Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Handmade Fettuccine with the Bolek Family Tomato Sauce and Chef Bolek's Lamb Meatballs

For many years, my grandparents would make a pasta dinner entirely by hand.  They made the pasta from eggs, semolina and flour.  They made the sauce with fresh tomatoes, including tomatoes grown by my grandfather in his garden.  And, they would make the meatballs and sausage by hand.

My grandparent's "workshop," so to speak, was in their basement, where they had a big pasta table, a second stove and a second refrigerator, not to mention a walk in pantry.  When making pasta for a big dinner, such as our multiple-course dinner on Christmas Eve, the preparations and work began many hours in advance.

I do remember, as kids, my sister and I helped our grandparents make the pasta. Obviously not wanting us around a hot stove making sauce, or working with raw meat, our grandparents assigned us to help them with the hand-crank pasta machine.  We dutifully cranked out fettuccine pasta, setting the stage for what was always a great meal. 

 THE PASTA

As my grandparents grew older, they stopped making most of the meal by hand.  When they stopped making pasta they began to rely upon fresh or boxed pasta from the grocery store.  As for myself, I did not make pasta again by hand for more than twenty years.  It was not until after a culinary Renaissance (that is, my trip through Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany), that I started making pasta on my own.  I took a class at L'Academie de Cuisine, which provided me with some basic instruction on the old volcano technique; and, ever since then, I've basically taught myself to make pasta by hand.  

I am still a novice, usually making pasta with one egg and two or three cups of flour at a time. I also stick to basic pastas, such as fettuccine, linguine or ravioli.  These restrictions slow down the process, but I avoid a lot of headaches, such as the mess from eggs leaking out onto the counter. The following recipe is the simple recipe that I use to make basic fettuccine.

HANDMADE FETTUCCINE
Makes about a quarter pound of pasta.

Ingredients:
1 egg
2-3 cups of flour

Directions:
1.  Make a mound with the flour and a well in the middle of the mound.  Reinforce each side of the mound with the back side of a spoon.  Crack the egg into the middle of the mound.

2.  With a fork, carefully begin to beat the egg.  As you are beating the egg, add a little flour at a time into the egg.  Continue beating and adding flour until the dough begins to form.  This may take a little while.  Always be mindful of the sides of the well and make sure that there are no cracks where the egg can escape.

3.  Once the dough has formed enough to pick up (it may still be a little runny), scoop up the dough into one of your hands and cover it with flour.  Continue to work the dough into a ball in your hands by adding flour until there is no more "liquid."

4.  Return the dough to a floured surface and begin to kneed the dough with the palm of your hand and your fingers.  Continue to kneed the dough for about ten minutes or until the dough no longer seems "wet."  Wrap the dough in plastic wrap to sit for about ten minutes.

5. Follow the directions on your hand-crank machine, running the dough on the widest setting and working toward the narrow setting. Sprinkle flour onto the dough if you feel any "wet" spots.

6.  Let the dough sit for a couple of minutes.  Then use the attachment for whatever type of pasta you would like to make.

7.  As you cut the pasta using the attachment, make sure that the pasta noodles are separated from one another by either hanging the noodles on a pasta rack or arranging the noodles in a way that will prevent them from sticking together as they dry.  You should also sprinkle flour over the noodles, which will help to keep the noodles separate.

Although the pasta may be "basic" in technique, the end product is a pasta that is light and actually somewhat airy, especially if you are able to run the pasta through the thinnest setting on the pasta machine before cutting it into fettuccine.  You should let the pasta dry before using it in a meal.  Also, because an egg is used in making the pasta, you should refrigerate or freeze the pasta if you are not planning to use it the same day.

THE BOLEK FAMILY TOMATO SAUCE

The process of making pasta is only the beginning; it is like preparing the canvas in order to paint a work of art.   And, for chefs and cooks alike, the "paint" is the sauce.  In my family, the tradition is to make a smooth sauce, one laced with herbs and spices and whose velvety texture coats the noodles in a thin layer of goodness.  My grandparents always made a smooth sauce, and my Mom follows in that tradition.  Although I have experimented with a more chunky sauce (that is, a sauce with bits of tomato, onions, garlic and other vegetables, like carrots), I have to say that there is nothing like what I now call the Bolek Family Tomato Sauce.


The mention of the herbs and spices brings me to the difficult part.  This sauce recipe has been passed down from generations in my family and, the one thing that each generation has in common is that no one measured the herbs and spices that went into the sauce.  There was no attempt to reduce the basil, oregano, garlic powder, or crushed red pepper to cups, tablespoons or teaspoons.  Rather, whether it was my grandmother, my Mom or myself, we rely upon our senses, both of smell and taste, to determine what is the right amount.  You begin by adding a good amount of each spice (but not too much) and continue to add herbs and spices as the sauce cooks, to reach the taste that you want.  


