I won't go on and on about how much I enjoy the challenge of cooking from ingredients I find at the local farmer's market because I've done that before and I don't want to sound like a broken record. That being said, today's visit to the Howe Meadow farmer's market in Peninsula, Ohio, yielded me some tasty ingredients. Besides my usual stop at the Humble Pie Baking Company table to pick up my pie from my friend Diane, I made several other stops while wandering around the partially shaded grassy field. What I walked away with were some fresh beets along with their tops, a small container of goat cheese from Lake Erie Creamery, two pounds of freshly ground whole wheat flour from Mud Run Farms, a one pound sack of fresh sugar snap peas, and a bag of fresh, lovely smelling basil.
In trying to come up with dinner tonight for my grandmother, I decided to do a roasted beet salad for a starter and finish it up with a entrée of seared pork chops, a homemade whole wheat pasta that I would toss in the cooked beet greens, some rendered bacon and garlic, and the sugar snap peas, first blanched and then finished off by searing in some butter. The only complication was that I didn't have my pasta rolling machine with me and I've never rolled pasta by hand before. Then again, given that these machines are only recent additions to the home kitchen and pasta has been around for thousands of years, it was obviously possible and I was certainly capable of giving it the "old college try."
When I got to my grandmother's condo, I set about making the roasted beets. Here was a shot of the ingredients required to roast the beets:
My first task was to turn on the oven and set the thermostat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, I cut the beets from the stalks, placed a single piece of aluminum foil inside the pie tin and placed the cut and washed beets in the center of the foil. I added just enough olive oil to coat the beets. Here was a shot of the beets ready to be packaged up and roasted:
To package the beets, I simply folded the sides of the aluminum foil up over the top of the beets and crimped it shut. Depending on the size of your beats (and the number), the roasting time will vary. I checked after fifty minutes and while my paring knife slid easily through the outer layer of the beets, there was still just a tiny bit of resistance left. So, I let them roast another five minutes.
After they came out of the oven, I opened up the package to let them cool slightly:
After about ten minutes, they were cool enough to handle. To remove the skins and minimize staining, run the beets under cold water. To remove the skins, I just used a paper towel to rub the skins right off. It really was a pretty simple thing to do. Here was a shot of the finished roasted beets:
You could eat them warm right now or put them in the refrigerator for later if you wanted to eat them cold. Since my plan was to use them in a salad, cold was perfect. You could certainly do this step well in advance, even the day before.
Next up I turned my attention to making the whole wheat pasta. Here was a shot of the ingredients:
While you could certainly try and make whole wheat pasta with 100% whole wheat flour, it can get a little tricky and that flavor might be off-putting to some people. And since I was cooking for more than just me today, I decided to do a 50/50 blend between the whole wheat flour I got from Mud Run Farm and the AP (all purpose) flour I knew that my grandmother already had. The basic rule of thumb for fresh pasta is two large eggs for every pound of flour. So today I used:
227 grams whole wheat flour
227 grams AP flour
2 large eggs
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 pinches (roughly 1/4 tsp.) course sea salt
If you are using fine granulated salt, use half as much. You will also need about 1/8-1/4 cup of water, depending on how humid the air is as well as how old the flour is. Today I probably ended up needing the entire 1/4 cup. Also know that whole wheat flour absorbs more water per ounce than AP flour does, so if you decide to make the pasta with 100% AP flour, you would probably need less water.
After mixing the salt with the flours, I dumped it out onto my grandmother's counter and made a large well in the middle. I then scrambled the eggs and olive oil until it was well blended and then poured it into the middle of the well:
Using a fork, I gradually began to incorporate the flour from the inner edges of the wall and stirred it into the egg mixture. Don't be alarmed if, as you get close to the outer edge, you get an egg leak. I did and that was about the time that I switched from a fork to this VERY handy tool:
This is a metal bench scraper and is your best friend when making pasta. It allowed me to fold over large section of the emerging dough onto itself and keep the work surface clean. I used this while getting the dough to come together. At first the dough stayed quite crumbly and didn't want to come together, but after working at it for about five minutes and adding additional water, it eventually became a ball of dough. I could tell, however, based on the feeling of the dough and the fact that when I kneaded it under my palm (it basically tore instead of stretched), that I need to let this dough ball rest for about twenty minutes or so. This would give it time to allow the flour to fully hydrate and the gluten to begin to form. I formed the dough into a ball and covered it with plastic wrap:
After the twenty minute rest, I unwrapped and began to knead it again for another five minutes or so. BIG DIFFERENCE. The one rule that I always tell people when working with pasta or bread dough ... if something isn't working, if it isn't rolling out properly, cover it and give it a rest. Even five minutes of resting time will make a big difference. After the five minutes of additional kneading, the dough felt supple and when I stretched it with the palm of my hand, the dough didn't tear. I reformed it into a ball and then flattened it slightly into a disc, re-covered it with plastic wrap and this time I put it into the refrigerator since I wouldn't be rolling the pasta out for several more hours.
