While in Piedmont last year, some people on our bike tour talked up an addictive hand-rolled pasta they ate in Tuscany. What the rustic, hand-cut tajarin was to the area we were in, they said, pici was to the region around Montalcino. I had forgotten this conversation until recently when I saw a recipe for pici posted over at Jamie Oliver’s website. With a freak winter chill that descended on Houston this week, keeping us mostly indoors and so not going to the grocery store, I decided to make a hearty, fortifying pasta with what I had around the house and recalled the Oliver recipe. Pastas, like soups, have really become versatile saviors for me when ingredients are slim.
Unlike the egg-rich tajarin, pici is mostly flour and water. Still, its thicker shape gives is it a nice substantial texture, and the channel that forms along the length of the rolled pasta makes a great mechanism for gathering in sauce. I can see why pici is a good pasta for ragù. As a rough guide, I used the recipe from Oliver’s site for making the pasta, a mix of 00 flour and semolina, with water and the addition of an egg, which I read is a common regional variation. The dough is a bit difficult at first when trying to get it to hold together for kneading, feeling like wet sand, and the actual cutting and rolling are time-consuming, but the results are worth it. I didn’t have much to add to the pasta, yet an inexpensive bottle of sparkling wine (left over from the holidays) and a pound of crimini mushrooms were solid lead actors. Bacon, San Marzano tomatoes, and some fresh herbs made a fine supporting cast. I have begun to think of bacon and canned San Marzano tomatoes as essentials in the kitchen, always good to have on hand like a carton of chicken stock.
350 g 00 flour, or unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
150 g semolina flour, plus more for dusting
200 ml cold water
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1 lb crimini mushrooms, washed, stems trimmed, and sliced
5 peeled, canned whole San Marzano tomatoes and their sauce
4 thick slices of bacon
1 1/2 cups sparkling wine
1 large shallot, minced
4 garlic gloves, minced
Leaves from 2 rosemary stems, chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish
1 cup pasta water
season with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
garnish with flake sea salt
For the pici: To make the pici pasta, combine the flour, semolina, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and add the egg and olive oil. Mix continuously while adding the cold water. Oliver’s recipe called for 150 ml, but I found I needed 200 ml of water in order to achieve a firm dough I could knead. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes. Once rested, cut the dough into 5 or 6 equal pieces and cover the ones you are not working with in plastic wrap to keep from drying out. Roll a single piece into a rectangle between 1/4-1/8 cm thick. The rustic nature of this pasta means you don’t need to be worried about being so precise with the shape. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into about 1/2 cm strips. Then, starting at the middle, gently roll each strip into a long tube. I found it easier to roll if I lightly pinched along the length of the strip of dough first. I also covered the unrolled strips with a sheet of plastic wrap gently draped over them to keep them from drying out too quickly. When rolled, place the uncooked pici on a semolina-dusted tray or parchment-lined sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
For the sauce: The sauce can be started after you’ve rolled out all of the pasta, or you can make the sauce up to the addition of the cheese and pasta water, keeping it warm and covered on the stove or refrigerated, then reheating when ready for use. In a dutch oven or large sauté pan or braising pan, cook the bacon. When cooked, remove, chop, and set aside the bacon. Add the sliced mushrooms to pan with the rendered bacon fat, and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the shallots, and cook until the shallots are softened. Add the red pepper flakes and garlic, stirring until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add the sparkling wine and reduce, scrapping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is about a scant 1/2 cup. Add the tomatoes in their sauce, crushing them and breaking them up in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Add the herbs. Cook until the flavors have combined and some of the liquid reduced, about 10-15 minutes. At this point, you can start cooking the pasta in boiling, salted water. While the pasta is cooking, stir in the cheese to the sauce. When the pasta starts to float, cook for another 3-4 minutes, then strain, reserving the pasta water you need for the sauce. Add the water to the sauce, reduce, and check the seasoning, adding kosher salt and cracked pepper as needed. Add the pasta, stirring until the pici is well coated and more of the liquid has reduced. Serve the pasta with chopped parsley, fresh grated Parmesan, and flake sea salt. This makes six dinner servings.
Biking from Acqui Terme to Monforte d’Alba across the Monferrato and Langhe hills, I experienced subtle shifts in the landscape, the transforming hunks and shades of the vineyards and valleys, which reflected the variations in the Piedmontese wines and cuisine. For instance, how stretching west from Acqui, the soil great for Muscato and Barbera gives way to Barbera and Nebbiolo. How the higher in elevation the hills raised, the more hazelnut groves are passed. I mentioned in my previous post that each place we stopped at had their own salumi and cheese to go with their wines, but there were some constants, each given local and personal flair.
