Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dark Days Dinner #5: Hand Made Pasta

After a bit of a break due to a combination of holiday exhaustion and a doosey of a holiday sickness that the whole family managed to get, we're back on the Dark Days Wagon. This week I decided to brave home made pasta.

Truth be told, I actually did make the pasta one other time about a week ago, but didn't serve it with local toppings and other foods, so it didn't count as a Dark Days meal. It did serve as good practice and this time around I had a better handle on what to expect and what I was going to get.

I'd been reading about other people's attempts at making pasta (like this and this), so it's been on my mind to try making it myself. We didn't have a pasta machine though, and I was hesitant (desipite my friend Brittney's encouragement that I really can be done just fine without one!). Funny how these things work out sometimes though:  I mentioned wishing I had a pasta machine to my parents, and out of their barn-of-plenty came this dusty box, with writing all in Italian, but that was no doubt a pasta machine. I should not have been surprised.

My father's barn is something of a wonder. Over the years, I've learned it's best to approach it part in awe (you very likely will get what you wished for from its bottomless piles of stuff) and part in fear (said bottomless piles are not always the most stable stacks of goodies), and you'll probably be OK.

In this case my barn-respect paid off and I proceeded to rather unceremoniously inherit what apparently was my paternal grandmother's (i.e. my Busha's) pasta machine.  According to the receipt I found still in the box, was purchased on October 21, 1976 for $21.01. 

It still had a few now-petrified, very dusty pieces of dough hanging from it, and there were two small spots of rust on the rollers, but it cleaned up fine and works like a charm! What a deal for me!

But, back to the pasta.

I followed the recipe for "Fresh Egg Pasta" from Lidia Bastianich's "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen". Very simple, you just use flour, egg, salt, a little oil, and a lot of elbow grease to knead it. Or at least I had to, since we don't own a counter-top mixer!

I like kneading though; it's somehow very satisfying. And in this particular case, after ten or fifteen minutes, you end up with this satisfyingly tidy little ball of dough.

After letting it rest an hour, I passed it through the machine two times at each thickness setting (folding it in threes in between each pass to keep the edges straight - thanks for the tip, Aunt JoAnne!), and then once through the cutting blades and voila! Polish Fettucini!

I served the pasta with a sauce based on Brittney's meal, using the ricotta I made a week or so ago and home-made butter from a fresh batch (we're addicted). I didn't have the fresh greens that she recommended, but it still was very tasty. On the side I served some canned venison, with a simple onion and garlic sauce.

What did I learn / How local was I?
  • I did have a few non-local foods beyond my normal exceptions again this week: 
    • I used corn starch to thicken the gravy for the meat.
    • I put fresh basil and parsley in my sauce that may or may not have been local (Rochester? Maybe? I now notice how few foods we eat actually say where they're from!), but I already had them both in the house and couldn't justify going out to buy local when these were already on hand.
  • Other than that, I think everything we ate was within the 50 mile radius again (at least for those items not on the "exception" list that I made early in the challenge).
    • Garlic, onion, venison, and eggs were home "grown" by either myself or my parents.
    • Milk for the butter and cheese was from a dairy in Moravia, about 15 miles away.
  • The pasta sauce was tasty, but a little dry. Maybe my home-made ricotta was drier than commercially produced cheese? Maybe because I used more than the recipe called for it dried it out? Maybe because I didn't use as many greens they didn't contribute the needed liquid? In any case it would have had a better consistency if I'd added maybe a little milk or cream at the end. I tried using a little pasta water to loosen it up, but it didn't work. Luckily, the sauce from the meat worked fine in the end to soften the noodles!
  • The pasta itself was amazing - a totally different consistency (chewey, but somehow tender and not mushy) than dried pasta! I think I'll get better and more efficient with the making of it in time, and actually think that making at least a full batch (I halved Lidia's recipe for just the two of us) and freezing some for future meals will make a lot of sense the next time around.

And that's that for another week. I have a feeling you'll be seeing more home made pasta again from us for these challenges (I wonder if we could swing local lasagna some week?!?)!

PS  I also have to add here some general thoughts about blogging that have been on my mind...

After these first weeks of attempting to photograph food with my Cannon PowerShot Elph camera, I have a new-found respect for food-bloggers.

First, to attempt to cook meals only during daylight hours so you can use natural light for your photos takes incredible (to me impossible) planning.

Second, the eye that some people have to be able to make a plate of food look like art is just amazing.

Third, I miss my SLR (it was a film camera, bought just before the major onset of digital - what a sad waste of my money!).

I look now at food photos in a whole new way to pick up tips to try to get mine to look less yellow (it's a light thing, I know) and more appetizing. Generally, I've found that things that I make look much better in real life than they appear in my pictures, and I apologize for putting you through my learning curve of food photography! Hopefully things will slowly start improving soon.


  1. Hi Wendy!

    It sounds like, as a blogger, you are in a similar place to us. There's definitely a lot of similarity in terms of what you are cooking and how you are writing about it ("what you've learned").

    We only started up late in the fall, right before we decided to join the Dark Days Challenge. It's nice to know we're not alone!

    As for the pictures, the unfortunate truth is that the biggest problem is your camera. An Elph can't capture much light no matter what you do.

    Except for posts on weekend breakfasts, all of our cooking photography is done at night, without a flash, thanks to our amateur-level DSLR. What a shame that you got a film SLR just as DSLRs were taking off!

    When necessary (maybe 1 out of 10 pictures) I use Photoshop Express to increase brightness and/or contrast, and that usually does the trick. Very infrequently I will play with some of the hues and colors if I feel they look unnatural. Like I said, though, more than 9 our of 10 go up as-is. You can also use simple, free programs such as Picasa to do most of it. It sounds like a lot of work, but now that I have learned how, it adds maybe 2 minutes to a post.

    Also, we make sure to turn on all of the available lights before we take any pictures. Our overhead light in our kitchen is an icky fluorescent, so I need to kick on other lights (also fluorescents, but CFLs that give off a much better light).

    This past week I also started using a tiny, 1-foot high tripod that I've had for years. The hardest part of flashless indoor night photography is the risk of blur, and this gets rid of that, and keeps the camera out of my way. I can just leave it framed on the cutting board or whatever and get on with cooking, instead of continuously having to pick it up and put it down.

    Finally, for the "background blur" / low depth-of-field effect that so many bloggers use, that's all about the lens. The bigger the aperture, the more you will get of that effect, if that's what you are looking for, but it takes an SLR with a lens beyond the kit lens.

    As for the artsy plating... that's all Lindsay.

    That's all the tips I can think of.

    Nice blog!

    Erik from EatLocal365

  2. Your father's barn sounds like the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter series!


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