Fresh Pasta

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients
2 ½ cups flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp olive oil
½ tsp salt

Tools
Long, straight rolling pin
Large wooden cutting board

Making the Dough
Sift 2 cups flour and the salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the center. Break the eggs in a small bowl. Add the olive oil and mix with a fork. Pour the eggs into the well. Using the fork, stir around the edges of the well to incorporate the flour slowly into the eggs.
After the eggs are all absorbed, turn the dough onto the wooden cutting board. It will not hold together at this point.
Fold the dough until you form a ball. Incorporate most or all of the flour. If it is very sticky, sprinkle some flour on the ball. Push the dough away from you with the heel of your hand, fold it over, and give it a quarter turn. Repeat for about 5-8 minutes. The dough will stretch and at a certain point, it will “seize” and feel stiff. When it does, roll it into a ball.

Wrap the ball in plastic and put into the refrigerator to rest for at least an hour.

Rolling the Dough
Remove the dough from the fridge and cut it into four sections. Roll the first section into a ball. Cover the rest. Sprinkle some flour on the cutting board and put the ball in the center. Flatten it into a pancake with the rolling pin. Starting from the center of the ball, roll in each direction to keep the mass generally round. If you can’t keep it round, try for a rectangular shape. Sprinkle a little flour on the dough and the board as needed to keep the dough soft and not sticky.

Turn the dough over and keep rolling. Work quickly to keep the dough from drying out and cracking. As the dough thins, you’ll want to try to push the dough away from you, stretching it rather than pressing straight down. At the edge, give the dough an extra push to thin it.

The dough is ready when it is thin enough for you to see the printing on a piece of newspaper slid under the dough. Usually the dough will be dry enough to cut. If it isn’t, put it on some paper towels or a kitchen towel to dry slightly.

Cutting the Dough
Fold the dough like a letter—fold the bottom third up and the top third down over it.
Use a sharp kitchen knife to cut one end of the folded dough to make a straight edge. Using your knuckle as a guide, cut the dough into ¼” strips.

When you are done, unroll the dough. I have found it easy to slip the knife under the upper fold of a section of the roll and lift the pasta. Hold the pasta against the knife with one hand and shake to unroll it. Wrap the dough into a nest shape and set it off to one side. Roll and cut the remaining dough.

When the pasta is cut, you can cook it immediately or cover it with wax paper and let it sit on your counter for several hours. The extra small pieces can be cut into rough shapes and added to a soup. I freeze several batches until I have enough.

Cooking the Pasta
Fill a large pot ¾ full of water. Add a TBS of salt and cover. Bring to a rolling boil. (I often do this while I am making the pasta, then turn the heat off. The water stays pretty hot and can be brought to a rolling boil in a short time when you need it.) Add the pasta. Cover and let come to a boil. (The water will boil over if you do not keep checking it.) Uncover as soon as it is boiling and stir. The cookbooks say it is done 1 minute after the water returns to a rolling boil. I have found that it takes as long as 4 minutes to get the pasta cooked. It should be chewy, but cooked all the way through. Keep stirring and tasting until it is as done as you like.

Put some sauce into a large bowl. Add the drained pasta and mix slightly. Add more sauce and mix again. Serve the pasta with a good homemade tomato sauce, a Bolognese Sauce, or a creamy Alfredo Sauce.

Bolognese Sauce

Bolognese Sauce is not the red tomato sauce that we’re all used to. It is meatier and uses tomatoes as an ingredient rather than the only liquid. It is descended from the sauces made before the New World was discovered and tomatoes were eaten.
(Makes six servings)

Ingredients
1 ½ lbs ground beef or 1 lb ground beef and ½ lb ground pork
2 large carrots
2 stalks celery
2 onions
1 cup white wine
1 6 oz. can of tomato paste
1 15-oz can of stewed or chopped tomatoes with their juice
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup milk
salt and pepper
¼ tsp grated whole nutmeg

Peel and dice the carrots into small cubes, dice the celery, and chop the onions. Sauté the vegetables in a large pot until the onion is wilted and the carrots are soft. Add the ground meat. Cook until the meat is cooked, stirring to break up the lumps. Drain the fat.

Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste. Grate the nutmeg into the meat.  Add the wine and cook down until the wine is almost gone. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste and mix well.  Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 2 hours. The liquid should bubble only slightly. Stir as needed.

Add the milk and simmer for another 20 minutes. Taste and correct the seasonings.

Clams and Mussels Cataplana

This is my favorite version. Feel free to use all clams or all mussels, and vary the smoked meats to your taste. It makes a lot of sauce. My family loves it over pasta, which soaks up the sauce. Not traditional, but good.

1 2-pound bag mussels
12 littleneck clams
1 link chourico
1/4 pound slab bacon, sliced thickly
1 slice presunto or prosciutto, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
1 28-ounce can ground peeled tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
3 large cloves garlic
1 large onion
Half of a large green pepper
Olive oil
Pepper to taste
Parsley 

Heat an 8-quart cooking pot. Slice the bacon into pieces and fry until brown and crisp. Remove the bacon pieces and reserve them. Pour off the fat, leaving the browned bits in the pot. Slice the chourico into thin rounds and saute until browned. Remove from the pan and reserve. Dice the ham and saute in the same pan until browned. Remove and reserve. Dice the onion and green pepper.

Add a couple of tablespoons of good olive oil to the pan and saute the vegetables until soft. Add the wine and cook, stirring the bottom of the pot to loosen all the browned bits. Cook until the wine is almost gone and add the tomatoes. Add a few grinds of black pepper and a couple of spoonfuls of the chourico and ham. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will be very thick, but don’t add liquid. The shellfish will release a lot of juice as they cook. 

Clean the clams and mussels. Remove about half the sauce from the pot. Add the clams and mussels and top with the rest of the sauce. Cover and cook over medium heat until the clams and mussels are just open. Add the reserved chourico and ham and cook for another 5 minutes. Top with the bacon pieces and minced parsley and serve in bowls with crusty bread and red wine.

Serves 4 as a meal.

For Portuguese foods, head east … to Ludlow

New Year’s Eve 1977. I am on a date with a woman I barely know. At her suggestion, we are eating at the Casa Portugal, a venerable Portuguese restaurant in Cambridge’s Inman Square. I remember fish on rice, a melange of clams and pork cubes, and Portuguese fries, small fried rounds, soft rather than crunchy. It is honest food, strong flavors of garlic, wine, tomatoes, cumin, paprika and other seasonings that enhance rather than mask the fish, shellfish and meat with which they are cooked. After dinner, some tables are cleared and a man begins to sing. I understand not a word but the songs convey love, longing, loss and a noble sadness. Fados, songs of fate. I never see my New Year’s date again, but a lifelong relationship has been born. 

Portugal shares much of the common European heritage — waves of invasions, exploration and conquests in the Americas and Africa, and absorption into the European Economic Community. It has its own unique character as well and the food is at once familiar and different from the other southern European cuisines.

Ludlow, for some reason, has a sizable Portuguese community, and I am walking down East Street ready to explore. I pass a sign that advertises “Falamos Portugues” as well as “Hablamos Espanol,” stare at the names like Silva and Mello that grace the doors of otherwise mundane businesses, and something inside begins to tingle. 

My first stop is the ALIANCA MARKET at 223 East St. The Alianca has a small but good fish market, imported groceries such as olive oil, tuna and sardines, and a line of Gonsalves spices, beans and other specialties. Boxes of bacalhau (salt cod), both boneless and bone-in, sit on their own shelves. I buy fresh squid, striped bass and tilefish as well as a slab of bacalhau.

The woman behind the counter shrugs when I ask her about the tilefish, and points me to the woman at the register. She and I have a long conversation about the merits of striped bass (“tastes good but too much mercury”) and the tilefish, which I have never seen before. The tilefish has a beautiful grey and yellow mottled skin like some species of aquatic snake. The taste is milder than striped bass, more like halibut. I buy some imported tuna and sardines, and look fruitlessly for Portuguese All Spice, a blend of paprika, allspice, cinnamon and more. A bottle marked Jamaica raises my hopes but is merely cominos, cumin. They pack my fish on top of ice for me. I stow it in my car and continue down the street.

