This weekend saw the latest round of our longstanding local dinner circle: an informal gathering of friends to enjoy good food, drink and conversation around a table. We’ve previously themed each event around a country or geographical region, for both food and drink. It was my turn to host again and I decided to combine Italian influences with locally sourced ingredients. Perhaps unwisely I decided to set the bar rather high, and make a meal from components bought on the day from the market, in a way I’d never cooked before. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.
The first course was my most ambitious, and allowed me the chance to try out something new which would hopefully be as pleasing on the eye as the palate.I ended up with home-made giant ravioli, filled with fresh lemon, salmon and local East Lee soft cheese, served with a fennel and vermouth hollandaise foam on a bed of rocket, and topped with pickled samphire and Morecambe Bay potted brown shrimps…
When Miss South and I were young there were few kitchen activities which beat the excitement and spectacle of making fresh pasta. The large kitchen table would get dusted with flour, a broom handle which was reserved for the occasion would be brought out from under the stairs, and would be placed across the back of two chairs, ready to hang and dry fresh tagliatelle. Finally the pasta making machine would be clamped to the table, ready to pummel, roll and cut.
There was palpable anticipation and excitement in our house, as these activities inevitably heralded a dinner party for the adults – an exotic and adult activity from which we were normally excluded, predominantly as they went on way past our respective bedtimes. However this didn’t preclude us from either hanging around as the pasta was being made, nor sampling it later on. Little would stop me from enjoying the pasta in any way, and I used to snaffle leftovers of the cooked, ungarnished linguine straight from the pan. Sorry mum, if you ever wondered where it disappeared to…
Strangely, despite my love of fresh pasta, I’d never attempted to make it myself. However, with the advent of the dinner circle, I rather fancied rectifying this gap in my culinary canon. So, on a wee bit of a whim, I picked up a pasta maker on the way home on Friday evening (at £17.99 thank you Argos). I suspect when our parents had brought back one from Italy in the 80s it would’ve cost significantly more, if it was even possible to source one in Northern Ireland back then.
I consulted my two favourite Italian authorities for all things kitchen-related: Marcella Hazan, and Giorgio Locatelli. Perhaps unsurprising there was some contradiction in their advice. This pasta-making business seems at least partly based on personal preference. The basic components were, thankfully, consistent – flour, eggs and salt. Previous pizza-making escapades ensured I had plenty of finely-milled ‘Tipo 00′ flour squirrelled away at home, but I picked some duck eggs and some double-yolkers from the market on Saturday morning. Locatelli subscribes to the ‘more yolks are better’ school of thought, and as we’re such a fan of duck eggs here at North/South Food I thought I’d take advantage of their renowned attributes for baking and see if that would apply to pasta dough too.
After finely sieving around 500g of flour I made my ‘fountain’ for 3 duck eggs (reminded me more of the way we eat champ) and got mixing. At first the dough was really hard work and I thought I’d got the mixture all wrong, but after adding an extra hen’s egg double yolk and about 10 minutes of heavy going, the dough started to come together more as I remembered it. The duck eggs helped imbue the dough with a wonderfully warm hue (with more than a passing resemblence to polenta). I then separated the dough into 2 balls, and wrapped both in clingfilm to sit for an hour. Thankfully the dough was much easier to work after it had sat around doing nothing… so I got out the shiny new pasta making machine and tentatively fed the dough into its waiting maw. As the dough got thinner and longer, and longer and thinner, I was glad of an extra pair of hands to assist with the increasingly giant lengths. Eventually it was tamed and fine enough to be laid out on the table to cut.
We cut out large circles, trimming gently around a bowl, then added the filling. I’d finely sliced a fresh salmon fillet (from Paul, the great fishmonger at Todmorden Market), mixing it by hand with some of local food hero Carl Warburton’s East Lee soft cheese. Add the juice of half a lemon, a good portion of zest and a generous handful of chopped flatleaf parsley; some coarsely ground black pepper, and mix up by hand. Form into patties and place in the centre of the pasta circle, before enclosing, sealing and crimping. These sat for an hour on a tea towel, looking pretty drying slightly, ready for the pan. When they were almost ready I started to make the sauce, a variation on Delia Smith’s always reliable foaming Hollandaise. I used less wine vinegar and added a generous glug or three of vermouth just before adding the egg whites, which gave the whole thing a hint of anise. Not quite a béarnaise sauce, but the addition of some fennel tops, finely chopped like dill, added to its slightly aromatic character.
After poaching the ravioli for about four minutes each they were ready to be placed in a bowl, on a star of rocket, and drizzled generously with the foaming sauce. The crowning glory was a garnish of pickled samphire (from the wonderful Brixton Cornercopia, courtesy of Miss South) and some potted brown shrimps from Morecambe Bay. Incidentally, if you’ve not had these little beauties before, snap them up if you’re lucky enough to spot them. They’re so moresome and flavoursome, but not worth the fiddle and faff of preparing them yourself. The dish did look at least as beautiful as I’d planned, and the combination of flavours was balanced and delicious. Thankfully it was also well received by my dinner guests. Phew!
The next day, buoyed up by the success of the ravioli, I used up the rest of the pasta dough and quickly created some tagliatelle. This provided the basis for a rapid leftover lunch to die for: sautéing some fennel in butter, adding some pieces of salmon and the rest of the shrimps, a splash of lemon juice to help wilt the rest of the rocket leaves, and a squirt of harissa to add warmth. This certainly helped to temper the fluffy head from the previous night’s drinking, and underscored that pasta making is nothing to be afraid of. I will be attempting much more of this in the near future… can’t wait until the wild garlic season comes round so I can make fresh pesto and spaghetti!