The Pasta Experiment

24 May

Part 1 – The Desired

I think I posted a couple of days ago about really wanting to make homemade pasta.  I also hadn’t made spaghetti sauce for a while, and I decided that yesterday was the day I was going to make a lasagna.

We went shopping for the ingredients (and the week).  This time, we got some meat and cheese and some other expensive items, so our grocery bill was around $90.  But we’ve got enough meat to last the week, and water and milk, and some other bits and pieces that will show up as leftovers, and I was in a make-it-fancy-from-scratch mood.  It’s not every weekend I decide to make a lasagna after all!

Of course, I underestimated the time it would take to make the thing – and played a board game when I really should have been mixing and rolling out.  But it’s no matter.  Even though we didn’t eat until 9 pm, we had an incredibly amazing dinner – and have leftovers for three days of meals – and we have enough of an extra bonus (more on that later) that we’ll have two more dinners out of this endeavor.

But first, the sauce.

Fresh veggies and herbs go into a fresh spaghetti sauce.

Fresh veggies and herbs go into a fresh spaghetti sauce.

It’s the first thing you’ll want to do if you’re making lasagna.  I know that there are plenty of sauces on the market that people like – but I grew up in an Italian momma’s household and making sauce from scratch (or almost from scratch) is in my blood.  That said, if you want to skip this step and use a bottled sauce, do yourself a favor and sautee up some onions and garlic and add them, and shred a bunch of basil in too.  Then at least you’ll taste some yummy freshness.

My sauce (which takes time, but is worth it) is a variation on my grandma’s/mom’s sauce.  Whereas they have always used a mixture of ground beef, veal, and pork, I discovered a few years ago that ground turkey works just as well – and that if I added mushrooms with the turkey, I couldn’t really tell the difference.  I remove some of the saturated fats and add some more vegetation.  YAY!

Elisa’s Spaghetti Sauce (makes enough sauce for two lasagnas, or for a lasagna and a spaghetti dinner in the future…  it freezes exceptionally well)

  • olive oil (I don’t really measure, but I’d eyeball about 3 tbsp; you need to make certain that there is enough so that the onion, celery, and carrot can cook without sticking)
  • 1 large onion (I only had medium ones, so I used 1 1/2), chopped
  • 2 large ribs of celery, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped (the celery and carrots should be about equal in amounts once they’re chopped; there should be half again as many onions)
  • 1 head garlic, smashed (you can use already-cut or already-peeled garlic; you should end up with about 2-3 tbsp smashed garlic)
  • 8-12 brown mushrooms, chopped coarsely (about 1 cup)
  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • generous handful of fresh parsley, chopped (maybe 1/2 cup)
  • approx. 1 1/2 tbsp fresh cracked pepper
  • 1/2 cup red wine (optional, but it definitely helps round out the flavor!)
  • 1 can tomato paste (I said “almost from scratch” – this and the next two ingredients eliminate the need for a zillion fresh paste tomatoes and three days of cooking – and yes, my grandma used the canned paste-sauce method)
  • 4 cans tomato sauce
  • 2 cans tomatoes, drained (I had one stewed tomatoes and one diced tomatoes, but you can use literally whatever you have around, as long as they aren’t spiced with jalapenos or anything)
  • 2 medium tomatoes, cut up
  • 1 bunch fresh basil (or approx. 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil)
Mirepoix - onions, carrots, and celery

Mirepoix - onions, carrots, and celery

  •  Add your onions, celery, and carrots to a large saucepan with olive oil and “sweat” them  until softened (that is, turn on low to medium-low heat until the veggies become translucent – if you hear the “sautee”, you’ve got the heat on too high).
  • Add garlic and mushrooms and cook another 2-3 minutes or until garlic is softened.
  • Add ground turkey and cook, stirring, until cooked almost completely through.
  • Add wine, if you’re using wine, black pepper, and parsley, and cook another 2-3 minutes.
  • Begin your tomato layering – add paste and stir until combined.
  • Add sauce and stir until combined.  You may need to add a 5th can of sauce.
  • Add canned and fresh tomatoes and stir until combined.
  • Simmer on low to medium-low heat (there should just barely be bubbles every once in a while cracking the surface of the pot) for 35-40 minutes (or longer – my mom cooks hers for hours and it only gets better the longer it cooks).
  • Add cut-up basil, stir to combine, and serve (or build your lasagna).
Homemade sauce - full of beautiful chunky vegetables and meat

