It might be generational, or, perhaps, philosophical, but there are, on the one hand, those who enjoy and appreciate handmade things, and the art and craft they require to make, and, on the other, those who prefer their things machine-made, reliable, and standard. The ‘things’ here could be quite literally anything. My father, who, to me, is the quintessential scientist and pragmatist, believes that most, if not all, advances for the betterment of mankind have come as a result of the increased use and application of machines, technology and science. In fact, he would argue, I’m sure, that this blog is evidence of the fact that even something as Luddite as cooking can be improved through the application of technology, though regular readers – with good reason – may not agree.
My mother was cut from very different cloth however, and, though a nurse who believed sincerely in the power of modern medicine, sanitation and inoculation, she was a true amateuse of a hand-turned chair-leg, a cut-glass goblet, and, much to the detriment of my appearance during my tender years, a hand-knitted sweater. She was also a great lover of gardening, baking bread and, despite the fact that it rarely worked, yogurt-making. I think it’s from her that I get most of my culinary instincts, as the very notion of spending three or four hours in the kitchen doing anything would horrify my dad.
Pasta-rollers, like all machines, were invented for three main reasons: (1) to produce more quickly what used to take a long time (2) as a uniform-quality product, and (3) so that the resulting free time could be spent either more enjoyably or industriously. The assumption behind it seems to be that it makes it easier to make something that is typically quite tricky, and that the making of it by hand was a laborious pain in the ass. Those who have used a pasta roller, whether the hand-crank variety or the KitchenAid attachment, know, as we do, that it is a fabulous invention and enables even the busiest gastronome to home-make great fresh pasta in a relatively short time. They might also have found that it is actually fun to use because it combines the joy of mixing a dough by hand with the ease and convenience of not having to roll it out and cut it yourself.
Taking this notion of fun to its logical extreme this past weekend, I decided to devote my entire Sunday to doing the whole thing – the mixing, the rolling and the cutting – by hand. In spite of the recipe book’s warning that it was a painstaking exercise, I had little idea of what I was getting into. I now have a profound appreciation both for labor-saving machines, and the unique taste, texture and satisfaction derived from hand-rolled pasta.
But it is more than that. I learned something about myself on Sunday. In some ways, it was a revelation. I had always thought that I appreciated handmade things, particularly food and wine, with the all patience, care and skills that their creation implies, but I had never actually tested myself to see if I could enjoy hand-making something that required real patience and physical effort. And, while there certainly were moments in which I did not enjoy being patient or the physical effort, on the whole, I really did find the process to be incredibly rewarding – relaxing almost. Not only did I (eventually, and with several abortive attempts) make some absolutely first-class pasta, but I learned a new technique and was, in the end, able to enjoy the fruits of my labor in a way I never have before.
Famous for the lavish displays of wealth and the beautiful arts of the Renaissance found in Florence, Siena, Lucca and Pisa, Tuscans are, by contrast, rather austere in their culinary inclinations with their love of simple grilled meats, stewed beans and saltless bread. Such austerity requires the freshest and best ingredients in order to be delicious, and, fortuitously, Tuscany offers these up in great bounty. Similarly, it often requires great effort and technique.
So it is with Pici (also known as pinci — hand-rolled, eggless Tuscan thick spaghetti — perhaps the best example of this cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine) — utilizing only 00 flour, water, green Tuscan olive oil and a lot of time and effort. Indeed, it is my belief that what the poor, historically, lacked in wealth they more than make up for in patience, and disposable time. Originating from the Val d’Orcia region (the area between Montalcino and Montepulciano), pici are usually eaten with a rich meat sauce, often containing porcini mushrooms, but any hearty meat or game ragu would be a good choice.
The duck ragu recipe below is typical of the region of Arezzo which is the area where we got married in June 2007, and making it engendered all those kinds of warm feelings one gets from a house filled with delicious smells and the wonderful memories of the time of our lives.
Learning a new skill, and in this case, a new recipe, is a matter of managing to overcome self-doubt. Before you attempt making pici, I would highly recommend you try making a regular long pasta with an egg dough, so that you understand how it should feel and look. It will also allow you to develop a sense about the right elasticity of a good dough which will be useful even though Pici dough is a very different creature altogether.
If you follow the exact instructions below, you’ll probably find that your dough feels too dry and too heavy. Do not be afraid to add more water and more oil as you see fit because eggless doughs can easily become brittle when allowed to be too dry. However, do not abandon hope. I urge you to stick with the basis of the recipe (allowing for various seasonal, regional, altitudinal and indoor-outdoor climactic conditions) and overcome your fears of impending culinary disaster, as they will not materialize. If it feels too dry, add more water. Too wet, add flour until it feels right. One word of caution, though: be sparing in any additions of liquid or lipids because at the hand-rolling stage you will be adding extra olive oil to reduce friction and facilitate the rolling process, and you don’t want to find at that stage that you have to start all over again.