THE BOLEK FAMILY TOMATO SAUCE
Serves Many

Ingredients:
2 cans of tomato puree
3 cans of tomato paste
Dried basil, to taste
Dried oregano, to taste
Garlic powder to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

Directions:
1. Pour the two cans of tomato puree into a big pot.  Fill each can with water to get the remaining tomato puree out of the can and pour it into the pot.  Add the tomato paste, one can at a time.  Whisk the puree into the sauce before adding the next can of tomato paste.

2.  Add the herbs and spices.  The only general rule is that I add 2 parts of basil for 1 part of oregano.

3.  Let the sauce cook for a couple of hours to reduce.

CHEF BOLEK'S LAMB MEATBALLS

And, last but not least, there are the meatballs.  Traditionally, meatballs are with a mixture of ground beef, pork and veal.  For that reason, supermarkets sell ground meat for "meatballs" that often includes all three types of meat.  There are also endless variations on the other ingredients used to make meatballs, such as using different types of breadcrumbs, cheeses and binding agents, such as milk and eggs.  Generally, I try to keep the meatballs simple ... using meat, Italian breadcrumbs, and an egg.

As for the meat, I prefer using ground lamb for two reasons.  The first reason is that meatballs are a  mainstay in Abruzzese cuisine (with Abruzzo being the region from where my relatives emigrated) and are featured in many dishes such as Maccheroni alla Chitarra and Minestra Maritata.  The second reason  is that lamb is much more predominant in Abruzzo than beef and veal.  When my relatives lived in Abruzzo, shepherds tended to sheep and lamb more than cows.  The relative scarcity of beef meant that it was reserved for special occasions.  I'm sure that the situation is different today, with modern distribution networks and refrigerated storage making beef much more available than in the past. 

So, whenever I make meatballs, I pay homage to the past in Abruzzo by using lamb, in a simple recipe that requires only bread crumbs, eggs, herbs and spices.  As with the Bolek Family Tomato Sauce, the amount of herbs and spices added to the ground lamb is not measured, but done using a "gut sense" as to what is just enough to make a good meatball.  (And, for me, that is to make sure that the meatballs have a good, spicy kick to them.)   

CHEF BOLEK'S LAMB MEATBALLS
A Chef Bolek Original
Serves many

2 pounds of ground lamb
1 cup of breadcrumbs
1 egg
Dried basil, to taste
Dried oregano, to taste
Garlic powder to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

Directions:
1.  Mix the ground lamb, breadcrumbs, egg, herbs and spices in a bowl.  Make sure to mix everything well so that the herbs and spices are spread throughout the meat and that every meat ball will have an adequate amount of flavor.

2.  Make medium-sized meatballs by taking an amount of the mixture that is smaller than a tennis ball but much bigger than a golf ball.  You are looking to make meatballs that are about two inches to two and one half inches in diameter.  Put another way, you should get about twelve meatballs per pound and, for this recipe, you should get about twenty-four meatballs. 

3.  Heat a pan on medium heat.  Add several meatballs to the pan at a time.  Brown the meatballs until the pinkness of the meat is no longer evident on the outside of the meatballs.  You should not cook the meatballs entirely on the pan.  Instead, once they are browned, remove them and place them on a paper towel to collect the excess oil and grease.

The reason why you should never cook the meatballs entirely on the pan is that you should always add the meatballs to your sauce.  By adding the meatballs to the sauce, you will give that sauce a lot of extra flavor. The herbs and spices in the meatballs, as well as the lamb meat itself, will reinforce the herbs and spices in the sauce.  (And, for that reason, if you are planning to have meatballs with your pasta and sauce, you may want to add a little less of the herbs and spices when you make the sauce). 


Making a meal by hand -- the pasta, sauce and meatballs -- is a lot of work.  But it is rewarding work, because the end product is an amazing meal.  This is a meal that has been shared and enjoyed by family and friends on Christmas Eve for decades.

And, for this year (2010), I was fortunate enough to make it for family and friends on Christmas Eve.  I also lucky enough to have the able assistance of my beautiful wife, Clare, her parents and my parents.  Their assistance in making the pasta, the sauce and the meatballs contributed to the great success of the dinner on Christmas Eve.  I am very grateful for all of their help in making this meal, as well as their company as we dined together for the holiday.

ENJOY!

3 comments:

Frank Savage said...

Keith:
It was a great Christmas Eve meal. I was happy to be one of your sous chefs but even happier to be one of the diners! I will be making handmade pasta tomorrow.

Keith Bolek said...

You will have to let me know how your pasta turns out! Thank you for all of your help with the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners.

Frank Savage said...

Keith:
The pasta turned out fine. I made fettuccine and served it with meatballs and tomato sauce. I dusted off the pasta machine and clamped to the edge of a long table in the family room. I think the pasta machine looks great and should be left as a permanent accessory in the room. Gerianne may have a different idea!

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