Sunday, October 11, 2009

Play With Your Food!

When most of us were kids, we all, at one time or another, probably heard this message; “Don’t Play With Your Food!”

Food is fun, food is sensual, food is sexy, food is one of our most vital links to each other, involving trust, communication and history, among other things. We can enjoy a world tour at our own dining table, and invite friends along! We can try to make foods our parents or grandparents made, in our own kitchens, and revive old memories. We can try out a new idea, a recipe from a magazine or cookbook. Each of us can be Julia Child, if we have courage.

Think of all the cuisines available ... Canada enjoys every part of the world! Cuisines of Italy, France, Viet-Nam, India, Brasil, China, Japan, the entire continent of Africa; everyone but the penguins has cuisine. Each region or country develops its own tastes, textures, flavours, colours, presentation preferences ... and then there is the ‘us’ factor.

Just like a good folk-singer, who knows the words and the music, but shares it slightly differently each time, we do the same with food we make. We play with the spicing, with the proportions, with the sizes, with the pairings. How do we eat it, and who with? What tools, who gets served first, who or what signals the formal beginning and end of a meal? Are there particular plates or equipment we use that evoke memory? Some of us are more formal, at times, than others. Some of us will say a Grace or follow a religious tradition such as the Jewish Shabbat dinner, or we have a family ritual of some sort, to begin, or sometimes to end. Weddings have particular customs in every culture. Even doing the dishes at the end has significance.

Good food is hand-raised and hand-made. This is as true at home as in a restaurant ... you get what you pay for. Industrial food does have its place, but we all know that if we want subtlety, a sense of participation, the sense that we make time to linger together at a shared table of trust, communication and history, we make it ourselves. Think about the traditional Thanksgiving feast every October. Some people go to where they know it will be made as well, or better, than they can do themselves, or to a place in the community that makes the local, typical food very well. In Italy, this means the trattoria.

In this trattoria a lot of tortellini goes out the door. Everything here is hand-made, and I am the present hand-maker of tortellini, among my other sins. It is not hard, and is a great dinner to make at home, with friends either actively participating or kibitzing in the kitchen. It is cheap, and uses up leftovers.

I will refer to the photos posted with this blog as I lead you through this easy, fun activity.

Start by assembling tools and ingredients ... this is vital, because once you start, there are only a few times to stop.

You will need a good flour ... Italian type “00” works very well, but regular hard flour is fine. You will need eggs ... quite a few eggs ... so have a dozen or more on hand. You will need an egg separator, or be able to separate eggs with your fingers. You will need a rolling ‘pizza’ knife, a large, cool flat surface (at least a metre wide and 45 cm deep), a pasta machine of some sort (I show two ... a little hand-cranker and a large electric machine). You need to have already made and cooked your filling before you begin, and have it cool or chilled. You need a little spray-bottle for water, or maybe use the sprayer on the front of a fancy iron, just not plugged in! A spoon for placement of the filling, and a rack of some sort to put the tortellinis on once they’re made.

Take the time to assemble all this stuff, which may take a couple of days. Not every finer home or castle has a pasta machine, for example, but many friends have one that might be shared for a while! Invest in a rolling pizza knife ... it will save a lot of trouble. And the tool in the photo that looks like an expanding gate with wheels on the bottom is a tortellini knife ... it cuts precise squares (as you can see in the photos) which makes the process easy. But the more rustic approach works just fine ... but be careful with the sizes ... you will want consistency! Be a square, just for once in your life. If you do not want to make the pasta dough by hand, you will need a strong stand-mixer. At home I use my KitchenAid; here I use a huge floor mixer. You can use a countertop just as well ... be prepared for a work-out! And you will probably choose a hand-blender to make filling. Finally, you will need a kitchen scale. This is a tool of any good kitchen, and worth the investment. Get an inexpensive one that runs on batteries, unless you have acres of countertop! Work in grams, not ounces.

After the tortellini are made, they can be used almost immediately (wait 15 minutes for them to set up, though), or chilled for the next day, or frozen for future use.

Start with the filling. What I am using is a vegetarian mixture of potatoes, peas and a tiny amount of salt. Boil the potato in little cube shapes (will cook quicker), and part way through the cooking heave in the peas, and the salt. When it is done, partially drain the water off until the water barely covers the vegetation in the pot. Then use a hand-blender to turn it all into a puree. If it winds up a little thin, just reduce it on the stovetop until you’re happy. You can make fillings involving almost anything ... meats of every description (cut up VERY VERY fine), veg in either puree or extra-fine cube (literally a millimetre or two in each dimension ... no more). The filling needs to be soft but not runny. It needs to be completely cooked.

When the filling is ready, reserve it in the chiller. It can hold for a few hours, or a day. Cover well.

Next, make the actual pasta dough. This is messy and fun! I can offer two methods ... use a KitchenAid or your countertop.

