It is a truth universally acknowledged that pasta is a food beloved by many around the world. I like the title Nancy Harmon Jenkins and her daughter Sara Jenkins chose for their newly published cookbook: The Four Seasons of Pasta,1 as indeed pasta accompanies the evolution of the year, letting itself be dressed with what the land produces and what goes well with the weather.
FTC disclosure: I have received an advanced copy of The Four Seasons of Pasta from the publisher. I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for discussing it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.
The first 50 pages or so of the book are dedicated to the introduction, a presentation of pasta, some of the ingredients used in the recipes, and some techniques and basic preparations. I particularly appreciated the notes on ricotta ("All too often what is offered to us in North America is simply milk that has been coagulated by the addition of vinegar or lemon juice. It may taste good, but it is not really ricotta.") and Parmigiano-Reggiano ("Nancy calls it the Marcello Mastroianni of cheese") but this part of the book is interesting in general and provides useful and actionable information.
The book classifies pasta as northern and southern: "The northern tradition is fresh pasta, pasta fresca... The southern tradition is for dry pasta, pasta secca..." In the Oretta Zanini De Vita's Encyclopedia of Pasta classification is by shape: pasta corta, pasta lunga, strascinati, etc., which is closer to the way I think about pasta. The two perspectives are orthogonal. The geographical perspective is used to distinguish the tradition based on egg dough and that based on eggless dough, which is the protagonist of a good number of my experiments.2
Handmade pasta was a Sunday lunch affair in the house where I grew up. My mother made a four-egg batch of pasta dough first thing in the morning and usually cut it into tagliatelle.3 It was enough for two lunches for the four of us (served as primo, i.e., first course). The other days, we ate dry pasta, always De Cecco, my mother's favorite brand. This is a fairly common situation: "Pasta secca is the backbone of the Italian table and it's the kind of pasta we cook, day in day out... Almost all the recipes in the recipes in this book are about that kind of pasta."
As one would expect from the title, the 120 or so recipes in the cookbook are organized by season, starting with winter. They include some classic dishes, like spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino (which is supposed to be the pasta you can always make, for whoever shows up at your door, even at midnight), bucatini all'amatriciana, spaghetti con le vongole, a number of recipes for ravioli (with fillings like sweet peas or charred eggplant), a couple of recipes for gnocchi (without eggs, as it should be) and many creative takes on the theme of pasta secca.
The Four Seasons of Pasta is a great resource for cooks who may like to try their hand at ravioli every now and then but are mostly interested in expanding the boundaries of their dry pasta repertoire using a variety of ingredients: vegetables, meat, fish, legumes. Some recipes come together quickly, others require a more elaborate preparation. (Some ingredients may not be readily available to everybody.)
The recipe for Fusilli with radicchio di Treviso and walnuts in the winter section caught my eyes, but I could not find any radicchio di Treviso where I am, so I opted for the Wintertime almond-hazelnut pesto, which sounded quite interesting and turned out to be exactly that, with a bold orange flavor (from both juice and zest) I had not previously experienced in a pasta dish. I used less olive oil than called for in the recipe and made a rather dense pesto, then used more pasta cooking water to turn it into a cream. A few tastings allowed me to adjust the ingredients to get the balance of flavors that suited my palate.
My interest in the world of handmade pasta means that in the allocation of time, I choose to give priority to making the pasta versus making the sauce. (As mentioned in an earlier post,4 sometimes I don't have a set plan for the dressing and mi arrangio con quello che c'è (I make do with what I have.) In this case, I didn't have to make do, though: I prepared the pesto and used 2 tablespoons of it to dress a batch made with 100 g semolina flour and 50 g water (my standard small batch which yields two portions). I froze the rest for future consumption.
The recipe suggests to use the pesto to dress tagliolini or other long, skinny pasta and I don't disagree, but as I am working on perfecting my technique to make strascinate (Bari-style orecchiette which are not turned inside out on a fingertip, but shaped only using the tip of a knife—more on this in an upcoming post) so I used the pesto to dress a batch of the lovely little ears that came to life on my kneading board.
I am looking forward to having The Four Seasons of Pasta inspire further adventures in dressing my handmade pasta.
1 The publisher's page dedicated to The Four Seasons of Pasta
2 The page on the blog where you can browse the complete collection of handmade pasta shapes, some of them of my own creation.
3 My post on the Sunday lunch of my childhood (on the blog Live like an Italian)
4 The earlier post
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the pasta audio file [mp3].
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