I am a terrible cook.
If you read the last issue, you already know that.
As a result, pasta is a staple in my kitchen—it makes a great practical-looking decoration when displayed in a glass jar, or placed on a countertop. For very little money and effort, dried pasta not only beautifies your living space, but also makes you look productive and knowledgeable. No one has ever questioned my ability to make pasta, not with the evidence stacked neatly in four glass jars next to my stove.
I’m back at The Commissary on Dublin Road, a proud graduate of my salad class in September, and owner Kate Djupe has put fresh pasta and sauce on the lesson list—the next step in repairing my atrocious culinary skills.
Making pasta is both easy and hard. When my pasta instructor Matt Swint pulls out the ingredients we will need—eggs and flour—I’m surprised. I honestly thought pasta would be a little more… complicated. But as we begin talking about glutens stretching and lining up and the responsiveness of dough, I realize this task was going to take some serious work.
Pasta requires an instinct. Despite carefully following the instructions on a recipe, developing a sense for how a dough should look and feel takes practice. If you try this at home, be prepared to experiment, and maybe throw away some dough. (I won’t tell anyone.)
Fortunately, that instinct is in Swint’s DNA. Raised on the east side of Cleveland among Slovenian and Italian families, Swint, the genius behind Matija Breads, bleeds red sauce.
“I grew up with this food,” he says, his early memories filled with homemade breads, polka music, and falling asleep in pizzerias. Swint most recently teamed up with Dan Kraus to create Baba’s, an old world eatery on Summit Street. I feel confident that whatever I mess up, Swint can fix.
We start with two cups of flour on the counter (literally—on the counter) in front of me. Swint, with his own pile of flour in front of him, teaches me the “well method” of making pasta dough. I shape my flour into a doughnut, and Swint instructs me to crack two eggs in the middle. We begin breaking the yolks with a fork and using the tines of the fork to gradually lift in a bit of the flour at a time, so that a lumpy, yellow liquid begins to look a bit more like a recognizable dough that can be handled and kneaded.
“You really can’t overknead the dough,” he tells me, which is good, because I need a lot of practice. Swint’s deft motion of folding part of the dough into itself, pressing it forward with a palm, and then quickly turning it, has me pretty stymied. Eventually, it becomes a smooth, cream-colored ball which he puts underneath an overturned metal bowl to “rest”–a process, that when described to me, seems to make up for the simplicity of the ingredients.
While that’s happening, we start a Puttanesca sauce. Swint swirls a generous amount of EVOO in a heated saucepan while explaining his preference for California oils (Corto, Lucero, Bariani) over Italian imports. We add a chopped onion and sauté it until it’s translucent. Then we add a can of whole tomatoes, fresh minced garlic, capers, and some pitted olives. Normally, Swint would also add anchovy, which adds savoriness to the sauce, but to his disappointment, this vegetarian writer doesn’t eat them. We’re subbing roasted garlic cloves instead.
The dough has rested—which means the glutens have lined up and created an elastic superstructure ideal for reshaping. Swint teaches me how to roll out the pasta, both with a rolling pin and a pasta roller. (I highly, highly recommend the latter. Just be careful not to drop your pasta as the dough gets progressively thinner.)
The strip of dough in front of me feels a little leathery, and Swint assures me that’s a good thing. Coming out of the roller, the pasta is a couple feet long. Swint cuts off the uneven ends and shows me how to fold the pasta from each end towards each other—about three inches per fold, cut the folded pasta into noodle-sized strips, and slide a knife under the strips to pick them up and release them, like strings dangling from a mop. I admit, when I do this—and it works—I scream a bit in excitement.
From scratch, pasta only takes a minute or two to cook in very salty water, and once it’s strained out, it should go in with the sauce for a minute or two. (Tip: some of the noodle water, full of starch and salt, can be added to the sauce at this point if needed.) Basil and lemon zest garnishes the dish, and Swint and I each grab a fork and start twirling.
Fresh pasta is a truly different food from the dried version. It has a slippery, almost silky texture, yet not oily. I feel like I’ve done something impactful myself, like get one of those VO5 hot oil treatments or taking an art class. Seriously, I’m pricing pasta rollers.
That dried pasta may be sitting next to the stove a little bit longer.
So there are four basic ingredients for pasta and sauce. Here’s the least you need to know.
Flour Swint uses unbleached, unbromated flour, preferring organic flours for a more responsive dough. (I still don’t know what that means.)
Eggs Farm-fresh and cage-free. Make sure the chickens have eaten well, so you can, too.
Tomatoes These can be canned, but preferably whole. The less processing, the better. (And crushing the tomatoes with your bare hands is fun as hell.)
Onions Hard to screw this one up. Just use a “cat’s paw” (curling all digits underneath your hand) to hold the onion as you cut it so you don’t remove any fingers.
Everything else is really up to you, and, as Swint says, you should make pasta the way you like it. “These super simple ingredients can become something complex without a whole lot of work.”