My neighbor offered to teach me how to make orecchiette the other night, an experience that I couldn’t have had in even the fanciest cooking school in the world. Her knowledge of ingredients, understanding when the dough is ready through touch and sound is only something that a home cook can convey, and one who has grano duro running through her veins.
As with any recipe, we started with the ingredients. She brought out a plastic bag filled with flour, il grano duro, durum wheat that she buys from a mill in Villa Castelli, a neighboring town. Her husband chimed in an said that you could buy it at the covered market down the hill from us, but she looked at me and said, “non è la stessa cosa”, it’s not the same thing. I had to ask what they thought of the flour sacks that you can find at the grocery store and they were abhorred. She then went on the explain that flour has a nerve in it, that is fresh flour has a nerve in it, that you work when making dough for bread or pasta, but an industrial flour from the grocery store doesn’t have that nerve.
I observed as she worked the dough and at a certain point she said “lo senti?” did you hear that?, it was an air bubble, she said that was when you knew that the dough was ready to go. Amazing, I’ve made my fair share of fresh pasta, I am no expert, but I got excited when she knew from a popped air bubble that the pasta was done. It had spoken to her, she hadn’t timed it, or counted her strokes, but could feel it.
We then moved the operation out of her tiny kitchen, placed the board on a chair and sat on the couch together to roll out the dough and make our orecchiette. I imagined that we would have just pressed them out with our thumbs, but she used a knife, cutting a short portion of the tube that she had rolled out, with the dull end and pressed, holding the small piece of dough with her finger and the grooves of the knife to create the creases in the orecchietta, she then flipped the little guys over on her thumb to give it that round nipple. Describing it makes it sound much more complex than it really is. Of course she has a great trick of the hand and years of experience. My first 40 looked more like strascinati (the orecchietta’s longer brother), but after a few tries and more observation, I started to get the hang of it.
While trying and failing with my orecchiette, they asked me what type of sauce I planned on making asking if I knew “their” broccoli rabe. I told them that it was one of my favorite pastas and one that I also made often. They were happily surprised by this bit of information, but didn’t trust that I knew what I was doing and asked how I made it. With garlic and anchovies, again pleased, they reminded me that I need to take the spine out of the anchovy. They, of course, never use jarred anchovies found on the shelf of the grocery store, but salt them themselves, cleaning the fish, but leaving its spine intact. What an amazing approach to food, so genuine, but lacking any trends. This is the way that their mother’s cooked and their grandmother’s. They don’t take shortcuts because it just doesn’t taste as good.
I will go back for more lessons in the future and plan to tag along to the mill in Villa Castelli to buy my own flour, sad to only know about it now. I have so much more to learn from these people.
Orecchiette con Cime di Rape
- 400 grams (circa 1 pound) orecchiette (recipe below)
- 1.5 kg (circa 3 pounds) broccoli rabe
- 4 salted anchovy filets, rinsed
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
- 1 chili pepper
- extra virgin olive oil
- salt to taste
Fill a large pot with water for the pasta. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Clean the broccoli rabe, removing the tender florets and a few leaves, wash them with care in cold water and drain.
Once the water starts to boil for the pasta add a small handful of salt to the water and bring to a rolling boil. Add the orecchiette and the broccoli rabe.
In the meantime heat a generous amount of olive oil in a wide saucepan over medium-high heat and add the garlic, chili and the anchovies and cook for a few minutes, letting the anchovies melt into the oil.
Drain the pasta and the broccoli when the pasta is al dente, usually about 4 or 5 minutes for fresh pasta, but best to taste to see if they are done. Toss the orecchiette and the broccoli rabe in the pan with the olive oil over medium to high heat for a minute or two to amalgamate all of the flavors.
- 1 cup of durum wheat flour for each person
- warm water, enough to bring the pasta together
Pour the flour into the center of a wooden board, creating a little well in the center. Gradually pour the warm water in and work the flour into the water creating a dough that isn’t too dry or too sticky. Work the pasta on the wooden board until air bubbles are created and you hear a pop.
At that point create a ball and cut it into 4 wedges. Roll the first wedge out into a long tube about a half inch in diameter. Cut a small piece of the tube and with a serrated knife with a rounded point, these are everywhere in Italy, press the small tube to flatten it out, holding the side that has been pressed down, pick the orecchietta up with the edge of the knife and then poke the other side with your thumb. Repeat until all of the dough has been made into orecchiette, dusting the finished orecchiette with durum wheat flour as you go.
They are the most delicious the day that you make them, but will keep for a few days under a kitchen cloth.
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