Also, do give yourself plenty of time. An otherwise lazy Sunday afternoon is perfect for this, as not only does the pasta make a perfect Sunday night dinner, but, more importantly, it gives you time to rest as you go along. Making enough pici for four people can be a tiring business, even if there are two of you on the job. One final proviso, do not treat pici like regular fresh pasta — i.e. sprinkle it liberally with flour and allow to set-up and dry for a while prior to cooking. I refer to my earlier comments when I say that pici can dry out and become brittle very quickly, so when you make them, plan to eat them within, at most, a couple of hours. This might appear like a disadvantage but it’s not because once cooked they are probably more robust than regular pastas and even reheat remarkably well.
So, please try making this dish. The sauce is easy and indescribably good (I know everyone says that about their food, but, really, this is very special), and the pasta is a great reward for some hard graft both corporeally and in that it offers a real sense of achievement. By the time you’re done, you’ll have sore shoulders but will have mastered the rolling technique perfectly. As a result, pasta-making will have transcended the bland uniformity of the machine-age and become what all good food should be: absolutely unique and deeply personal.
Recipe and method are adapted ever-so-slightly from Maxine Clark’s book Flavors of Tuscany
Duck Ragu Ingredients
- 3tbsp olive oil
- half large duck (Long Island or Muscovy are best), cut into pieces
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 1 carrot, finely diced
- 2 sticks of celery, finely diced
- 6-8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 1/2 oz guanciale (or pancetta), cut into small cubes
- 1cup dry white wine
- 1 x 28oz san marzano chopped tomatoes
- 1 cup stock (chicken, porcini or any game stock are all fine)
- 2oz dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in warm water for 30 mins
- 2 bay leaves
- 1-2 good sprigs fresh sage
- kosher salt and black pepper to taste
- 4 1/2 cups plain flour or 00 Italian flour if you can get it
- Plus a little extra flour for dusting board, etc.
- 3 tbsp good extra virgin olive oil
- 2/3 – 1 cup of cold water
Duck Ragu Recipe
- Heat olive oil to medium high in a large saucepan or dutch oven / cocotte
- Season duck pieces with salt and pepper, then brown them well on all sides in pot
- Duck will render some of its fat here, but do not drain it. Instead, remove duck pieces to a plate and toss in guanciale (pancetta), onion, celery and carrot.
- Lower heat to medium and allow this lot to soften for about 10 minutes before hitting it with the garlic.
- Give this about five minutes of sauteeing before cranking up the heat to medium-high again.
- When you can hear the pan is hot, pour in the wine and scrape up the brown bits at the bottom.
- Allow wine to evaporate before reducing heat to medium and adding tomatoes, stock and drained, reconstituted porcini.
- Toss the duck back in, and add the sage and bay before bringing it all to a boil and stirring well.
- Reduce the heat so sauce is just simmering, and cook partially covered for at least two hours. Check occasionally for liquid levels, adding a splash of water if it looks like it’s drying out.
- After two hours, meat should be fall off the bone tender, but if not, continue until it is.
- Remove duck pieces from sauce and allow to cool, before taking two forks and pull meat off the bones, discarding (boo-hoo!) skin and bones.
- I like the sauce to have some texture so I left some of the ‘pulled duck’ a bit chunkier, but sometimes the sauce is put through a food processor to make it finer. Do as you please, it’ll still be delicious.
- Skim fat off the surface of the sauce, removing bay and sage sprig, then add duck back in and stir well.
- Taste and correct seasoning, if necessary.
- Serve with pici and a glass or more of good Tuscan red wine.
- Sift flour into a large mixing bowl
- Sprinkle in a large pinch of salt (a punch of salt, if you like)
- Make a well in the center of the flour, and add 2/3 cup water and a tablespoon of olive oil
- Mix this together either with your hands or a blunt knife.
- Add additional water where necessary if mixture is too dry and fails to come together.
- When you’ve got a ball of dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and kneed for at least five minutes.
- Warning: the dough will probably feel quite heavy and a bit tough to kneed, as without the egg, it doesn’t have that elasticity you might be used to. Don’t worry, this is normal.
- After five energetic minutes, place dough ball into a plastic bag and leave to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
- Again on a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Don’t fret too much about precision here, this is, after all, a hand-made thang.
- Accompanied by a chilled glass of your favorite aperitivo, cut rolled-out dough into 1/4 inch wide strips. (This takes while.)
- Pour about tbsp olive oil into a finger bowl, and lightly oiling your hands, take each of the strips and, as you would with play-do (plastercine), roll them out into long cylindrical pipes.
- The trick here is to keep the pasta moistened by the olive oil so that it will roll easily on the board and remains pliable, but doesn’t get greasy. You’ll get the hang of it quite quickly.
- Place rolled pici on a lightly floured kitchen towel and keep going until you’ve run out of dough.
- In copious amounts of boiling, salted water, drop pici in and cook for a couple of minutes.
- They are surprisingly resilient and, depending, on how closely you followed the instructions about rolling (above), the pasta may need a bit more or a bit less than two minutes due to its width.
- When ready, pull them out and in a pan containing a ragu (duck or otherwise), toss them in with a little of the pasta water.
- Continue to cook them in there for another minute so sauce and pasta are well combined and everything is nicely coated.
- Kill fire and sprinkle some grated pecorino toscano over it all, before enjoying the fruits of your labor surrounded by appreciative family and friends.
- Sit back, rub tummy and congratulate yourself for a job well-done, perhaps with another glass of wine.