• Egg Pasta
• Basil Pasta
• Parmesan, Garlic, and Pine Nuts with Basil Pasta
• Cilantro Leaf Pasta
• Tomatillo Jalapeño Butter with Cilantro Pasta
• Saffron Pasta
• Feta, Chives, and Pistachios with Saffron Pasta
If olive oil if and wine are the heart and soul of the Italian table, pasta is the body, and herbs are the spirit. Not a day goes by in most Italian lives without a bowl of pasta, lightly sauced or in broth. Tons of dried noodles are consumed in Italy, but the most respect is accorded fresh, homemade pasta. Our friends who introduced us to pasta fresca when we lived in Italy during the 1970s were passionate about it, and we soon learned to echo their sigh of satisfaction: “Che buona è la pasta!” Pasta is easy to make and always appreciated, and here in the United States it has become a comfort food for youngsters, teenagers, and adults alike.
As for the herbs, though we both grew up in families in which cooking was a pleasure as well as a necessity, neither of us had encountered anything like the abundance of fresh herbs in the Italian kitchen. In fact, the variety of fresh and distinctive fruits, vegetables, and herbs, the simplicity of the dishes, and the combination of flavors so intrigued and seduced us that Italian cooking remains our favorite twenty years later.
Being devotees of both herbs and pasta has led us through many delicious experiments in combining the two. The perfection of homemade pasta comes from its fresh, satisfying flavor and its resilient yet silky texture. Herbs awaken and stimulate the palate: when used to flavor the noodles themselves, as in the dishes we present here, they confer an extra dimension of liveliness with little extra effort.
Because we learned to make pasta in Italy, our guiding principles about herb and pasta combinations are Italian in character. Perhaps the most important is simplicity, born of necessity and elevated to genius by generations of cooks throughout Italy’s many regions. A few ingredients are usually better than many, provided that they work together to contrast and amplify the elemental flavors of sweet, sour, salt, and bitter.
Just flour and eggs make the finest Italian-style homemade noodles. Adding fresh herbs to the dough subtly but distinctly complements the flavor when the noodles are cooked. The quality of these few ingredients, as well as the way in which the noodles are rolled, can make a perceptible difference in the flavor and texture of pasta. Our tried-and-true recipe for Egg Pasta, along with step-by-step photographs.
Unbleached white flour contains just enough gluten to give a firm, slightly springy bite to cooked pasta without the toughness that marks some commercial fresh pastas. Bread flour, which contains more gluten, may be used if you prefer a denser texture. When we lived in the country in Tuscany, we used eggs from our own chickens–the pronounced flavor of fresh eggs from free-range chickens is essential to excellent pasta–and now we buy the freshest eggs that we can find, choosing those with firm, thick shells. We use our own homegrown herbs, picked at their peak of flavor.
Homemade noodles lend themselves to virtually endless experimentation. Cilantro Leaf Pasta, in which the herb leaf shows beautifully through translucent layers of dough, may be varied by substituting dill, fennel, flat-leaved parsley, watercress, chervil, or small, tender basil leaves for those of cilantro; remove any thick stems. Leafy pasta makes great soup noodles of the kind that the Pennsylvania Dutch call slippery dumplings. Cook the big squares or rectangles in a soup that harmonizes with the herb flavor: cilantro complements soups with southwestern ingredients such as sautéed sweet and hot peppers, corn, or hominy, whereas dill and parsley are good in chicken vegetable soup with carrots and peas.
From the Basil Pasta recipe, you can create other green herb noodles by substituting flat-leaved parsley, small sorrel leaves, or arugula (wilt the sorrel or arugula in a steamer for a few seconds before pureeing it). Vary Saffron Pasta by substituting finely chopped sage, rosemary, oregano, or marjoram for the saffron and water.
We have kept to simple pasta-sauce combinations here to illustrate the basics of herb-pasta combinations, but the same recipes may be used to make many layered and filled pasta dishes. Basil Pasta, for instance, is wonderful layered with vine-ripened roasted tomatoes, garlic, and fresh mozzarella for a light essence-of-summer lasagna. Saffron Pasta may be cut into cannelloni shapes and filled with fish and shellfish, then drizzled with a light cream and wine sauce. Cilantro Leaf Pasta makes a visually dramatic and tasty lasagna with roasted chile and tomato sauce and any number of mild or slightly tangy cheeses such as monterey jack and fresh goat cheese.