Here was what I put into the refrigerator:
You could also do this part ahead of time, although I wouldn't make the pasta too far in advance (maybe a day or two max). You could also freeze the dough at this point by double wrapping in plastic wrap and then placing in a freezer bag. Frozen dough could be made well in advance. The multi-hour rest also helped the gluten in the dough to relax, which made rolling the dough out much easier.
To roll the dough out, I unwrapped the dough, cut it into quarters, and then dusted both my work surface and the top of the quarter of dough:
Using my grandmother's rolling pin, I began at the center of the dough and rolled outward. Always start at the center and work your way outward. You'll get a more evenly rolled out piece of dough that way. Also, lift, rotate, and flip the dough often so that you make sure it doesn't stick to the counter. Add additional flour as needed, but try and use as little as possible as too much flour at this point will toughen the pasta. As I was rolling out my first piece, I noticed that the dough was fighting me, springing back when I rolled it out. So I decided to set it aside and work on the second piece. Each piece fought me and as each did, I set it aside.
When I got back to the first piece, it had relaxed and I was able to roll out this final shape:
I then used my chefs knife to trim off the irregular sides to make it either a square or a rectangle (depending on how good your rolling skills are). I then made sure the side facing me had a nice light even layer of flour on it and folded the pasta twice, both in the same direction, bottom to top. This made cutting the noodles really easy as I could go through four layers at the same time. After cutting all the noodles (and I was going for a wider fettuccine noodle today, you could certainly do spaghetti or angel hair if you are a true masochist), I opened each one up and loosely piled them together. To this "nest," I added a sprinkling of more AP flour and then used to my hands to "fluff" the nest, thus coating each noodle with just a little bit of the flour so that the noodles wouldn't stick together. After rolling out my four quarters of dough and cutting into noodles, I noticed that I had enough scraps of dough from the four quarters to mash together and get a fifth nest out of it.
Here was a shot of the fettucine nests, floured and ready to be cooked:
As it turned out, only three of these nests were required for dinner tonight, so I individually froze the other two nests in plastic baggies and then put them together inside a freezer bag for long term storage. That gives my grandmother two additional portions of fresh pasta she can use whenever she wants them. To cook them, dump them into boiling water still frozen and boil for about 4-5 minutes or until the noodles float to the top.
My pasta noodles cut and bundled, I turned my attention to the sugar snap peas. One of my favorite tricks with vegetables is to blanch them and shock them in cold water to stop the cooking. Once drained, they can hang out for hours until you are ready to finish them off. After snapping the peas and removing the string that runs along the inside of the vegetable, I set them next to the pot while I waited for it to come to a boil:
If you have more vegetables than will fit in your pot in a single layer, blanch them in stages. Today, I was able to fit them all in:
Once I tossed the peas into the boiling water, I blanched them for four minutes. You want them to be at the same time tender, but also still have a little bit of texture to them. Once the four minutes was up, I used a wire mesh strainer to move them to a bowl of iced water I had already prepared.
Knowing that the whole wheat pasta would cook within just a few minutes, I turned my attention next to the condiment in which I would toss the finished pasta. For my beet greens today, I removed the greens from the woodier stems, minced three cloves of garlic, and sliced five pieces of good old bacon:
The item on the bottom left was crushed red pepper flakes. Although grandma doesn't like it too spicy, I knew that a small pinch would add some character without making it too offensive. In my pre-heated skillet, I tossed in the bacon and cooked it until the bacon fat had rendered out and the bacon was crispy, maybe about five minutes.