Homemade sauce - full of beautiful chunky vegetables and meat

When the sauce was almost done, I mixed up the ricotta filling.  We had some beautiful fresh spinach and Hubby pulsed that up in the food processor into tiny pieces.  Then I added one small container (15 oz) of ricotta cheese and a few grinds of black pepper.  In my family, we make a filled pasta with spinach and cheese and nutmeg, and I think that the flavors of nutmeg and spinach are incredible together, so I also added about a teaspoon of ground nutmeg to the mixture.  Obviously, this is optional, but I highly reccommend it!

Then, it was pasta-making time.  This was only the second time since my grandmother passed away 16 years ago that I’ve done this, but I got a pasta maker for my bridal shower (thanks again, Sara!) and I really enjoy making it.  I feel a connection to my grandmother and to my roots.  Plus, homemade pasta is infinitely tastier and more flexible!  But it’s time-consuming and a little persnickety.

To make homemade pasta, you combine eggs and flour.  I only had “large” eggs (really almost more “medium” grade), so I used 6 eggs to about 4 cups of flour.  This will make enough pasta for 2 lasagnas – or, in my case, a lasagna and a bunch of filled pasta!  Basically, all you do is combine the flour (I used whole wheat) and the eggs.  I used a large bowl because I don’t have enough flat counter space, but at my parents’ house, we used their granite countertop.  You’ll need to mix and combine and finally knead the stuff until you come up with a uniform consistency – it’s almost like a less crumbly play-dough.

Set aside your dough with a tea towel covering it, and then set up your pasta maker.  If yours is like mine, you’ll have to anchor it to a table.  I have the old-school hand crank, just like my grandma’s, but I know there are attachments to mixers out there, and other electronic ones.  You’ll need to work with palm-sized balls of dough, just for ease of working the darn stuff (especially when you’re alone).  When a piece gets unmanageable (as you roll it, it gets longer), I just cut it in half. 

I rolled out pieces, with my husband’s help, to fit the lasagna pan.  I actually rolled as I filled – so I did enough for the bottom layer, and then added sauce and mozzarella, and then rolled enough for the next layer and added sauce and filling, and so on – you can roll everything out beforehand, but be forewarned that this stuff will stick to ANYTHING.  parchment paper, towels, itself…  There were even a couple of pieces that crinkled up a bit as they went into the pan, and they were irreparable.  They also didn’t cook completely, so try not to let the pasta fold in on itself!

Fantastically-vibrant spinach ricotta filling

Fantastically-vibrant spinach ricotta filling

Layer your lasagna so that the last layer of pasta is covered with sauce and then mozzarella cheese.  I used about 2 cups of mozzarella (one small bag of the shredded stuff) in total (about 1 cup on the top layer, so it got all cheesy).  Then, place it uncovered in a 350 degree oven for 35-40 minutes.  And for the love of God, put a baking sheet lined with tinfoil underneath the thing – lasagnas always splatters and leaks and I don’t want to be responsible for your having to take to your oven with a scraper!

Finished lasagna with mozzarella on top

Finished lasagna with mozzarella on top

Layers!

Layers!

Beautiful and bubbly finished lasagna!

Beautiful and bubbly finished lasagna!

YUM!!!

YUM!!!

Finished gorgeous piece of lasagna (it sort of fell over, but you can see all the layers that way!)

Finished gorgeous piece of lasagna (it sort of fell over, but you can see all the layers that way!)

PRETTY!

PRETTY!

Oozy but so good...

Oozy but so good...