Pasta for All Seasons
During the winter, we like to use fresh sage to flavor a pasta that we top with white beans, lemon peel, and garlic. Pasta made with fresh rosemary is a fine side dish with roast lamb; dress it with the pan juices. When spring herbs are abundant, so are flavor choices. Sorrel pasta dressed in a garlic cream sauce makes a bright accompaniment to poached fish or chicken. Small fennel or dill leaves pressed between layers of egg pasta are delicious wrapped around fresh steamed asparagus spears and garnished with a roasted red pepper sauce. Try tender watercress leaves pressed between noodle sheets in a light miso broth tossed with scallions, julienned snow peas, and radishes; or leafy chervil pasta with spring vegetables such as asparagus, artichokes, new carrots, fava beans, and peas. In summer, arugula pasta is attractive in a dish of red and yellow pear or cherry tomatoes, fresh arugula leaves, garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar, with goat cheese crumbled on top. Another time, try oregano or marjoram pasta with sautéed sweet and chile peppers seasoned with sherry vinegar and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds and cheese.
The time-honored way to store fresh pasta is to dry it. Uncooked flat ribbon shapes or narrow strands may be hung on racks, laid flat, or curled into loose nests on a wooden surface or kitchen towels. Dust the pasta with semolina flour or all-purpose flour if it feels the least bit sticky, especially if you are curling it into nests. Let it dry thoroughly, turning it occasionally, then store it in a zip-close bag, jar, or a tin with a tight-fitting lid. Handle it carefully: homemade dried pasta is more fragile than the commercial kind. Pasta stored in this manner, away from heat, will retain excellent flavor and texture for about a month. Although it can be stored as long as several months, its quality slowly deteriorates. Use this dried pasta as you would fresh; cooking time is usually about twice as long.
If you plan to keep fresh pasta in the refrigerator or freezer, make it in a food processor, which produces a dry, resilient dough, rather than by hand. To refrigerate the pasta for a day or two, first let it air-dry for about 20 minutes, turning it once. If the pasta is firm and does not stick together, go ahead and place it in a zip-close bag. If the pasta is sticky, sprinkle it with semolina flour or cornmeal and let it air-dry until it is like soft glove leather before placing it in a zip-close bag. Before refrigerating filled pasta, place it on floured towels and turn it a few times so that it dries evenly.
Ribbon and strand noodles as well as smaller filled pastas freeze well. Filled lasagna and cannelloni freeze less successfully because of the differences in texture and water content of fillings and sauces. Air-dry the pasta, turning once or twice, or until it is firm and dry. Ribbons or strands may be curled into nests or gathered loosely and packed into zip-close freezer bags. Freeze filled pasta on baking sheets or trays sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina flour, then pack it in zip-close bags and freeze for as long as several months. To cook frozen pasta, drop it directly into vigorously boiling salted water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
The Italian women who taught us to make pasta had been practicing for many years, making thin, even dough with little more than a rolling pin and skill. Although we still occasionally mix, roll, and cut pasta by hand, more often we resort to food processors and pasta machines. Here we include directions for both mixing methods; hand-mixed dough is usually softer than processor-mixed dough and does not incorporate all of the flour. Sift any extra flour and use it, if necessary, to dust the dough lightly as you roll it through the pasta machine.
If you don’t have a pasta machine, roll the dough with a rolling pin on a large, very smooth work surface. Allow time for the dough to rest while rolling it. Whenever it springs back, cover it to prevent drying, let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes, then continue to roll it larger. Your noodles will probably be thicker than machine-rolled ones but still delicious. For leaf pastas, the dough should be evenly thick, no more than 1/8 inch, before you place the herb leaves between the layers. The finished pasta should be about 1/16 inch thick.
To cut fat and cholesterol from egg pasta, use three egg whites from extra-large eggs in place of two whole eggs. You may have to sprinkle in a little water or extra flour.
Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger, two gardeners and food writers who collaborate on recipes from opposite coasts, met in Italy over a bowl of pasta twenty-five years ago. They are the authors of The Garlic Book, The Chile Pepper Book, The Greens Book, and the upcoming Onion Book, all from Interweave Press.