To the cooked bacon, I added the garlic and sautéed it until I could smell the garlic and it began to brown slightly. I then added a pinch of the crushed red pepper and my chopped beet greens. Knowing that the greens needed some time to cook, I added about 1/2 cup of chicken stock to the pan, turned it down and covered it. This allowed the greens to steam. After about ten minutes, I checked on the greens and discovered that they had cooked down nicely and the chicken stock had now evaporated. Since I was still working my mojo with the four other components of the meal, I simply turned the burner off and let it stand until needed.
Next up, I turned my attention to the thick cut pork chops I had picked up at the local Giant Eagle. Here was my pork chop prep station today:
I seasoned each side of the pork chops with salt and freshly ground pepper. I then dredged each side in unseasoned AP flour, tapping to remove any excess. I added about a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of grapeseed oil to a pre-heated skillet, let the butter melt and brown slightly and added my massive chops. After cooking on the first side for three minutes, I flipped them over and sautéed them for three minutes more.
Here was a shot of the golden brown crust on the pork chops:
After three minutes on each side, I removed the chops from the pan and placed them on the foil lined tray of my grandmother's toaster oven (which I had set for 350 degrees Fahrenheit). I then finished them in the oven for another twelve to fifteen minutes or so. Ideally you want the chops to cook to about 155 degrees internally, because they will come up another 5 degrees or so while resting. And while I do enjoy my pork medium, that definitely wouldn't be acceptable for grandma.
By removing the pork from the sauté pan after cooking the chops also gave me a chance to build a pan sauce, too. I dumped out most of the fat (but without wiping out the pan) and added a healthy amount of chicken stock to the pan. Using my wooden spoon, I scraped all those lovely bits up from the bottom of the pan (also known as the fond). I then let the sauce reduce until it had a nice consistency and turned off the heat to whisk in two or three healthy pats of butter. I seasoned it with salt and pepper and added just a drop or two of sherry vinegar to balance out the mouth feel from the butter.
Just before dropping the pasta into the boiling water, I turned my attention to the roasted beet salad. I quartered the beets and arranged them on small salad plates. I then topped them with some of the goat cheese from Lake Erie Creamery (use a fork for this, it saves getting your hands all messy ... just scrape the fork tines repeatedly over the goat cheese and it will form crumbles), some fresh orange zest and a chiffonade of the fresh basil leaves I had obtained earlier in the day. To this, I added a sherry vinaigrette I had made from equal parts sherry vinegar and olive oil seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper to taste.
Here was the finished roasted beet salad:
I dropped the pasta into the boiling water and cooked it until it started floating on the surface, perhaps about three minutes. I then scooped it out using a mesh strainer and dumped it straight into the cooked beet greens, where a tossing with some tongs mixed the ingredients together. I then prepared a plate of food for myself and my grandmother. A couple slices of pork, a nest of pasta topped off with some freshly grated Romano cheese, and a spoonful of snap peas quickly sautéed in some butter and seasoned with salt and pepper:
Wow, so delicious and even with the additional fats I added (butter and olive/grapeseed oil), this still felt healthy. Having not eaten since the morning, I greedily devoured my portion. While grandma only ate about half of hers, she saved the rest of hers and ate it for lunch the next day. Even with having cooked only three of the five fettuccine bundles for tonight's dinner, the amount of food I had made today would've easily fed four hungry adults. And since nothing goes to waste (and I do mean nothing) in my grandmother's kitchen, I made up two extra plates of food, one destined for my grandmother's neighbor and one that I would have the next day for lunch, too.
My grandmother normally does the dishes when I cook, but because today had been a little hectic getting all of the components ready at the same time, I had used a few more dishes than usual. Not wanting to leave her with the mess that I created, I also helped her clean up and within about twenty minutes, other than the extra plates of food in the refrigerator, you couldn't even tell that I had been here today.
I know that homemade pasta isn't on everyone's radar, even though it is quite lovely and delicious and pretty easy to make, even if it does take a bit of time. The roasted beets, however, are a no-brainer and in my opinion, one of the easiest and tastiest ways to enjoy this vegetable. I grew up with only canned beets in my house and until I discovered the deliciousness that roasted beets bring to the table thought that I was a beet hater. My eyes have been opened and my taste buds are much happier for it.