North Fork Chef: Your own pasta is well worth the effort

“It was always linguine between us … it was never spaghetti between us, not cappellini, nor farfalle, vermicelli, pappardelle, fettuccine, perciatelli, or even tagliarini. Linguine was stabbed, pitched, and twirled on forks, spun round and round on silver spoons. Long, smooth, and always al dente. In dark trattorias, we broke crusty panera, toasted each other — La Dolce Vita! — and sipped amarone, wrapped ourselves in linguini, briskly boiled, lightly oiled, salted, and lavished with sauce … ”
— excerpt from “Linguine”
by Diane Lockward

On a recent visit to New York City, I had dinner at Alfredo of Rome restaurant on 49th Street near Fifth Avenue. The signature dish of fettuccine alfredo was a replica of the original invented by Alfredo Di Lelio in Rome in 1914. The owner of the New York Alfredo’s, Guido Bellanca, has carried on the tradition of this great dish in New York. I enjoyed the simplicity of the recipe and the quality of the ingredients in this original version. It contained only house-made fettuccine, butter and cheese — no cream or other sauce. It inspired me to go home and make my own version of this famous dish. In doing so I found great satisfaction in recreating such a delicious recipe that required almost no equipment and really not all that much time. Gently stirring the eggs into the flour on the wooden cutting board was an exercise in patience. Then, as it formed into a resilient dough, the physical exercise of kneading for 10 full minutes made me feel as if I had just finished an exercise class.

As the dough rested and I cleaned up the mess, I thought about how the ingredients and method for making pasta haven’t changed in a thousand years. We are surrounded by every high-tech piece of kitchen equipment imaginable and here I was mixing the dough with a dinner fork and kneading it by hand.

Here are some recipes for you to try, and even though there are many ready-made pasta choices at the supermarket, the pasta you make from scratch will taste unlike anything you have ever had, besides making you feel better about life.

Fresh Pasta
Place 3 cups all-purpose flour in the center of a large wooden cutting board. Add a pinch of sea salt and create a large well in the middle of the flour. Crack 4 large eggs into a bowl and pour them into the well, making sure the well is large enough to prevent the eggs from leaking out. Using a dinner fork, break the egg yolks and begin gently stirring the eggs, gradually incorporating the flour around the edges. Keep pushing the flour up to prevent leakage as you continue to stir. After about 5 minutes you will have incorporated all of the flour and formed a coarse dough. Set this ball of dough aside and scrape the board clean.

Wash your hands and sprinkle a little flour on the clean board. Set a kitchen timer to 10 minutes and begin kneading the dough with the palm of your hand. If the dough sticks to your hand, sprinkle a little more flour on it and continue kneading. It is important to knead for the whole 10 minutes in order to develop the gluten and make a smooth, elastic dough. When finished, wrap the dough in plastic film and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. (If leaving it for a longer time, it is best to refrigerate it.)

If you want whole-grain pasta, substitute whole wheat flour for half of the all-purpose flour and add a teaspoon of olive oil to the dough.

Fettuccine Alfredo
Take the ball of dough from above and slice it into four pieces. Dust each piece with flour and flatten it out on the wooden cutting board with a rolling pin. Continue to roll out the pasta into a thin sheet using a back-and-forth motion, making sure to dust the board to prevent sticking. Set each thin piece aside for a few minutes to dry before folding it into a loose roll and cutting into quarter-inch-wide strips. Wrap the strips into a ball around your wrist and place on a sheet pan lined with a towel. Do not cover or refrigerate and it will dry before cooking. Or if desired, cook it right away.

Place the pasta in 4 quarts of lightly salted boiling water and cook at high heat until al dente, about 5 minutes or less for fresh pasta. Save 3/4 cup of pasta water before draining the fettuccine. Cut 2 sticks unsalted butter into small pieces and set aside. Grate 2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and set aside. Place a large sauté pan on high heat and add the pasta water along with the cold butter. When the water comes to a boil and the butter melts, shut off the heat and add the drained pasta. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the pasta along with 1 teaspoon sea salt. Toss together and serve.

Serves up to 4.

Note: If you have a hand-crank pasta machine, use it to roll out the pasta after cutting the dough into 4 pieces, and use the fettuccine cutter to make the fettuccine. Just remember to dry the pasta sheets for a few minutes before cutting.

Spinach and Mushroom Ravioli
Make the ball of pasta dough as in the above recipe. To make the filling, heat a large sauté pan and add a rinsed bag of baby spinach. Cover and cook until just wilted, about 2 minutes. Drain the spinach, cool, squeeze out all the water that you can, and chop. Place the same pan back on the heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Slice an 8-ounce package of cremini mushrooms and add to the hot oil. Season the mushrooms with 1 teaspoon chopped rosemary and 1 teaspoon each coarse salt and pepper. When the mushroom liquid has evaporated, add the spinach to the pan and cook briefly.

Place the mixture in a food processor and pulse until you get a coarse texture. Place in a bowl and stir in 1/4 cup mascarpone cheese and 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Taste for seasoning and refrigerate.
Make a tomato sauce by heating 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan and adding 1 cup chopped onion. Cook for 2 minutes and add 1/2 cup chopped celery, 1/2 cup chopped carrot and 2 tablespoons minced garlic. When soft, add 1 large can crushed tomatoes, 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Simmer 30 minutes and stir in 1 cup coarsely chopped basil.

Cut the ball of pasta dough into 4 pieces as above. Roll each piece into long strips about 3 inches wide (use the pasta machine if possible). Lay the strips on a cutting board and place tablespoon-size dollops of filling along the dough spaced 1 inch apart. Whisk an egg and a little water together and brush this egg wash on the pasta around and between the dollops of filling. Place another sheet on top and, using a fork, press the dough together, making sure the parts between the filling are firmly stuck together. Cut the ravioli into squares and place on a plastic film-lined sheet pan. If not cooking right away, put these ravioli into the freezer; they will be easy to separate and cook.

At service time, heat 4 quarts water to a boil and add the ravioli, being careful not to crowd them. When they rise to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon. Check for tenderness and set aside in a warm place. Serve with the hot tomato sauce and grated cheese.

Serves 4.

Linguine with Clam Sauce
Using a pasta machine, cut linguine from the pasta dough above and roll it into loose balls to dry.
Heat a shallow saucepan and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add to this 1 cup chopped scallion and 2 tablespoons minced garlic. When those are soft, add 1/2 cup white wine and bring to a boil. Add 2 dozen scrubbed littleneck clams and cover. As the clams open, remove them with tongs and set aside. Add to the broth 2 cups diced fresh plum tomatoes and 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Dissolve 2 tablespoons cornstarch in 1/4 cup cold water and stir into boiling sauce. When lightly thickened, stir in 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil and check for seasoning.
Cook the linguine, drain and stir the sauce into the pasta. Serve in shallow bowls and garnish with the littleneck clams.
Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected]