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In Season: Pasta!

By Linda Brandt Tanner

From Radiance Fall 1997

Here in California, the transition from early to late fall is a gentle one. It begins with the warm Indian summer weeks of early September. The heat of summer is brilliantly present in the day, and children are sweaty as they return home from school in their new fall back-to-school duds. But as dusk appears, the air cools sharply and we reach for the warmth of a cozy jacket. During these weeks, we enjoy a late harvest of summer’s tomatoes, the last of the basil before it bolts, sweet red and golden peppers, and the last of the sweet corn. I prepare these foods often, aware that some of these tastes, especially the tomatoes and ear corn, will not be available again until the following year.

As we enter October and look toward November, autumn’s chill is present daily. The days shorten and we’re in darkness by four or five o’clock. The market scene changes from bright and brilliant to somber and dusky. We enjoy evenings inside, and I begin to yearn for more complex flavors and to cook dishes that satisfy the earthy nurturing we crave.

We love the comfort of pasta dishes. The pasta I cooked this summer was usually in the form of salads, and they were cool, full of crunchy vegetables or chicken and herbs. This fall, I make pasta our supper fare: hot, savory, and tossed with fall’s market offerings.

Let’s Talk Pasta

When I was growing up, we didn’t call it pasta. Any macaroni-type noodle was called just that: noodles. In our house, there were two kinds: egg noodles and elbow noodles. Egg noodles were served buttered with broiled hamburger patties or fried pork chops and canned green peas. Elbow noodles were baked in a casserole with milk and cheese and became macaroni and cheese. And then, there was this separate thing called spaghetti. Spaghetti was what we ate with Daddy’s spaghetti sauce. It was always red, and we ate it with garlic bread and salad tossed with my mother’s garlicky vinaigrette. In those days, we didn’t know from pasta!

When I was very young, my father used to take me shopping at a family-owned Italian delicatessen. Our mouths would water the moment we crossed the threshold and the heady aroma of simmering meat sauce, dried salami, basil pesto, and craggy chunks of aged Parmesan perfumed the air around us. I remember being captivated by the visual display boxes and bins of various pasta, all shapes and colors. We’d place our usual order for two containers of veal-and-pork ravioli, a generous container of meat sauce, a quarter’s worth of sliced salami (with another slice pressed into my five-year-old hand), and a yeasty loaf of sourdough.

Today, nearly fifty years later, the wooden floor still creaks, and the boxes of dried pastas are still stacked to staggering heights, but now it’s my two-year-old granddaughter, Sadie, who joyously dips into the open bins to fill a bag with pasta. The rolls and breads are still kept in baskets for the choosing, and the salads, sausages, and frittatas are still handmade in the back kitchen, as is the fresh pasta.

If you are using dried pasta purchased at the grocery, you have a huge variety from which to choose. The bowtie shape, called farfalle; the bold, round noodle shape of bucatini; the ear-shaped orecchietti; the quill shape of penne or ziti; the thinnest spaghetti shapes called capellini, angel hair, or vermicelli; the flatter ones called taglierini, linguini, or fettuccini; the wide ribbons called pappardelle; and the rice shapes of orzo and riso. These are just a few of the choices available to us.

I am partial to freshly made pasta. I have an inexpensive, hand-cranked pasta maker manufactured by Atlas. Making sheets of fresh pasta is deeply satisfying for me, and easy enough that Sadie can help me. For the pasta dough, I use equal amounts of flour and fresh eggs (two eggs and two cups flour for four moderate or two large servings), gently combined and moistened with a small amount of water and olive oil until it begins to hold together. I knead the dough for ten to fifteen minutes, until it is smooth and pliable under my hands. Then I allow it to rest for about a half-hour. Next, I roll it out and cut the sheets of dough into shapes and cook these briefly. Remember that fresh pasta cooks in mere moments. (Dried pasta takes longer.) If making your own doesn’t interest you, many specialty shops now carry sheets of freshly made pasta that you can purchase.

I encourage you to try cooking with fresh pasta sheets. Whether you make them yourself at home or purchase them fresh, you will find this pasta deliciously delicate. And the first thing I suggest you make with it is lasagna. Hold onto your socks: you are in for a heavenly treat. I made my first fresh-pasta lasagna several years ago for a special Christmas Eve supper. I made two sauces. One, a long-simmering ragu, often called a bolognaise, was rich with meats, wine, herbs, and a bit of cream. The other was a béchamel, which is essentially a white sauce lightly flavored with nutmeg. I spooned these sauces, alternating the ragu and the béchamel with some fresh Parmesan cheese, onto layers of silky smooth, thin fresh pasta. It took about five layers of the pasta and sauce to fill a baking dish, ending with a generous dusting of Parmesan. This I baked at 375 degrees for about an hour, or until heated through. When I removed it from the oven, it was puffy and fragrant. Eating it revealed another surprise. Each tender, thin layer of pasta had softened, absorbing the flavors of the sauces and the Parmesan cheese and creating a sensation so exquisite that we were astounded. None of us had ever tasted lasagna like this.

Remember, don’t overcook pasta. Do not cook it ahead and reheat it in hot water. And do not rinse it after cooking. For perfect pasta, place the required amount of pasta in a generous amount of boiling, salted water. Let the water return to a rapid boil, and watch the pasta closely. When it becomes al dente—tender with just a teeny point of bite at the center—drain the pasta and serve it on warmed plates.

Now for the Sauce

Making a sauce for pasta can be extremely easy and can take you far beyond the spaghetti with red sauce that my daddy made. A good rule of thumb is to remember that thinner strands of pasta, such as capellini or vermicelli, are best served with lighter sauces—one with fresh herbs and a fragrant olive oil, a fresh tomato sauce, or a light cream sauce. Thicker and shaped pastas will provide the sturdier base and many nooks and crevices to which a more robust sauce can cling.

When the craving for pasta hits, I ask myself, What’s fresh this season? What looks best in the market? What taste am I yearning for? Spicy and hot? Creamy and soft? Savory and meaty? Light? My answer helps me select a sauce. Then I ask, Do I want to slurp the pasta up (spaghetti or bucatini)? To impale each piece on the tines of my fork, as with penne? Or do I want a soft forkful of orzo or orecchietti? This helps me decide which pasta shape to use.

If tomatoes are plentiful and tasty, make them the star. If sausage or mushrooms are especially appealing, they can be the central focus. I start these ingredients sautéing in a hot skillet, and then I add the aromatics: onions, garlic, or shallots. Fresh herbs and any vegetables come next. Finally, I add the wet ingredients, such as wine, stock, a mixture of the two, or cream, which will marry all the flavors and unite the sauce. Sometimes I add a dollop of butter or a drizzle of olive oil at the end. Once I’ve poured my sauce over the warm pasta, I top it all with a snowy shaving of the finest Parmesan or Asiago cheese I can afford.

Sleek, purple-black eggplants and glistening red and golden peppers pique my interest now, for they are super when roasted and tossed with cooked pasta. Soft-leafed sage makes me think of roasting a chicken with sage, lemon, and onions and spooning some of the pan juices over a plate of freshly made fettuccini (or orzo, for a completely different texture). Fall mushrooms, leathery kale, and Swiss chard all have a substantiality to them and are delectable as part of a pasta sauce.

Squash, such as the hourglass-shaped butternut or the gnarly Japanese kabocha (whose roasted flesh has the nutty taste and texture of chestnuts), are delicious when roasted. Squashes combined with the last of summer corn are sweet and savory when folded with finely minced rosemary and thyme into a pan of buttered orzo pasta. I make another sauce, one that is colorful and full of robust flavor, by combining fresh corn with pancetta (pancetta is unsmoked Italian bacon, peppered and spiced; diced bacon will do just as well). Sauté the pancetta with onions and garlic until everything is a dark golden brown. Strip the corn off the cob, add it to the garlic-and-onion mixture, and cook just until the corn is tender, less than five minutes. If it needs moistening, add a bit of stock or cream. Stir all this into your favorite cooked pasta to let the pasta absorb the flavors, and top with black pepper and grated Parmesan cheese. I love this with orecchietti or farfalle.

