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Posts Tagged ‘noodles’

Tom and I were lucky enough to publish two Italian cookbooks back when it was still possible to get book contracts if you weren’t a celebrity chef, a television personality, or a famous cooking teacher (none of which we ever were). Those were fun days, both of us with demanding day jobs, from which we came home in the evening and played intensely in the kitchen, recreating recipes discovered on our travels in Italy. Once the books were in print, however – La Tavola Italiana in 1988 and The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen in 1994 – we didn’t often go back to most of those recipes; we were more interested in exploring new, different ones.

Now, years later, we can open those books and have the pleasure of recalling recipes we had totally forgotten about creating. This week we happened upon one from TSOTIK (as we call it): Tagliatelle al prosciutto. It’s one of those genius-of-simplicity preparations that Italians are so good at. Here’s what we said about it in our published headnote:

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Now that Americans can at last get prosciutto di Parma, this straightforward preparation offers a good way to show off its succulence. You can use domestic prosciutto to make this dish: it won’t be as sublime as it is with the Parma ham, but it’s not shabby with any variety. . . . The dish takes no time at all to make, and the flavors are so simple and pure they really must have fresh egg pasta.

One potential problem: nobody gives you enough fat on your prosciutto these days. At current prices, that’s no wonder, but it’s a false economy; you want that fat for its sweetness, whether you’re eating the prosciutto as is or cooking with it. If your prosciutto is very lean, use a little more butter in this preparation to compensate.

And here is our recipe, which I made for dinner the other day. Essentially, you sauté a little chopped onion in generous amounts of prosciutto fat and butter, add little squares of prosciutto, and toss the contents of the pan with cooked fresh egg noodles, grated parmigiano, and freshly ground black pepper. What could hurt?! Especially since, this time, we had some lovely, richly eggy tagliatelle that Tom had brought back from one of his wine trips to Italy’s Piedmont.

For this meal, I wanted to try a slight change, using a thick cut of prosciutto to make cubes, instead of the flat squares you get from the very thin way the ham is normally sliced. What a big deal that was, for some reason! The first deli counter I went to, an authentically Italian place, categorically refused to reset the slicing machine for a thicker cut. The second place, appealed to, said the only person who knew how to reset the machine wasn’t in the store right now. (As far as I know, resetting involves nothing more complex than turning a dial on the front of the machine.) I approached a third place, therefore, with trepidation.

“Could you possibly . . . ?”

“Sure. How thick you want it?”

So I got my nice half-inch thick slice of prosciutto di Parma, which my knife-wielding husband obligingly reduced to perfect little cubes. As you can see, it’s very lean. It came from the small, back end of the ham, near the bone, where there isn’t much fat. But I keep chunks of prosciutto fat in the freezer when I can get it, so I had some to work with.

Here’s the finished dish:

It was luscious, rich and delicate at the same time, as we remembered it. The prosciutto fat gives the dish a spicy flavor unlike that of any other cooking fat. I’ll say, though, that the cubed prosciutto (after all that fuss to get it!) wasn’t an improvement over the thin squares my recipe calls for. It was a bit too chewy and forceful on the tender noodles. So if you try this dish, don’t bother trying to cajole a person at a deli counter to cut you a thick slice of prosciutto – the ordinary cut does very well indeed.

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It’s sad when an old friend lets you down. This week, still in my older-books mode, I went looking for recipes in Jack Scott’s The Complete Book of Pasta. I bought it when it came out in 1968, five years before Marcella Hazan appeared on the culinary scene and started a great change in Italian cooking in American homes. Scott’s was a wonderful book to us then. (Tom simply drooled over its centerfold, shown below.) It gave us some recipes that have been favorites ever since. But many other Italian cookbooks have joined my collection since then, so I hadn’t gone back to it for anything new in years. Alas, it was not a good idea.

First I tried linguine allegre – translated as lively linguine with anchovies. It’s actually a mongrel sort of sauce. You sauté anchovies, celery, red bell pepper, capers, olives, basil, parsley, and garlic in butter and olive oil. Stir this mixture into a simple tomato sauce and simmer it all for 40 minutes. Now, all those flavors are good, but having so many of them cook together for so long blurred their distinctions and didn’t produce any synergy. As opposed to the Spanish recipes I wrote about two weeks ago, in this case the whole seemed like less than the sum of its parts.

An oddity was a direction to cook the linguine with less than the usual amount of salt in the water because of the saltiness of the anchovies. I think you’d need a fantastically sensitive palate for that to make a difference.

Well, I said to myself, even Homer nods. Let’s try another one.

Tagliolini freschi con carote, or fresh noodles with carrots, caught my eye because carrots aren’t often a featured companion to pasta. In fact, that name ignores two other principal ingredients: sliced mushrooms and julienne strips of prosciutto, quickly sautéed in butter and oil with the diced, precooked carrots. It sounded as if it’d be very nice on homemade egg noodles.

It was nice enough, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. The recipe called for 6 mushrooms, 4 carrots, and 8 slices of prosciutto. The only liquid was ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water, added to the sauté pan at the end. This was supposed to be enough to dress 1½ pounds of fresh egg noodles. Fortunately, I doubted that, so I cooked only half as much pasta. Even so, there were still a lot of nearly naked noodles on the plates, with hardly any flavor of the other ingredients.

The recipe also called for grated parmigiano to be passed at the table, but trying a little on one forkful seemed only to emphasize the dryness of the dish. It did need salt and pepper, which weren’t mentioned in the recipe at all. Overall, another disappointment.

I almost feel guilty to think that this book, which gave me so much pleasure in the past, now seems to be so unrewarding. But a lot has happened since 1968. Many trips to Italy have exposed me to wonderful regional pasta preparations. I’ve published 60 of my own pasta recipes in my two cookbooks and enjoyed many more from books by other people that have appeared over the years. There’s far more access to excellent Italian ingredients and more knowledge of how to bring out the best in them. So dishes that were once new and exciting now have a lot of powerful palatal competition. I guess, as the philosopher Zeno didn’t quite say, you can never dip a ladle into the same tomato sauce twice.

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