The LUDLOW CENTRAL BAKERY at 270 East St. is a block or two down from the grocery. The usual baked goods mingle with little tarts of coconut, rice and fejoda, which the young woman behind the counter explains “means beans but there are no beans in it.” There are fried donuts and packaged baked rings. I fill a box and continue.

A few doors down, at 276 East St., I hit a gold mine, the J. R. BUTCHER SHOPPE. Behind the counter hang lengths of homemade chourico. I have been on a quest for this for quite some time. The supermarket brands like Gaspar’s are good, but I want to taste homemade. Bread & Circus had homemade chourico, but like many of its sausages, they tasted good but utterly unlike chourico. This is the real thing. Chourico (pronounced “cherice”) is chunks of pork and fat, spiced with paprika and other good things and hit with a shot of vinegar which contributes to the unique taste. You can also find linguica, a similar but thinner sausage. Over the years, I have heard many explanations of the difference (linguica is ground, not in chunks, chourico is spicier) but nothing definitive. The taste is similar, but I prefer the chourico.

The butcher advises me to grill the links until they sizzle. He is clearly proud of them and, when I taste them once I get back home, he has a right to be. His chourico has a vinegar tang as well as a strong paprika taste and it cooks up without the pink of the nitrates that usually go into the commercial versions. It tastes as good as it looks.

On a subsequent visit, I look past the chourico and blood sausage links to whole smoked hams, the outsides red with spices. “Presunto,” explains the woman behind the counter. They are about 12 pounds each so I exercise restraint and buy only a half. She slices some for me so I can taste it. It is like prosciutto, a little saltier, and the overlay of spices rubbed all over it adds a piquancy that is quite appealing. They advise me that I can eat it sliced thin without cooking, and use cubes in cooking as well. J R Butcher has a freezer case, a box of bacalhau, and a set of shelves with canned and packaged groceries.

Clutching my goodies, I ignore the many good Portuguese restaurants, the Matador, Primavera and the like, and head home for a weekend of cooking: mussels cataplana, salt cod casserole, and a green bean recipe that looks good. I have other plans for the striped bass and tilefish: cataplana, a seafood stew.

The cataplana is both a cooking utensil and the dish itself. The dish, a tomato- and chourico-laced broth, is traditionally cooked with the small clams of Portugal. The utensil is like a wide hinged wok. Halfway through the cooking you invert the dish so the fragrant juices can trickle down and flavor the clams. On the Cape, I make a cataplana with the smallest littlenecks I can find, but here in western Mass, I use mussels or a combination of mussels and clams. Lacking a cataplana, I use a technique from Jean Anderson’s “Foods of Portugal,” and layer the sauce and the shellfish.

Howard Mitcham, whose “Provincetown Seafood Cookbook” is still a classic of Portuguese American cooking, uses linguica, chourico and bacon in his cataplana. “Foods of Portugal” uses chourico, prosciutto and baked ham. I have made cataplanas with various mixtures of sausages. I like them all, but I like the taste that the bacon imparts the best.

For those who like southern European cooking, but want to branch out from the Italian and Spanish staples, try Portuguese. Jean Anderson’s “Foods of Portugal” and “Portuguese Homestyle Cooking” by Ana Patuleia Ortins are two good cookbooks. Mitcham’s “Provincetown Seafood Cookbook” is currently out of print and hard to find ever since Anthony Bourdain touted it in “Kitchen Confidential,” but if you can find a copy, grab it. It cooks as good as it reads.

Ludlow is only a short hop away from Northampton and Amherst. Even if you don’t make the trip, the local supermarkets have what you need.

Originally published, Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 26, 2007.

Recipes

Clams and Mussels Cataplana

In Search of Grandma’s Blintzes

My grandmother made the best blintzes. Blintzes, for those who haven’t had them are small crepes, filled with slightly sweetened farmer cheese. My mother, a good cook in her own right, helped my grandmother for years, but couldn’t duplicate the taste. After my grandmother died, I would order blintzes in restaurants or from deli counters, but I was always disappointed.