Sausage is one of my favorite ingredients to pair with pasta, because just a little of it carries a lot of flavor. One sausage sautéed with onions, garlic, herbs, and wine, and topped with cheese makes a fine pasta sauce for two people. And this meal comes together in mere minutes. If you have access to a good Italian grocery, buy their sausage. Sausages by a sausage maker named Bruce Aidelis are good and are available in most parts of the country in specialty shops and in major supermarkets. Some of my favorites are his lemon chicken, smoked turkey sausage with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, chicken with apple, curried lamb, and a smoked chicken-and-turkey sausage with Burmese spices.

Chicken is particularly good with pasta, and we eat one variation or another often at our house. I love to cook up a pot of chicken pieces with onion, garlic, stewed tomatoes, hot peppers, red wine, mushrooms, and herbs and then ladle it over cooked pasta. It’s especially good with wide ribbons of fresh pappardelle. Use garlic toast to sop up the extra juices. Chicken breast, seasoned, sliced on the diagonal, and sautéed in a hot skillet will leave behind wonderful juices. These juices deglaze beautifully with a little wine. With the addition of some shallots or onion, rosemary, and wine, you can create a nice sauce to toss with your favorite pasta.

If you’re not a meat eater or are eating less meat these days, remember that mushrooms create a hearty feeling of meatiness in a sauce. Dried porcini, or the less expensive, dark brown dried South American mushroom create a deep mushroom flavor, which is enhanced with the addition of a small amount of vegetable stock or cream. Of the fresh mushrooms, I use the common brown mushroom called cremini as well as the smooth white ones with which we’re all familiar. I love to grill thick slices of the fresh portabello mushroom, which looks like a giant, blown-up version of the common brown one. The meaty slices are scrumptious stirred into a pan of penne pasta.

Anther zesty sauce is made by sautéing three peeled and smashed whole cloves of garlic in delicious extra-virgin olive oil. Add a couple of tiny red chili peppers, minced, or a healthy teaspoon of red pepper flakes, and sauté all this on medium-low heat until the garlic browns lightly and flavors the oil. Leave the garlic in long enough to release its nutty flavor, but watch carefully so that it doesn’t burn. Before serving, remove and discard the garlic cloves, add the juice and zest of one large lemon, and stir in the cooked, drained pasta. Toss thoroughly until all the pasta is covered with the fragrant oil. Salt to taste, and serve this simple meal on warmed plates with a generous dose of grated Parmesan and ground pepper. Now that’s a dish to cozy up to, and it’s ready in minutes. Many variations can be made with this dish. Sometimes I toss in a handful of thin, fresh green beans or washed spinach or chopped kale, some halved cherry tomatoes, a few tablespoons of toasted pinenuts. . . . Get the idea?

The suggestions I made here are only guidelines. The fun of creating a pasta dish you’ll love is to be less bound by rules and more open to your own creativity. Follow your own palate and use the best of what is available. Although I always recommend fresh ingredients, including fresh spices and herbs, if you don’t have easy access to these, feel free to use dried seasonings. Just remember that you’ll use less of a dried herb than a fresh one to get the desired effect. Let your taste guide you. If I suggest chard and you hate it, substitute another hearty green vegetable. If you don’t tolerate cream in a recipe, use chicken or vegetable stock. If your market has fresh fava beans, use them instead of peas. You make a dish your own by making small adjustments based on your own taste.

In this richly sensuous season, allow yourself to stretch out and embrace the colorful shapes and deep flavors that are so reflective of fall. Shop with a new awareness of your own yearning for taste and texture. Tantalize yourself and others by combining the fall harvest with pasta. And consider making your own pasta! A pasta party is a great way to unite the generations or get to know your neighbors. As the sun sets, gather with those you love over a fragrant platter of your own creation and raise your wine glasses. Bravissimo! ©

LINDA BRANDT TANNER is one of a committee of passionate people currently working on The Edible Schoolyard, a pilot project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, which began in response to school lunchrooms closing down across the country. Their goal is to teach youngsters the transformative role that growing, cooking, and sharing food can play in the creation of a more humane and sensual society.

 

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