Spring's fresh-picked asparagus, greens, lettuce and onions from local farms are the perfect accompaniment to winter-weary pasta dishes.
The glorious vegetables take well to any shape and brand of pasta, but to really enjoy their freshness and grandeur, pair them with homemade pasta.
Making pasta from scratch doesn't appeal to many cooks. Why spend time kneading dough when you can buy freshly made pasta at a farmers market or choose from dozens of high-quality dry pastas at the supermarket?
"After one has a fresh pasta experience, they will not want anything else," said Diane James of Lexington, who has made fresh pasta for years. "What I love most about fresh pasta is its exceptionally tender texture and fresh flavor.
"It has a sensation of melting in one's mouth. There are so many options when preparing your own pasta. Thin or thick. Wide or narrow. Long or short. Different flours may be used.
"Spinach, carrots, beets and other ingredients add flavor and vivid colors to the noodles. Fresh pasta is easy to make, especially with the help of a food processor and a manual pasta machine (about $50).
"After a little practice, one gets a feel for the pasta dough and can prepare it faster than driving to the grocery to purchase boxed pasta," she said.
John Mariani, food and travel columnist for Esquire magazine and author of How Italian Food Conquered the World, said fresh pasta "has a taste and texture that always makes it a little more special, especially stuffed pastas like ravioli and agnolotti."
"The basic tenet of authentic Italian cookery is that the pasta, not the sauce, should be the focus of the dish, so that sauces and other ingredients enhance and do not overwhelm the taste and texture of the pasta," said Mariani, who visited Lexington restaurants in March. "In this regard, the delicacy and freshness of spring vegetables is ideal, and Italians yearn for the first appearance of spring basil, asparagus and mushrooms."
Mariani encourages first-time pasta makers to not "bother with silly things like colored ribbon fettuccine, whole-wheat pasta or spinach pasta. Leave that to the pros."
Keith Snow, author of The Harvest Eating Cookbook, said you do not need to buy a pasta maker. "Some stand mixers have pasta-making attachments. Otherwise, cutting the pasta with a knife or perhaps with small cookie cutters will work just fine."
Snow advises: "Unleash your inner Italian grandma. Learn how to make fresh pasta from scratch. Find out why it tastes so much better fresh than boxed."
Here is Snow's recipe for fresh pasta.
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in large bowl. Mix well until a dough forms. Turn out dough onto work surface. Continue to knead in additional flour until dough is no longer sticky, and is smooth. Allow dough to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before cutting or shaping.
This recipe for fresh egg pasta is from Cook's Illustrated and has more detailed instructions for the first-time pasta maker.
Fresh egg pasta
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (10 ounces)
3 large eggs, beaten
Pulse flour in work bowl of food processor that is fitted with metal blade to evenly distribute. Add eggs; process until dough forms a rough ball, about 30 seconds. (If dough resembles small pebbles, add water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time; if dough sticks to side of bowl, add flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, and process until dough forms a rough ball.)
Turn dough ball and small bits out onto a dry work surface; knead until dough is smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for at least 15 minutes and as long as 2 hours to let it relax.
Using a manual pasta machine, roll out dough. Leave pasta as is for use in filled pastas. Cut pasta sheets into long strands to make fettuccine.
Step by step
Rolling out and cutting pasta dough:
■ Cut about 1⁄6 of dough from ball and flatten it into a disk. (Cover remaining dough with plastic.) Run disk through the rollers set to the widest position.
■ Bring ends of dough toward middle and press down to seal.
■ Feed open side of the pasta through rollers. Repeat steps 1 and 2.
■ Without folding again, run pasta through widest setting twice or until dough is smooth. If dough is at all sticky, lightly dust it with flour.
■ Roll pasta thinner by putting it through machine repeatedly, narrowing the setting each time. Roll until dough is thin and satiny. You should be able to see the outline of your hand through the pasta. Lay sheet of pasta on clean kitchen towel and cover it with damp cloth to keep it from drying out. Repeat with other pieces of dough.
■ To make fettuccine, run each sheet through wide cutter on the pasta machine. Each noodle will measure 1⁄8 to 1/4 inch across.
■ Perfect dough: Dough that has the right amount of moisture will come together in one large mass. If some small bits remain unincorporated, turn contents of work bowl onto a floured surface and knead them together.
■ Wet dough: If the dough sticks to the sides of the bowl, it is too wet. Add 1 tablespoon flour at a time until dough is no longer tacky.
■ Dry dough: If the dough resembles small pebbles after 30 seconds of processing, it is too dry. With motor running, add 1/2 teaspoon water. Repeat one more time if necessary.
As various vegetables turn up at your market, you can change this recipe for added variety.
Pasta with asparagus and zucchini
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
4 small zucchini, 2 diced and 2 grated
3 garlic cloves, grated or finely chopped
1 bunch thin asparagus spears, trimmed and stalks cut into 3 pieces each
¼ cup dry white wine
1 to 2 teaspoons capers, rinsed and chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
12 ounces penne or other tube-shaped pasta
Handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Parmesan cheese, grated, to serve
Heat oil in large frying pan, add onion and a pinch of salt, and cook over low heat for 5 minutes or until onion is soft and translucent. Add zucchini, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until it has cooked down and softened. Don't allow it to brown.
Stir in garlic and asparagus. Add wine, raise the heat and allow to boil for 2 to 3 minutes, then return to a simmer. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until asparagus softens, then remove from heat and stir in capers and lemon zest. For a creamier sauce, add a splash of cream once the wine cooks down, during the final minutes of cooking.
Meanwhile, cook pasta until it's tender but still has a bit of bite to it. Drain, reserving a tiny amount of cooking water. Return pasta to the pot with reserved cooking water and toss together. Add zucchini mixture and parsley, then toss again. Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
From The Kitchen Garden Cookbook