Pasta perfect

At home or on the run, fresh is best when it comes to a still-loved staple

It's the first question asked when people arrive home at night: "What's for dinner?"

After a busy day, a typical home cook will first ask what's quickest and easiest. It might be pasta with a ready-made, store-bought sauce. Hauling out a pasta maker to make the fresh variety isn't in the recipe cards.

Yet there is an alternative, a new source of locally made fresh pasta that not only offers superior flavour and nutrition, but saves time as well.

Fratelli Foods, a popular downtown delicatessen, recently started making pasta on the premises for take-out and take-home meals.

"A lot of pasta they're getting is from Italy," said Peter Pietramala, co-owner of the downtown delicatessen. Canadian flour is shipped to Toronto and then to Italian manufacturers. "They add water, make noodles and ship it back as pasta."

That's not only a roundabout and costly route to obtain a staple, it requires an energy output that is wholly unnecessary.

"It's a green movement as well. We can make a better product and sell it for less money, and there's less impact on the environment."

As he dished out fresh pasta and soup over the deli's lunch counter, Pietramala recalled going to a rally in Italy about 10 years ago, when the slow-food movement was gaining momentum there. His Italian cousin, a university professor, presented Pietramala as his guest speaker. McDonald's had opened an outlet, provoking public outrage in a country where traditional foods are near and dear to the cultural heart.

To proud Italians, fast food is a cultural abomination: "Slow food eating is eating to enjoy; fast food eating is just eating to survive."

North American culture, on the other hand, has long succumbed to the speed feed. People tend to eat so quickly that they don't know when they're full, so they keep eating, often over-eating, adding to the oft-noted expanding girth.

"We live in a society where a lot of people don't have time to do things, but they also demand more quality."

Fresh pasta serves both demands, requiring just three minutes to cook rather than the 10 minutes needed for dried pasta.

"Seven more minutes and you can be stretching at yoga," he grinned. "And it's local, even down to the eggs. The eggs are free-run."

As spring brings on blue grass, yolks become richer, sweeter and redder. Rendered as pasta, they create a healthier product.

"It's bright yellow - that's the quality of the eggs."

Thirty years ago, Umberto Menghi, perhaps B.C.'s best-known Italian chef, used to talk of pasta as "the food of the future" - wholesome, nutritious, versatile and healthy. And then came Atkins.

The popularity of the Atkins Diet in the last 10 to 15 years has created a shift in consumer perception of pasta. It lost popularity, misunderstood as a carbohydrate-rich staple adding to weight gain. Italians, generally, don't have the obesity problem because they eat pasta differently as a lunch rather than as a dinner entré, Peter noted.

"You burn up those calories."

The popularity of their fresh pasta for lunch speaks for itself.

"We're still experimenting - some whole wheat, some traditional (semolina)." They've even tested use of squid ink as a natural colouring to darken the pasta.

SH: No comparison with fresh pasta, home cook insists

Ever since he worked in the kitchen of an Italian restaurateur years ago, Barry Dowden has been kneading and feeding.

He kneads and rolls eggs and flour, striving for the perfect consistency, then he feeds the dough through his little Marcarto Atlas 150. The Atlas 150 is a standard tabletop pasta maker that cost about $50.

"It has a bite," said the Kamloops home chef, a fan of traditional Italian cuisine. "It has a texture you cannot get from dry pasta."

That's just for starters.

"Compared to factory-made dry pasta, it absorbs a sauce much more deeply, so it likes the thicker sauces that cling to the surface, like the white sauce."

Most people, particularly in convenience-driven North America, can't comprehend starting from scratch with pasta. The commercial product is inexpensive and a lot of home cooks haven't experimented with the difference. Yet making the pasta is a simple process, Dowden said. He forms a well in all-purpose unbleached flour, adds the eggs - free-run are best - and then rolls the dough into sheets a few inches wide.

"The main trick is getting the dough to the right consistency so it's not too stretchy but it's not completely dried out."

Preparing the pasta is just the opening act, of course.

"I think one of the advantages of making pasta is you can make stuffed pasta and put anything you like in there."

Make a big batch and dry it. The pasta will last up to a month stored in a tall glass jar. The jars lend a rustic ambience to a kitchen and a personal touch to meals.

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