Countertop hand method ... weigh out 225 grams of opened eggs, in the following proportions ... for every three yolks, put in one whole egg. Stop making the egg mix when you hit about 225 grams, but over a little is OK. Weigh out 500 grams of flour. Ensure the countertop is clean and very dry. Pour the flour onto the countertop in a single heap. Use your fingers to make the heap into more of a wall, with a hollow in the middle right to the counter. Make sure the flour ‘wall’ is the same thickness and height all around (about 3 cm high) . Pour the eggs into the well you have made. Use a fork (or your fingers) to start breaking the yolks, and stir the eggs around in the middle. Slowly work in the flour from the walls ... main word is slow ... and do it evenly, so the eggs don’t suddenly launch themselves to countertop freedom! Work as much flour into the eggs as you can, and start to turn the developing dough with your hands (abandon the fork at this point, if you’ve been using it), using the palm. Don’t worry if you can’t get every gram of flour into the mixture ... the take-up of the eggs will vary depending on the type of flour and the present temperature and humidity. Notice you are not adding any salt. As you work the dough it will start by being rather tough, maybe a little crumbly. As you persevere, the glutens will start to develop and it will become nice and springy. Knead the dough on the counter for about 4-5 minutes until it is perfectly smooth and holds together tightly in a ball. At each knead, turn the dough ¼ turn to the right, and knead hard with the heel of the palm. Use all your body-weight, and roll the dough under the palm across the counter away from you for a few centimetres. When the dough has been kneaded tight and springy, wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for a little while, just to let it rest and for the glutens to work. (My dear wife says that if your muscles hurt after making pasta, it is just your glutenus maximus!)

KitchenAid method ... put the eggs and 90% of the flour into your mixer bowl after breaking the egg yolks. Turn on low, using a bread hook. As the pasta is made the machine will be working very hard. Stop from time to time to check. When the pasta has reached the ‘clean-up’ stage (when no dough sticks to the sides of the bowl), stop the machine and test the dough. Add a little more flour as needed or as you are able. If it seems a little soft, give it another 30 seconds or so. Be gentle with the pasta. As with the countertop method, take the dough out of the machine, hand-knead it a few times (to get a good shape, and just to be able to say you actually DID hand-knead the stuff!), and roll it in plastic and put it in the frig.

For the trattoria I use much larger amounts of each ingredient, but the method is just the same. I also have a huge floor mixer, so I make pasta 2 or 3 kilograms at a time. We go through a lot! I make this amount of pasta every week, to become tortellini, tagliatelli, spaghetti, linguini.

This is the second time you can stop, if you choose. The filling is made, the pasta dough is made.

Now, start looking at the photos I have supplied. Once you start this next section, you can’t stop, so get everything ready. Read through so there are no surprises. Have a drink!

When ready, take the dough out of the refrigerator, unwrap it and put it on to a lightly flour-dusted counter. You don’t want anything to stick, but you don’t want to change the proportions, either. Divide your dough into 2 or 3 portions, and hand-flatten it.

Open your pasta rolling machine up to as wide as you can go, and run the dough through the machine twice ... each time reverse the dough (i.e., the leading part of the dough on the first pass becomes the end of the dough on the second pass). If needed, fold your dough, press the fold hard and re-roll at the same pressure. Work the thickness down so you are at the second-last option ... when you hold up the sheet of pasta, you should be able to see your hand through it. That’s the test. When the pasta is in the rolling machine, do not stop the roll! Always go to the end. It can be re-rolled if you make a mess. I’ve made lots of mess, in the beginning, but now have had lots of practice. Persevere!

Lay the pasta sheet onto a very lightly-dusted counter. Cut into squares using a sharp rolling knife, not a regular knife (because the shape will drag).

Get the filling handy, with a spoon.

Lightly spray the squares with a mister. If you can see water on the surface, you have misted too much. (In this case, quickly and lightly touch the squares with a kitchen towel. Do not use paper towel!) Only do 8 squares at a time, and cover the rest with a kitchen towel to maintain surface aspect.

Touch a little of the filling into each square, as demonstrated. Don't overfill. Less is better than more.

As you fill each set of 8 squares, fold them on the diagonal and gently touch the side-lips together. The water will make them stick. Touch them along the edge to ensure a good seal. Fold the tails together so they stick. Immediately put the completed tortellino on a rack to dry.

Do all your pasta in this manner. Roll out, cut, mist, fill, fold, dry. It will be a mess the first couple of times, then you will get the hang of it and, pretty soon, presto! You’ve made yourself delicious home-made tortellini.

This is all quite exhausting work, so may I recommend a delightful glass of something from Henry of Pelham (in Ontario), or another fine refresher. Italy makes wine too ... I make my pasta fuelled by Prosecco!

Have fun, make a mess, explore. Remember, this is a cross-cultural experience, so try all sorts of filling. This is similar to making samosas, after all, or egg rolls, it is all the same sort of thing.

It is always best to have friends over to share the experience. Teach yourself how to do the process, then get everyone you know involved.

To cook, use cold water brought to a strong boil. Salt the water to sea-salinity (most north americans use far too little salt in their pasta water). Have your table set and plates warming, because when it is ready, it is ready NOW, and is unforgiving.

Put the tortellini into the water all at once, for only about 2 or 3 minutes ... as soon as it floats, it is done. Drain or take out of the water with a spider (skimmer), do not rinse, and plate immediately. Grate fresh parmesan cheese on, if you wish, or pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese). If you want a sauce, put sauce on the plate first, and put your delicious, fresh, appealing tortellini on top! Also, you can top with freshly-torn basil.

Go play with your food.

Dine well, in health.