It’s been quite some time since our last Movie Chowdown, and I thought something special might be in order for all of you loyal readers out there. As many of you know, summer is winding down, and I thought there would be nothing more pleasant than a meal you can enjoy in the special company of close family, friends, and those about to join either group. This week’s Movie Chowdown takes us to the Old Country, the land of my father’s father, for some good, hearty pasta and red sauce. In this installment, I will be teaching you how to make pasta from scratch (trust me, its fun), and a good red sauce to top, the way Clemenza taught Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Join me after the jump to indulge in some of the finest food and filmmaking around, courtesy of the people of Italy.
“Come over here kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys some day.” Just like that Clemenza, Corleone loyalist and part time chef, summons Michael Corleone to the stove top, where he imparts upon Michael the wisdom of a thousand Italian afternoons.
“You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic, then you trow in some tumadaahs, some tumadaah paste, you fry it, you make sure it doesn’t stick, get it to a boil, you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs, eh? Add a little bit of wine, and a little bit of sugar, and that’s my trick.”
There has been a long standing debate in my family (on the Italian side, of course) about the best way to prepare red sauce for pasta. Many insist that you don’t add sugar, but other Italian families say you should (my grandmother didn’t, for the record). One alternative is to add red wine, it boosts flavor and the sugars in the wine help fight the heavy acidity of the tomatoes (or tumadaahs, if you prefer). A good, but seldom-followed rule of thumb, is “Don’t cook with any wine you wouldn’t drink.” Why would you cook with cheap, garbage wine? And more trublesome still is why you would have such wine in your house. Shape up, Sailor.
Clemenza says to use both sugar and wine, which would probably lead to a sweeter sauce. This is fine if you pair it with salty meats such as sausage or meatballs. If you omit the meats, however, I suggest adding either red wine or sugar, but not both. In The Godfather, Clemenza uses whole canned tomatoes, which was probably common for the time (they probably didn’t have fresh tomatoes in the fall). This is fine in a pinch, but if you have the luxury of fresh tomatoes, particularly in summer, use them, and keep the larger chunks intact (as opposed to diced).
Now on to the pasta. Pasta needs some time to dry out once it’s cut, so don’t plan to start the afternoon of the dinner. The pasta can rest all day before you cook it, and can even sit overnight if you are making quite a bit. If you are having people over on Sunday night, Saturday afternoon might be the perfect time to get started. Once the pasta is done, you can get all your ingredients for Sunday night so there won’t be any surprises the day of.
For the pasta you will need:
Flour (Which is best for homemade pasta? It’s up to you, I use all-purpose flour, which seems to do the trick)
A pasta maker (see photo below)
A long table, bench, or counter space where you lay the pasta to dry
For the sauce, you will need:
Canned tomatoes (fresh if available)
*Sausage or Meatballs
*Peppers, onions, etc.
Red wine (to drink, and a splash to cook with)
PART 1: The Pasta
The first step in making pasta is to mix the dough. The general rule of thumb in our family is one cup of flour to one egg to one small pat of butter. If you make the dough and it seems too dry, you can add another egg to moisten it up, but the ball of flour should stick together well, without any clumps of raw flour anywhere. If the mix is too moist, you can add flour (in small increments) until the dough is properly formed.
The second step is to break off or slice small pieces of the dough ball, about the size of a hockey puck. These pieces will be fed through the pasta maker, where you turn the rollers at a steady rate until the slice is compressed into a long, thin sheet. Periodically sprinkle a bit of flour onto the sheets, to keep them from stretching too much or getting too moist. Each time you feed the pasta through the machine, the rollers should be adjusted closer and closer together, resulting in thinner and longer sheets each time the dough is compressed.
When the pasta reaches the desired thickness, use the cutting roller in the pasta maker to make long stands of linguini or angel hair pasta. And if you want to take things to the next level, you can cut the sheets into squares, fill them with your favorite stuffing (think ricotta and spinach, mushroom and basil, etc) and turn them into a whole variety of pastas. If you layer a second sheet over the mixtures, you can press the edges down and turn them into ravioli, and if you give the edges an egg wash, you can fold them up into purses. Pasta is a wonderful, versatile dish, think of it like bread in a sandwich. Good bread can make an average sandwich great, but at the end of the day, its what you put on it that counts. After you roll out the strands, make sure to put a light layer of flour down underneath the pasta where it dries. This will prevent sticking and help keep the pasta full of good starches (more on that later).
Part 2: The Sauce
Before you start boiling your water for the pasta, you want to put together your red sauce. Brown the sausages or meatballs in some oil (canola, vegetable, or olive oil will do) and cook until almost done (they will finish in the sauce as it reduces). While this is happening, heat up some good olive oil in a frying pan or skillet, and when the oil is shimmering, drop in some minced or diced garlic (you can also add in vegetables like peppers, onions, etc for extra flavor. Fry for a few minutes, until the garlic has cooked but hasn’t turned brown. To this mixture add your canned tomatoes and a little bit of tomato paste (a little goes a long way) and cook on medium-low until the edges start to bubble. Throw in a splash or two of wine, toss in the meats, and cook, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. If the sauce starts getting too thick, or the sauce sticks to the pan, remove it from heat and keep stirring until the sauce cools down slightly. When the pasta is finished cooking, and the sauce is of a proper consistency (not too watery, or it won’t stick to the pasta), pour the sauce into a serving bowl, topped with a chiffonade of basil.
Part 3: Putting it all together
I was tempted to reduce everything to two parts and exclude the third (doing what most of the film community does to The Godfather trilogy anyway). Quit while you’re ahead, I say. Anyway, putting together the meal doesn’t just mean getting the pasta cooked and throwing some sauce on. If you want to do it right, you should open a bottle of red, set the table, and pick up a good loaf of bread from a bakery. After all, you went through all the trouble of starting pasta yesterday, don’t you want to really enjoy your creations?
When you are ready to cook the pasta (on the night of, having started the sauce), bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil, and drop in your homemade pasta. I hate the phrase “cook until done” because it’s not helpful, but that really does apply here. The term al dente, often used when measuring how done pasta is, means “to the tooth.” Taste the pasta after a few minutes and pull it off the heat just before it is ready. Pour a tiny bit (about a quarter cup) of the pasta water into your sauce. The starch that the water has gathered will make it cloudy, and that extra flavor will zip up the sauce much better than regular water will. Pour about a cup of the pasta water into the bowl you will be serving the pasta in. This will heat up the bowl and keep it warm until you are ready to serve the pasta, at which time you will pour out the water and put in the pasta. The rest of the pasta can be drained in a colander, and placed in the warm bowl to be presented to your guests, perhaps drizzled with some quality olive oil. You can pour the sauce over the pasta and mix it all together, but some people like to keep them separate, leaving it up to the guests to dole out ladle-fulls of your gorgeous red sauce. Grate some good Parmigiano-Reggiano (known as The King of Cheese), pour a glass of good red wine, and cut up some good, crusty bread to soak up all that extra sauce (no real Italian will call you out for “mopping”).
When the food, and the wine, are finished, enjoy the night air with your guests and relax in the afterglow of a delicious, home-cooked meal. If they ask you about your recipe, slam your fist on the table and declare “Never ask me about my family recipe”. Close the door, fade to black.