New Yorker in Adelaide

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Little Italy in my Little Kitchen
Last week, for several seminal (or semolinal) hours, my kitchen and living room became a pasta factory. Our resident Mamacita had been busy whipping up a vat of homemade tomato sauce dense with fist-sized meatballs. We (three expats with culinary school educations and myself, an amateur in the kitchen but highly qualified at the table) couldn't bear to bespoil such artisanal work with the dry stuff from the box. This seemed like a fitting time to break in the pasta maker that had been sitting in its box on top of the refrigerator for the past month. Down it came, bright and shiny, and was promptly clamped to the edge of our kitchen counter.

I wasn't given a choice about getting my hands dirty. After watching the first batch transform from a volcano of semolina flour erupting lava of golden egg yolk to a supple yellow dough, I found myself standing at the pasta station. I surveyed my mise-en-place: a bag of semolina, a carton of eggs, a bottle of olive oil and a small dish of salt. With my hands, I shaped a mound of the grainy flour, then formed a crater in its center. Into the indentation went an egg, a drizzle of oil and a dash of salt. I whipped out my most effective kitchen tool - my fingers - and started swirling, pointer and index fingers touching the countertop. The semolina flour around the edges slowly caught and joined the egg, and before long the mixture achieved a cake batter-like consistency. Another egg, more finger dancing, and voila! Pasta dough. I formed the dough into a sticky ball and got to kneading, adding flour until the dough was moderately firm and no longer sticky.

After letting the dough set, we got ready to test drive our new contraption. I took a wedge of dough and flattened it with my fingers. Then into the roller on the largest setting for a few rounds, to develop the gluten and stretch the dough. With each step I decreased the setting until I had a slightly translucent dough. It was almost pasta, just a run through the fettucine cutting setting, with my team members there to catch the long strands and hang them on our clothes drying rack in the dining room.

After drying for an hour or so, we piled the golden delight on a teatowel and waited, hungrily, until dinner time. Then our Italian Mama worked her magic: out of vat of boiling water emerged the most flavorful, most texturally interesting, most perfect pasta that I had ever tasted (and I've been to Italy, three times). I gobbled up a few strands then and there, plain, with audible cries of pleasure issuing from my delighted mouth. But why eat this delight plain when you have a vat of homemade sauce, meatballs, and parmesan?

By the by, everyone took seconds even though we were stuffed after firsts. Both America and Australia have some amazing neighborhood Italian restaurants, but they have nothing on the masters who create in my kitchen. My number one tip on how to eat well: make friends with brilliant chefs!


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