Monday, April 13, 2009

Do You Speak Pasta?

Not too long ago a good friend invited me to his home in order to teach him how to make fresh pasta. He’s a cook, and a good one at that, but somewhere along the line I’d convinced him that I knew what I was talking about when it comes to fresh pasta, which may or may not be true. Most importantly, though, it was to pass on one of the truly great culinary traditions--the kind of gift that costs nothing, but is worth everything to someone who puts it into practice.

I was given this gift by a wonderful woman; the daughter of Italian immigrants who told stories of her mother’s weekly pasta making: every Sunday, she would make tons of pasta, using every available space in their New York apartment to hang it to dry. Hanging across banisters, laid over beds--the apartment was filled with the wonderful golden sheets, and what wasn’t dried was used immediately to make ravioli, and it was ravioli that I was being taught as she told me these stories from her childhood.

Most amazingly, this pasta was hand-made from start to finish. By which I mean to say it was done without a pasta rolling machine--she did everything on a wonderfully ancient wooden block, rolling the dough out by hand using a rolling pin that had seen some hundreds of batches in its day. If you’ve ever tried to make pasta this way, you’ll understand the amazing strength, finesse and patience this method takes, rolling ... resting ... rolling ... and ... resting as the desired gluten that gives really good pasta such a toothsome quality takes its time relaxing and becoming more workable. It’s like it it's alive--push down a really well worked piece of dough and watch it bounce back into shape--and now imagine working that dough down to pasta’s fine thinness. Thus the patience, thus the finesse, and thus the strength...but don’t all great things require this? Like lifting a hugely heavy jet black cast iron pan to the stove, only to let it sit on a flame as the clock ticks by in order for it to heat up properly. Or growing tomatoes. Or raising a pig.

Learning from her hands passing this ancient knowledge to mine, we made ravioli after ravioli, each one bigger than the last, in that (perhaps) unconscious way of getting the job done by making the product disappear faster. She, of course, pointed out this flaw in my and my ravioli partner’s (who happened to be her daughter) technique as she completed her own near-perfect set. As a first timer, I was excused. Unfortunately, my partner was banished to the next room to watch the Red Sox game with her father, his skills reserved for the more work horse tasks, like stuffing the artichokes (another great story for another time).

So, this was one of the single greatest culinary gifts ever given to me, and I love to pass it on anytime I can. And good things have come of it. At a demonstration I gave at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, a woman in the crowd approached me afterward, sharing with me the very similar story of her mother’s pasta making while she was a child. It’s great to see someone reach way back into memory and catch that wisp of nostalgia, and food is one of the great instigators of this. My gift to the new daughter of one of my best friends (a friend, incidentally, who once defended, to our chef, my decision to hand roll ravioli for an evening's dinner service special) is the promise to pass pasta making on to her when she’s old enough. And it was in this spirit that I went to teach my friend in Chicago how to make fresh pasta when he asked. Well, that, and the fact that his partner always opens up bottles of great wine when I’m over there.

So to that end, I’ve got a few pictures of the process: flour on a board, well in the flour, eggs in the well, stir with fingers, knead, rest, roll and cut; much like bread, pasta isn’t so much something that can be passed on in a recipe. It’s got to be passed on hand-to-hand; it has to be touched, and it has to be felt. I’m sure many of you know the process; if anyone wants to learn it, let me know. After all, I’m on the dole, and I’ve got spare time.