April 17, 2012

Handmade Orecchiette

All long distance runners share one thing in common- they eat pasta the night before a race.  It's practically a requirement to even register for the race (sometimes I eat pizza, don't tell anyone...).  We adjusted this ritual a bit after I learned how to make my own pasta, experimenting with different types of flour and shapes.  Each pre-race evening was spent in the kitchen making pasta- and then eating it, of course!  This time I decided to try my hand at a bit more of a free-form pasta: orecchiette.  Italian for "small ear," these little scoops of pasta are known for clinging to bits of sauce.

I loosely followed a few recipes online, but ended up mostly winging it with the ratios.  Here's what worked for me (makes 3-4 servings).

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup spelt flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Mix everything together in a bowl, then turn the dough out onto a clean, flat surface and knead it until it comes together to form a smooth, slightly stretchy dough blob (I kneaded for about 8 minutes).

I wrapped up the dough in plastic wrap and let it "rest" on the counter for 20 minutes.  Then I split it into three pieces and rolled each piece out on a floured Silpat into a long, thin rope.  The diameter of the ropes will help determine the size of the end product- mine were about an inch thick.  I snipped off the tapered ends to make uniform rolls.

The next size-determining step is cutting these dough logs into individual pieces.  A few recipes suggested 1/2 inch thickness so I went with that.  The great thing about this pasta shape is you don't have to do any extensive rolling to flatten out the dough- it saves a ton of time.

The pieces got a little squished under the pressure of the knife, but it didn't end up mattering.  To form the final shape, press a piece of dough into one palm with the opposite thumb, twisting slightly to form a little well.  The picture below shows the pressed product next to a pre-pressed piece.  You can see it spreads and grows in size quite a bit- next time I would slice the dough a bit thinner, closer to 1/4 inch in order to make smaller "ears."

Place each pressed piece onto a clean cloth.  Mine sat on the counter for about half an hour before I cooked them- drying out a bit is not an issue.

My life cooking partner was in charge of the sauce.  We used a few recipes for inspiration, but again combined them all into one delicious dish.  There are four parts to this sauce: a ricotta base, pan-roasted chicken sausage, oven-roasted brussels sprouts, and lightly toasted tomatoes... but ultimately, your grocery list will be pretty short.

6 oz. grape tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped, separated in two
3 tsp. olive oil, divided
2/3 c. ricotta cheese (the whole fat kind!)
5 large fresh basil leaves
2 chicken sausages
12 oz. brussels sprouts, quartered
salt + pepper

First up, the brussels sprouts.  Roast them.  Toss the quarters with a splash of olive oil, salt, and pepper and throw them in a 425 degree oven for thirty minutes- easy.

Next, focus on the ricotta base.  A finely chopped clove of garlic was simmered in a touch of olive oil until lightly browned, and then added to the ricotta in a small bowl.  The fresh basil should also be added to the mix, and can either be finely chopped or chiffonade...d (is this a word?).  A simple technique for a chiffonade:

1. Stack leaves (largest to smallest helps)
2. Roll leaves into a tight bundle
3. Cut vertically through the bundle at 1/8" intervals
4. Admire your perfectly evenly sized strips of basil
5. Sprinkle over dish of choice.. or mix them into your bowl of ricotta

In a separate bowl, combine halved, deseeded (just lightly squeeze after slicing) tomatoes and the other clove of garlic.  Let sit for 15-20 minutes to allow the flavors to settle a bit.  Depending on the state of your chicken sausage, cook, crumble, and/or slice.  We used a precooked version that needed to be heated, so pan roasted them until slightly crispy.  In the last couple minutes, toss in the tomatoes- just enough heat to take an edge off the garlic and start to melt the tomatoes, but not enough to make them mushy.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and add a few pinches of salt (don't be stingy).  Add the pasta in batches so that they don't crowd each other- I split this quantity into three batches.  The pasta will begin to float after about a minute, but keep them boiling for 7-9 minutes (also dependent on thickness & size, so check a piece after 5 minutes).

The cooking process puffs up the dough further, so my resultant scoops of carbs were a little bigger than I wanted (ALWAYS my problem when I make pasta- it can never be thin/small enough!).  However, they maintained their scoop shape quite well.

In a big bowl, combine everything.  Your ricotta mix, the tomatoes and sausage, as well as your roasted brussels sprouts and of course, the pasta.  A splash of pasta water will help to mix things together, but you don't have to be overly cautious- these little ears of pasta are super sturdy and stand up to a good tossing.

Sprinkle with a bit of Parmesan for an extra salty kick (I don't carb load, I salt load), and eat up.  The ricotta gives such a creaminess that it seems super indulgent, but works out to a reasonable amount of fat and calories (ie the good stuff) per serving.  Lots of veggies bulk it up, and the pasta shines- you can absolutely tell the difference between fresh and dried.  Plus, getting your hands dirty- literally- makes this dish extra special.

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