too would be coated with sugar and spice.

This sweetness carries through into Venetian gnocchi, made with pumpkin, which provides the perfect foil for a rich lamb ragu with spices or a simple dressing of butter and sage.

Dried pasta (Pasta asciutta)

Dried pasta is never judged as second rate to fresh pasta by Italians – it is simply more suited to certain sauces. Fresh pasta is more absorbent than dried so it will drink a watery sauce such as seafood and become soft. Always pour just-drained hot pasta into a sauce and toss it well to make sure it is well coated before serving. The various shapes should be picked to complement the sauce; think of how tubes of penne hold little pieces of meat from the ragu or spaghetti becomes coated by a creamy sauce.

Fresh pasta (Pasta fresca)

The standard recipe for fresh pasta calls for 1 egg to every 100 g of ‘00’ flour. However as eggs differ in size a little experience is required to judge whether you need a little more water to soften the dough or a little more flour to stop it sticking. You only want the dough dry enough for it not to be sticky.

Cooking and serving the pasta

Pasta should always be cooked in plenty of well-salted water. It should be as salty as the sea so about 320 g pasta to 4 litres of water and 20 g salt.

–Don’t add oil to the water; it’s expensive and rises to the surface rather than coating the pasta.

–Don’t rinse the pasta after cooking. It will wash the last of the starch from the pasta that helps the sauce to stick to it.

–Don’t leave fresh stuffed pasta hanging around, the filling will start to moisten the pasta and it will stick to whatever it is sitting on. Cook and serve straight away or pre-cook as per below.

–Pre-cooking pasta is a good idea if you are not going to eat it straight away. Blanch ravioli in boiling salted water for 3–4 minutes or tagliolini for 1 minute then drain and put onto a tray generously coated in sunflower oil, mixing the pasta with the oil so that it doesn’t stick to itself or the tray. Allow to cool to room temperature and store in the fridge or freezer until needed. To reheat drop the pasta into salted boiling water and cook for 2 minutes for ravioli and just 30 seconds for tagliolini, or until cooked through.

–Don’t serve salad with pasta, particularly if it is dressed, as it will interfere with the flavour of the dish; eat it before or after the pasta course.

Polenta

Polenta, made from ground cornmeal, is a big deal in the north of Italy and taken very seriously, each restaurant or household having their favourite way of cooking and serving it. In Venice you will see it in various guises; white, yellow, soft and set firm. Our friend Luca described the soft white polenta – which is served under schie, the local small prawns, tossed with butter, garlic and parsley – as ‘like eating a cloud’. Then you will see fine yellow polenta perhaps mixed with rosemary and set into squares that are topped with wild mushrooms. One of my favourites is polenta grossa or grezzo; bright yellow coarsely ground polenta mixed with Parmesan and served soft with a meat ragu or casserole.

Originally from Turkey, it was introduced to the Italians to save them from famine after the plague struck. They loved it and ate loads of it, in fact so much so that they ate polenta and nothing else. Malnutrition followed and eating polenta was seen as the cause so the authorities banned it. However, some years later when the famine returned a clever doctor worked out it wasn’t the polenta that made people malnourished but the restricted diet. People started eating polenta again as part of a balanced diet and life was good again. Polenta has been loved ever since and most Venetians will remember their mother or grandmother cooking it in a large copper pan, hot splashes hitting their arms. I think they form an emotional link with it from childhood perhaps as we British do with our mother’s mashed potato. Certainly no one made mash as well as my mother in my mind, from her choice of potato to the amount of butter and seasoning she added. The slow art of making polenta is no different.

White polenta, made from white corn, is typically used in Venice. It is usually made from the corn variety ‘biancoperla’ and finely ground, and it has a delicate flavour so is traditionally favoured for seafood dishes characteristic of Venice. My favourite polenta dish was cooked at the restaurant Al Covo where we had white polenta with Parmesan, drizzled with Tuscan green olive oil and scattered with more Parmesan. This was a little amuse bouche served at every table as a welcome. It was sublime.

Yellow corn polenta can be fine and smooth or rough and gritty. It is more common on the mainland and better with meat dishes, especially when made from the corn variety ‘marano’ or ‘maranello’. Any variety can be used as a flour to give a pleasant grainy texture to cakes and biscuits such as Venetian yellow polenta biscuits.

Giancarlo’s father used to measure polenta with a manciata, which was a fistful of polenta that he let fall slowly from his hand held at head height. He added to boiling, salted water whisking it in as it fell. To cook polenta in milk was considered wasteful in his day but actually we now recommend half milk and half water or vegetable stock.

The quick-cooking polenta is used commonly in Venice and it is ready in just 5 minutes. There is a subtle difference in texture and flavour but I have to say only polenta aficionados would notice! If you do make it, follow the packet instructions.

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