Do-it-yourself orecchiette

Last summer, Daniel and I went to Apulia, Italy for a holiday. We ended our stay a little early because the weather in the beach town of Gallipoli promised to be steady rain for 7 days … and you don’t want to be in a provincial beach town if you can’t go to the beach. About the only thing you can do if it’s raining is sleep, eat and drink … and based on the spectacular meals we had had for the first few days, we knew that if we stayed, we’d put on 20 pounds each. Because Apulia is known for pasta.  Beautiful, toothsome, fattening pasta.  It is featured on menus at both lunch and dinner; I was led to understand that most families eat it at least daily.  And one type pasta in particular is practically a trademark of Apulia: orecchiette.

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Orecchiette, which means “little ears” in Italian, is a sturdy, dumpling-like pasta. Not in the least like gnocchi, which, if prepared properly, are almost as light as clouds. No, orecchiette definitely is something you can sink your teeth into. And, as it turns out, it is one of the easiest types of pasta to make at home.  There’s no special equipment required; you don’t need to worry about rolling to almost paper-thinness, or about the cut pasta sticking together or to whatever you lay it out on to dry.  Sure, it’s a little time-consuming to make, but anything worthwhile always takes some effort, no?

What you need from your pantry

For successful orecchiete you do need two special things, though. The first is Tipo 00 flour. Tipo 00 flour is an Italian-grown and milled flour. It is the most refined of the Italian flour grades, in that it has the highest extraction rate of bran and wheatgerm.  It is also extremely finely ground, so that it’s almost like talcum powder. In Naples, it’s the preferred flour for making pizza dough. Several brands of tipo 00 flour are available at my favourite independently-owned supermarket here in Toronto, Fiesta Farms. Italian grocers will almost certainly stock it. The second thing you need is semolina. It’s important that you get the finely-milled variety, not the coarser-milled version that resembles cornmeal. Semolina gives pasta “bite”. If you make orecchiete without semolina, I imagine it would just be flabby.

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Duram semolina, on the left; Tipo 00 flour, on the right.

The dough

I used a 2:1 ratio of Tipo 00 flour to semolina. So, 2 cups flour, 1 cup semolina. To make the dough, sift the flour and semolina directly onto your spotlessly-clean counter. Mix them together with your hands, and then form a mound with a deep well in the middle. Next, mix together about a cup of warm water and a half teaspoon or so of salt. (Unlike most made-at-home pasta, you don’t use eggs to make orecchiete dough.) Pour about 1/3 of this mixture into the well in the center of your mound of flour/semolina.  Then, use a fork to stir the water around. The flour/semolina on the inside walls of the well will collapse inwards, and begin to be absorbed by the water and form a slurry.  When the mixture forms a thick-ish paste, add more water, and keep stirring. Repeat this process until all of the flour is absorbed. You might need more water, or you might need less; there’s no strict formula here, as factors like humidity and the moisture content of your flour will affect how much water is needed.  You want a soft-ish dough; if it’s crumbly, add a few drops of water.  If it’s a wet, sticky mess, you’ve added to much water. The only correction for this is to mix together more flour and semolina in the same 2:1 ratio, and then knead a few sprinklings of this into the dough until it is no longer wet. When most of the flour has been absorbed, start kneading.  You don’t need to do this for too long … just long enough for the dough to be supple and smooth.

Forming the shapes

To form the orecchiete, tear off a hunk of dough about the size of an apricot.  Roll it between your hands so that it forms a snake about the thickness of your little finger. Then, cut the snake into 1 cm lengths: IMG_1996 Take one of the pieces, and using a standard dinner knife (preferably one with a bit of a serrated edge), you sort of smear the piece across whatever surface you’re working on. In the pictures below, the knife is moving from left to right, and the dough is sort of curling up on the edge of the knife: IMG_2003 IMG_2004 IMG_2005 Take the piece of dough off the knife, and open the dumpling up, sort of like opening a book. You’ll end up with something that looks like this:

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The orecchiete, opened up.

And there you are: you’ve made your first orecchiete. It sounds like this takes forever, but you can actually get going pretty fast at it. You can also use the same knife-rolling technique to make cavatelli; if you take the roll of dough off your knife without opening it up to make orecchiete, you have a piece of cavatelli. Here’s what I ended up with:

Orecchiete, on the left, and cavatelli on the right.
Orecchiete, on the left, and cavatelli on the right.

A classic Apulian dish

Now, what to do with all this pasta?  A classic Apulian dish is Orecchiete con Cime di Rapa, or, orecchiette with rapini (also sometimes called broccoli raab or broccoli rabe).  There are lots of recipes for this dish on the Internet.  We had some fresh sausage on hand, so we made Orecchiette con Rapini e Salsiccia – orecchiete with sausage and rapini. I always like to blanch rapini before cooking with it. It helps to maintain it’s deep green colour. Toss trimmed, coarsely chopped rapini into a large pot of heavily salted boiling water. (The salt helps cut the bitterness of the rapini).  Bring the water back to the boil, give the contents of the pot a stir or two with a wooden spoon, then drain into a colander, rinse with cold water, and drain well. Meanwhile, crumble  the sausage into a skillet with a few tablespoons of olive oil, and cook it over a medium-low flame until it loses is raw appearance. Remove the sausage from the pan, and set aside. Add a little more olive oil, and 3 cloves of very thinly sliced garlic, and a big pinch of chili flakes (omit if you’re using hot Italian sausage). Sauté the garlic and chilies over a medium flame until the garlic starts to colour, then add the drained rapini, tossing it well in the oil to coat it. Cover the pan and let it cook for a couple of minutes, shaking it from time to time. Next,  add a cup of chicken stock or bouillon, and two tablespoons of butter (or extra-virgin olive oil) and the sausage meat. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and cook for about 8-10 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by about half. While the sausage and rapini is cooking, toss your orechiette into a pot of salted, boiling water.  The cooking time will depend on how thick your pasta is, but I found 5-6 minutes was all that was needed. Once the pasta is done, drain it, reserving a cup or so of the cooking water, then add the pasta to the sausage and rapini. Moisten the mixture with about a half cup of pasta water, give everything a good stir, and cook it over high for 1-2 minutes, so that the pasta can absorb some of the sauce. Add more pasta water if the sauce looks a little dry.  Throw in about half a cup of graged parmasan, and then serve immediately with more parmesan cheese on the side.  Heaven.

Finished dish.
Finished dish.

Copyright (C) 2015, Allan Risk. All rights reserved.

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