My mother’s parents were from Romania. My grandmother left as a teenager, long enough to absorb her mother’s cooking. In between the roast beefs and roast chickens, she made the foods she grew up with. grandma made a vinegary eggplant, onion, green pepper and garlic relish she called shulatah, which I later learned meant salad. She served mamaliga (Romanian for polenta) with fried lox wings (the meaty part of the side fins of smoked salmon rolled in cornmeal and sautéed). She added helzel to her chicken soup. (For helzel, she sewed matzo ball batter into the breast skin of a chicken and poached it in the soup. It was delicious, even though you had to pay attention to avoid biting into the thread.) She fried smelts and when the shad ran in the spring, she served roe of the fish sautéed in butter. I never got to explain to her what an oxymoron was and she wouldn’t have cared. Roe of the fish what it was called. She was a good cook and let us kids raid the mayonnaise jar she kept filled with chocolate chips whenever we visited.

When you think back on the foods you loved as a child, the question is: did they really taste that good or were they simply familiar? Does the warmth of your families’ kitchens color your memories? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. All I know is that no one’s blintzes tasted like grandma’s.

While memory is a tricky thing, so are grandmother’s recipes. Grandmothers are notorious for knowing how much and how long without measuring cups or timers. My mother had many conversations with my grandmother about ingredients. They invariably ran like this: “When it looks right, you know it’s enough.” “How do I know what looks right?” “When it looks like this.”

I know of one person who filled measuring cups with flour, sugar, milk, etc. and had his grandmother make her blintzes. His grandmother poured the flour, stirred, and mixed and made her usual batch. He totaled up what was left and, voila, the recipe was his. The punch line, of course, is that they did not taste as good as his grandmother’s.

A couple of years ago, my daughter-in-law asked me to make her seafood crepes for her birthday dinner. I made a batch of crepes and a shrimp and scallop seafood filling. That night, when I bit into the crepe, through the shellfish my grandmother had never tasted, I got a taste of blintzes. Suddenly, grandma’s blintzes were within my reach.

Armed with James Beard’s crepe batter recipe and the knowledge that the local supermarkets sold farmer cheese, I set off to recreate grandma’s blintzes. I devoured a dozen recipes. They all used some combination of farmer cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, and eggs in wildly varying proportions. I tried a few and I finally hit on a mixture that tasted familiar. So I subjected it to the only tests I knew. I made a batch for my cousin Barry and asked him whether they tasted like grandma Ethel’s. He ate six without stopping, while telling a long and involved story about my grandparents, so I still don’t know what he thought.

When I visited my parents, I made them a batch. My mother kept her distance while I cooked, repeating “that’s not how mom did it” at regular intervals. When we ate them, she said they tasted like grandma’s but grandma’s bletloch were lighter. “What’s a bletloch?” I asked “The wrapper, you know, for the blintzes.”

My mother and grandmother served them with a dollop of sour cream, which I never liked. As a child, I ate my blintzes unadorned. When I serve blintzes today, I serve them with blueberry sauce. My wife likes to sprinkle sliced strawberries with a couple of tsp of sugar and let them sit for 10 minutes before topping her blintzes. You could serve them with sautéed apples.

My grandmother left a world of horse-drawn carts before WW I and died in the world of the Internet. Her cooking changed when she reached America She found new and different ingredients. She lacked some of the familiar staples. Items that were luxuries at home were available everywhere. I live in New England now. I use the local ingredients. I’m not kosher. My generation’s cooking includes different ingredients and a different view of fats, carbs, and vitamins.

So, the question remains. Are my blintzes as good as my grandmother’s? James Beard claimed to remember every meal he’d ever eaten. I’m not that good. All I do know is that my blintzes are tasty and my family likes them.

So grandma, no one will ever make blintzes as good as you. But when I place my blintzes on the table, I hear other plates being placed on other tables in a line through grandma Ethel back to grandmothers I never knew. And watching my family eat my blintzes, I can see ahead to grandchildren I will never know. At least they’ll have my recipe, so they can change it to their own tastes.