Part 2 – The Unexpected

Once I finished rolling out the pasta for the lasagna, I realized I still had a bunch left over.  Having not made a whole lot of pasta by myself before, I’d just blindly followed a recipe I got on the internet, and it didn’t tell me anything I could actually relate to (makes one pound of pasta just doesn’t help when you don’t know what one pound looks like).  I figured I’d just roll it out and make fettucine or something.  I made an offhanded comment to Hubby about how if we’d had butternut squash I’d have filled it with that.  At our wedding rehearsal dinner, we had butternut squash ravioli (and spinach ravioli, much like the filling for my lasagna, for that matter), and I could eat the stuff all day long.

A little light bulb went off in my head and I asked Hubby to check the cupboard for pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling, but just the pumpkin, no sugar or spices).  Sure enough, we had a can left over from a pumpkin pie-making spree I’d had last year (in which I decided that fresh pumpkin is infinitely better than canned pumpkin, but when in a pinch…).  Success!  After all, butternut squash is just one step away from pumpkin – and I can’t imagine an easier substitute.  I added just a little granulated garlic and some nutmeg to the puree and rolled out the pasta.

Rolled-out dough with little blobs of filling goodness

Rolled-out dough with little blobs of filling goodness

Unrolled pasta with rolled pasta in the background

Unrolled pasta with rolled pasta in the background

Now, I wish I’d taken photos of folding the tortelloni (large tortellini).  Of course, when you need both hands for an operation, taking a good photograph is just not really an option; plus, my hands were really messy.  But, here’s the trick to making what my grandmother used to call “little belly buttons”: fold a square of pasta in half lengthwise – so it’s a long rectangle, and not a tall rectangle – and secure the two pieces together.  The “top” is the part you squished together, opposite the filling.  Take the pasta in both hands – one hand on each “short” end of the rectangle, holding it so it still looks longer horizontally than vertically – and make a circle with the pasta, securing together only the bottom corners.  The top corners should be left unsecured.  Turn the pasta over and fold up the top corners.  I know it sounds complicated but it’s really not.  And if you get frustrated, there’s always the “smash two pieces of pasta together” method.

Pretty little packages

Pretty little packages

Now, of course, I haven’t tasted these.  So I can’t vouch for my hastily-thrown-together filling.  But they smell good and look good.  We plan to eat them with a sage browned butter, maybe on the side with pork or chicken.  You can, of course, fill yours with whatever you like (my lasagna filling is awesome in them). 

If you want to eat tortelloni right away, just pop these babies in boiling water for 2-3 minutes or until they float to the top.  But be sure, as you’re making them, that you’re putting them on parchment paper or wax paper (dusted heavily with flour would probably be the way to go).  And don’t let them touch each other, or they’ll stick horribly. 

Since we’re already up to our eyeballs in pasta, we’re not planning to eat these yet.  At the moment, we’re drying them.  My grandmother used to dry her filled pasta on large sheets of floured wax paper on the dining room table; I, of course, forgot the flour when I put mine out (duh) and had a couple of mishaps.  But overall, these tortelloni are almost done drying and will be frozen for later use.  I plan to get 6 side-dish servings out of this (I didn’t count, but it looks to me to be about 30). 

I almost forgot how much fun it could be to embark on a giant cooking spree.  Of course, we’ve got plenty of dirty dishes, but we’ve also got 3/4 of a lasagna and at least another meal’s worth of sauce in addition to our pretty little packages of pumpkiny goodness, after only 4 hours worth of work.  We got to work together on the pasta and the filling.  It might not be the cheapest or fastest way to eat, but it’s sure fun!

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2 Responses to “The Pasta Experiment”

  1. Helena May 26, 2009 at 11:42 am #

    My Italian grandma uses tomato paste for her sauce too. Maybe it’s an old Italian secret? 🙂

    • liska02 May 26, 2009 at 11:55 am #

      It must be! Honestly, I can’t imagine spending days and days cooking down tomatoes, and tomato paste just helps bump up that flavor… I’d bet our grandmas knew what they were talking about!!! 🙂

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