Last night I hopped aboard my bike and coasted over to Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville for a class in fresh pasta creation. I had never been there before, but I could see as soon as I walked in why people rave about it. Dave’s isn’t just about pasta, though it probably started out that way; it sells produce, cheeses and meats among other fare, all from local farmers and vendors. It also devotes a fourth of its storefront to an impressive wine and craft beer selection. Anywhere there’s a counter, there are samples of fresh gouda, alfredo sauce or homemade artichoke dip ripe and delicious for the taking. And anywhere there’s a register, there’s a line of eager customers with an armful of food and a fistful of cash.
I stumbled into the kitchen a little early and met my instructor. Chef Jason, a friendly goateed and baseball-capped Italian, grew up in a large, culinary-conscious family, where his grandmother taught him many tricks of the trade that he would later employ in the restaurant business. He started washing dishes when he was a teenager and eventually worked his way up to head chef through a combination of culinary school and long hours spent making delicious food. He has commandeered kitchens in the North End, in his own restaurant, and also at Dave’s. But recently, he’s simplified his work schedule to just teaching these classes. And he seems to really enjoy it.
Jason brought out some finger food to eat while we worked. Throughout the class, I snacked on locally made Raclette cheese and Dave’s-own green olive tapenade with fresh bread. I supplemented all this with some fantastic wine, a technique Jason insisted was important for cooking (or at least your enjoyment during).
Among all the tips I scribbled down on my notepad last night, two seem more important than all the rest. First, good pasta is all about the quality and freshness of its ingredients. Second, a good dough requires a lot of hard work.
The pasta we made last night used three ingredients: flour, eggs, and salt. The flour was an equal parts mixture of durum wheat and semolina, two flours high in protein and low in gluten. The ideal pasta texture ‘al dente’ is achieved, according to Jason, not by slightly undercooking the pasta (as I had previously thought) but by using the correct type of flour. The hardness of the durum and semolina helps the finished product stand up to the bite and decreases the danger of cooking it to mush. In contrast, most pasta brands in the grocery store either use gluten-rich white flour or zero-zero (all-purpose), likely because they are cheaper and adapted for multiple different uses.
The second most important ingredient is eggs. In Italy, Jason said, the eggs are so fresh that the yolks are a dark orange, sometimes even red. This color comes from a richer, fattier content, which is a wonderful quality to incorporate into pasta. In the U.S., eggs not only travel great distances, but are also refrigerated for long periods of time, which denatures the yolk and turns it to a pale yellow color.
The eggs we used were from Chip-In Farm in Bedford, laid by “happy chickens” (so said the carton). They were beautiful. Their sizes ranged from medium to extra-large and the shells were all different colors, from brown-speckled to robin’s egg-blue. More importantly, their yokes were a rich orange.
Jason didn’t linger on the pinch of salt he used in the dough, except to say that the use of salt in pasta dough was “controversial” in Italian kitchens. So opinionated, these chefs!
After eyeballing three-fourths of a cup of each type of flour and mixing them with a fork, we dug out wells in the middle of our bowls and cracked two eggs, and slowly we incorporated the durum-semolina-salt mixture. Once the mixes were dry enough, we dumped them on the counter and set to kneading, a surprisingly arduous (nearly twenty-minute) process to get the middles of the dough balls tough but tacky. Then we wrapped them up in plastic and set them in the refrigerator for a few minutes. And we rested and drank some more wine.
When the dough came out of the fridge, it was bright yellow and quite a bit more malleable than before. We each cut our doughs in half and fed them through the pasta roller, cranking one, two, three times before rotating ninety degrees and thinning the roller setting. Here, the hard grain of the flour began to appear, and I was shocked at how tough it remained despite flattening it to the width of linguine strands.
We cut batches of spaghetti and fettucine, then learned to fold raviolis and tortellinis using egg as our ‘glue’ and two types of ricotta blends for our filling. While we boiled water, adding only half “as much salt as the seawater” (Jason’s only point of contention with the Italian method), we learned to make two tomato-less sauces, one from the south of Italy and one from the north. The southern sauce used a base of browned garlic and olive oil and incorporated fresh thyme and oregano as well as lemon zest, a sort of “salad dressing” for our spaghetti. The northern sauce used a browned butter base and large leaves of sage, and we added only a snowfall of pecorino romano after rolling the torts and ravs in the sauce and serving it up family style.
Pickin People, this may have been the best pasta I’ve ever eaten. Every ingredient was present but not overbearing; the sweetness of the spaghetti was in the garlic of the sauce, not in the gluten of the flour, and the ‘al dente’ texture stood up to the bite. It was a heartier, more filling pasta—one that had a distinctive taste to it, rather than simply carrying the sauce. And the sauce…my goodness. Picking those fresh herbs apart was worth the trouble.
I could eat this stuff every day. Thanks to this class, all I need to do so is a pasta roller with a hand crank. There are so many other tips Jason taught us that I could impart here, and most of them are written down on a business pad next to me as I type this. But I don’t want to give away all the secrets. Besides, you’re not going to learn a skill as hands-on as pasta-making from an amateur.
Let me just say, regardless of whether or not you go alone (like I did), you’ll have a blast at any of these tutorials. So go take a class at Dave’s, and post-a-pickin afterwards to tell us what you think. If you take the sauce-making class, you just might run into me, trying to master that southern garlic-and-oil recipe.
Posted by Henry Luehrman