Recipes

Grandma Ethel’s Blintzes

Blueberry Sauce

Grandma Ethel’s Blintzes

This recipe makes approximately 20-25 blintzes. At brunch, assume four per person as a serving, and two per person for polite eaters or in combination with other dishes. You can reheat any leftovers later that day or within a couple of days. Freeze uncooked blintzes wrapped in wax paper and let them defrost before cooking.

Serve with warm blueberry sauce, sliced strawberries sprinkled with a little sugar, and sour cream for those who want it.

The secret to blintzes, if there is one, is that you cook your batter on one side only. The other side is dry, but still uncooked. The filling goes on the cooked side so when you wrap them, the outside is uncooked and can then be browned.

For the wrappers:
1 3/4 cups of flour
5 eggs
1/4  tsp salt
2 1/2 cups milk
4-6 TBS melted butter for batter
butter for sautéing

For the Filling:
2 lbs farmer’s cheese
3 TBS sour cream
2 eggs, beaten
1 TBS sugar

Make the filling by mixing all the ingredients for the filling in a bowl. Refrigerate until needed.

Make the Wrappers

Sift the flour and the salt into a bowl. Melt the butter and let cool. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, add 2 cups milk and the melted, cooled butter and stir to mix.

Add to the flour and beat in with a whisk until smooth. Add up to another half cup of milk until it looks right. You’ll know it’s right when it looks like heavy cream, thick and pourable. Let the batter rest, covered, in the refrigerator for one or two hours.

To cook the crepes, you’ll want a small (10”), slope-sided frying pan. Non-stick pans work best. Heat the pan until hot over a medium-high heat. Wipe the bottom of the pan with butter to moisten it. You can use the paper from the butter you melted for the batter and feel virtuous.

Pour 1 1/2 TBS batter in the pan and swirl it around to cover the bottom. Ideally, it should cover the bottom evenly without extra batter. Crepe recipes always tell you to pour the excess back into the bowl, but this is impossible and messy besides. It’s better to add a little if you need until you get the amount right.

Cook the crepe on one side until the bottom is gently browned. The top should be dry, but uncolored. Flip the pan over to empty the crepe onto a plate, cooked side up. Repeat until the batter is used up.

Assemble the Blintzes

To assemble the blintzes, put the filling and the cooled crepes to one side. I assemble them on a cutting board and stack the finished blintzes on a cookie sheet covered with waxed paper.

When you make the blintzes, your goal is a nicely wrapped package that looks like an envelope. Lay one crepe in front of you, cooked side up. If you imagine that the crepe is a clock face, draw an imaginary line from 8 to 4. The center of this line is where your filling goes. Place 1 TBS filling on the crepe. Fold the bottom up and over the filling and flatten it slightly. Fold the sides over the middle flap. Fold the top down over the package. Place on the waxed paper, folded side down. Repeat until you run out of batter or filling. If you layer the blintzes, separate each layer with waxed paper.

Cook the Blintzes

To cook the blintzes, use a non-stick frying pan, ideally one that can hold 4 at one time. Heat over medium-low heat and melt a TBS of butter to the pan. Pre-heat the oven to 200º. Add blintzes with the fold facing down. Cook 4 blintzes until nicely browned, flip and cook the other side until browned. Remove to a cookie sheet, flipping again so the fold is face down. Keep warm in a 200º oven until all are cooked.

Published: Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 01, 2005

Blueberry Sauce

1 pt ripe blueberries
1 TBS butter
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp cinnamon
Sugar to taste

Pick over the blueberries to remove any bad berries, leaves, or stems. Taste one or two to get a feel for how tart they are. Rinse in cold water, shake to remove most of the water, and place into a small saucepan. Add the butter and cinnamon, cover and heat gently.

When the blueberries are simmering, uncover. Add the sugar in 1 tsp increments and taste after mixing each spoonful. Simmer gently for five minutes until thickened slightly. Some of the blueberries will pop, others will remain whole. Let cool slightly before serving.