Beyond tajarin, Piedmont is known for its gnocchi, risotto, and agnolotti (or a folded ravioli). As with the tajarin, most preparations of these other pastas were simple but full of flavor. A big takeaway from all of the rustic Piedmontese cuisine I ate was that you shouldn’t mistake complexity with complicated. The dishes were complex in flavor without being unnecessarily complicated. The most involved primo piatto I had was a tajarin with a Bolognese. One of the best dishes I ate was in Turin at a restaurant called Agnolotti & Friends. I tried agnolotti stuffed with potato, mint, and ricotta that melted on the tongue. Seriously. The pasta had almost the same silky texture as the beef Carpaccio I had for an antipasto. The agnolotti was simply prepared with capers, lemon, butter, and Parmesan, and was ridiculously good. I had to try to recreate it when I got home, and so I did.
In addition to the braised meats and salumi, we were served generous amounts of beef Carpaccio and dishes of thinly sliced or pounded cutlets of pork or veal that came topped with a mustard sauce, sometimes loaded with tuna brought over the hills from Genoa. Those dishes looked something like this link here to Gianni and Mina’s restaurant. Those meat and mustard-sauce dishes came as an antipasto. Another antipasto constant was a savory flan with a cheese sauce. We usually had either spinach or asparagus flan with a creamy and rich Fontina sauce. These savory flans were such a novelty I wanted to see if I could recreate one. I found a recipe at Epicurious that is adapted from a dish served at a hotel in Turin. It turned out great. Since even halving the recipe made more flan than we could consume in one go, I used it as a side for a grilled pork collar with a cherry gastrique.
“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” That nice morsel of a statement—attributed to T.S. Eliot and continually reanimated by creative writing workshops—has all the roundness of an aphorism that makes it just sound like wisdom. It’s a piece of advice I’ve enlisted on more than one occasion when trying to impress upon my students that it’s okay to have influences; it’s okay to be inspired. And I have to admit that the rhetoric of unapologetic thievery usually has enough rebellion in it to start shifting those self-identified individual geniuses over to the position that our art doesn’t come from some pure internal wellspring. When it comes to art, you get the ideas for your ideas somewhere.
Cooking, for me, is an art like any other. It is one for which I am an amateur, although enthusiastic, practitioner. I am always looking for inspiration, searching for what flavor combination, texture, or technique I can steal. The challenge for home cooks is how to incorporate inspiration into meals that feel natural and effortless for our limitations in skill, ingredients, and equipment. I don’t need to try to recreate the dish coyly but aptly called English Peas I had at Alinea, which was an absolute orgy of textures, temperatures, and techniques. (I found some pictures of what I ate here, and here, and here; it was a three-part dish.) I only have to take what I need, which in the case of English Peas was a lesson in using an ingredient in different ways on the same plate, highlighting various pleasures in mouthfeel.
What T.S. Eliot actually said was this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” For the amateur, this is all relative. When I make a meal, my only hope is to be inspired enough to challenge myself, to make my cooking exciting to me and those I cook for, and hopefully tastier. I don’t need to take on the whole history of the art. That, unfortunately, is the kind of hubris I reserve for poetry.
This long preamble is all to say Holly and I went to Italy. We went to bike and eat and drink our way through Piedmont. The whole time, I was taking note of what I could steal for my own cooking. That contraband became this meal shown here in the spirit of Piedmont I made when we returned, a meal that was as much a celebration as it was a lament for the fact we were no longer sitting in village restaurants, drinking local Barberas and Barolos, while eating local cheeses and house-made pastas and salumi.
“Local” really was the theme of our gustatory pilgrimage. Many of the incredible wines we drank came from vines we could see out the windows of where we were imbibing them or had only recently passed on our bikes. The food was no different. When we turned down a steep road in the Langhe hills, following our guides to the beautiful and rustic restaurant, La Casa Nel Bosco, ristorante in famiglia of the gracious Gianni and Mina (Gianni serves the wine and food that Mina skillfully prepares) surrounded by gardens and tucked into a forest containing chestnuts, it was no shock to find asparagus and spinach from the garden incorporated into dishes and chestnuts poached in honey smartly garnishing a plate of beef carpaccio that opened the meal. Piedmont, after all, is the epicenter and origin of the Slow Food movement with its locavore ethos. Our guide Arien mischievously joked that to call it a “movement” there is kind of inaccurate, since local is just how things are done. I should add that Arien and our other guide Jimi were incredible, and the cycling trip the DuVine company created for Piedmont is spectacular. I can’t say enough wonderful things about DuVine. We were in excellent hands.
Yesterday, Slow Food USA shared a link on its Twitter feed to an article about Slow Food Italy’s creative response to the recent scandal of horsemeat-tainted prepared foods across Europe. Their idea: stuff your own pastas and make your own meat-based sauces in protest. Or in other words, know where your ingredients are coming from and what they are. In my own—not exactly selfless—gesture of solidarity, I made Pappardelle Ragù alla Bolognese. My dish was not traditional. First of all, I used lamb. I also added a mix of herbs with my dry bay leaf: thyme, rosemary, oregano, and parsley. I filled out the conventional Bolognese soffritto (onion, carrot, celery) with diced calabacita italiana, or Italian zucchini. The pappardelle is also a variation: I made it with black garlic. I love the Slow Food attitude that politics can perhaps be palatable.