Pasta series #5: Orecchiette con melanzane e pomodorini

It's now officially August, which means one thing: time for another episode in the blog's monthly Pasta Series! As far as I'm concerned, this is the very best way to kick off a new month, because starting off with a dish of homemade pasta can only mean good things are ahead, right?! For the record, not much has changed since episode 4 in the series -- pasta making continues its streak as my very favorite thing to make (you'll recall my abundant pasta-related enthusiasm in the previous four pasta posts, right)?! so before I go off on a tangent and wax poetic about the beauty of what just a little flour, eggs, and kneading can do (!!!) I'll get to this month's pasta shape, yes?

So! Orecchiette and I go way back -- I first tried them in 2009 while living in a house stay in Bologna, where my host was from Puglia, just like the pasta shape itself. I remember she served them for dinner one night with lots of olive oil-y, garlicky broccoli, cooked with an anchovy and chili or two for a kick of flavor, and apart from being delicious, I remember marveling at how the tiny shells of pasta -- whose name actually comes from orecchie meaning ears, the addition of "ette" making it "little ears" and not shells at all -- captured and held the broccoli sauce perfectly, efficiently almost. I was enchanted, intrigued, and orecchiette immediately shot to the top of my Favorite Pasta list (neck in neck with bucatini and edging out rigatoni, for the record). It has since stayed there, making appearances in dishes such as "orecchiette with cherry tomatoes and basil" (made many a time in 2010) "orecchiette with zucchini and pancetta" (on repeat in 2012), and "orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe" (2016). The orecchiette I used however, were always dried and from a blue Barilla box; though it seems sacrilegious to say it now, I couldn't, up until fairly recently, be bothered to make pasta from scratch. 

Since having the fortune of meeting Julia Ficara (half of the spectacular cooking school Grano & Farina) I've learned to make all sorts of pasta shapes, everything from twisty, tricky trofie to cheerful spirals of fusilli to hefty, sauce-hugging maccheroni al ferro, and, you guessed it, and most exciting of all, my #1 pasta, orecchiette. Full discretion: the shape here looks pretty simple -- just a small curved circle, right? -- but appearances can be deceiving. My first few attempts resulted in misshapen, rectangular sort of orecchiette, but with Julia's guidance and advice (not too much pressure! you're not pushing the orecchiette over your thumb per say, just turning it inside out! plus some practice at home, I got the hang of it. A little help from a nifty orecchiette knife from Puglia, given to me by Julia and Pino (!!!) didn't hurt, either. A few photos from my orecchiette training sessions, below:
That's the pasta, but what about the sauce, you must be wondering?! You can serve these orecchiette with most anything you wish -- the All-Knowing Carla Tomasi suggests zucchini/basil/ricotta salata, puttanesca sauce, caponata chopped fine, to give you a few ideas -- but I opted for an improvised tomato/eggplant sauce, using a few of the season's best ingredients. The eggplant becomes silky, the tomatoes extra juicy, both of them caught and captured by the slightly chewy orecchiette, and, just when you didn't think things could get any better, a little fresh mozzarella and basil are thrown in at the end, two ingredients that inevitably make everything they touch just a tiny bit more delicious. The finished dish is a pure joy to eat, and if my 2009-study-abroad self could see my 2019-living-in-Rome self churning out her own orecchiette in true nonna-Pugliese style, I think she'd be pretty pleased, indeed. 

A couple of notes: When making this sort of pasta, the proportion is 2:1, so for example if you're using 200 grams of semolina flour, you will need to put about 100 grams of water. I put cup/tablespoon measurements below, but I recommend you use a kitchen scale when possible when making pasta.  The brand of flour that I was advised to use (thanks C.T) and have had good results with is De Cecco. You'll notice this pasta is a natural next step after last month's cavatelli; instead of releasing the pasta off the knife to make a cavatello, here you keep it there and then turn it inside out. 

Want to know what recipes 1-4 are in the pasta series? I've got these ravioli fatti in casa this lasagne ai carciofi, these gnocchetti sardi, and these cavatelli

Serves 4-6.

Ingredients for the sauce:
1 small eggplant, diced
1 shallot, chopped
2 or so cups (300 grams) cherry tomatoes, halved
14 ounces (400 grams) of crushed tomatoes
4 ounces (112 grams) of mozzarella cheese, bufala or cow's milk, torn up
Olive oil

Ingredients for the orecchiette:
300 grams (about 1 3/4 cups) of semolina flour
150 grams (About 1/2 cup water + 2 tablespoons) or so of warmish water
A generous pinch of salt

1.) Start with your sauce! Heat a good amount of olive oil in the bottom of a large pan (eggplant absorbs a lot of oil so you'll need this) and add the shallot, and let it cook for a minute or so. Add the eggplant and tomatoes, and cook, adding more oil as necessary, until softened. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and then add the crushed tomatoes. Bring the sauce to a bubble and then lower the heat and let it cook, about 30 min. Stir in the basil. While your sauce simmers, shape your orecchiette.

2.) To make your orecchiette: It is possible to make the dough with the food processor: place flour and water in the bowl fitted with the metal blades. Run at full speed until a scraggy mass is formed. Tip it out of the bowl and knead it into a dough. Cover it with an upturned bowl and leave it to rest for a little while. Otherwise, place the flour in a large bowl and pour in the water. Use your hands to get the dough to form a shaggy mass, and then turn it out on to a clean work surface or pasta board and knead it for 10 or so minutes, or until it is smooth and shiny. Whichever method you use, you can see how to knead the pasta here. The dough is anyways ready with you touch it with your finger and it springs back (note that the imprint of your finger will remain and that is fine). Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap, or place it under an overturned bowl, and let it rest for at least half an hour.
3.) To shape the orecchiette: cut off a piece of dough (keep the rest covered) and roll it out in to a long rope with your hands. If the dough dries out a little and becomes difficult to roll out just wet your hand with a little cold water and continue rolling. Using a knife or a bench scraper if you have one, slice off little pieces of dough (about 1cm each). Next, take a piece of dough and down on with a butter knife and your pointer finger (see demonstration below!) and as you press down, drag the piece of dough towards you and around the knife.
Once the dough is completely rolled onto the knife, take it and, using the thumb of your other hand turn the dough inside out to make your orecchiette. You can see a video of me demonstrating this technique here. Note that if you want to just release the pasta from the knife (instead of turning it inside out) this is completely fine, and you'll end up with cavatelli instead or orecchiette -- still delicious!

4.) Cook the orecchiette in a pot of boiling salted water for anywhere from 7-8 minutes (check for doneness). Note that the pasta will still be chewy, but pleasantly so. Drain the orecchiette and toss them with the eggplant tomato sauce and the mozzarella, and toss to melt the cheese a little. Sprinkle with a little extra basil iand if you're me, a little Parmesan, and serve immediately.

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