I just returned from a brief winter escape in Tuscany. Sigh. Every time I return, a tiny bit of my soul remains behind in the hills. The people, the land, the food, the wine …..I feel so at peace in this place that is quickly becoming my second home. I always return with a smile in my heart. So, on this chilly March day, I was looking to re-create some Tuscan comfort food to keep me (and my memories) warm. It was time to break out the semolina and try my hand at making a pasta made only in the environs of Tuscany known as ‘pici’. Pici is typically served ‘all’aglione’ (with garlic) or in a ragu of wild boar, which is much easier to find in the Tuscan hills than in Pennsylvania. The aglione sauce is a simple sauce made from tomatoes (fresh, if possible) and lots of garlic. Now I have to confess something here – I am addicted (seriously!) to the combination of tomatoes and garlic. In the summer, when my tomato plants are sagging with the weight of their gorgeous fruits, this is my breakfast of champions….a few chopped fresh tomatoes, lots of garlic, hot pepper and whole wheat pasta. Keeps me going throughout the day….so what a perfect excuse to make my favorite sauce and try my hand at a new type of fresh pasta.
Making this fresh pasta is incredibly easy and even more fun if you have a pici! partner to make these little guys. The pasta contains no eggs, only semolina, flour and water. You simply pinch off pieces of dough and roll them between your palms making long 1/4 inch round snakes from the dough. How simple is that! I had a blast and worked out any frustrations in the process. In fact, my little forearms were killing me by the time I finished. (I have visions of kitchens full of pici-making Italian women with very muscular forearms!) Having a little Eros Ramazzotti cranking in the kitchen also helped keep the rolling-rhythm moving along!
I had this wonderful dish almost every day while in Tuscany but one of my favorite lunch spots is always Taverna Il Grappolo Blu in Montalcino-where the ambience and the food is a winning combination. I was lucky enough to have Luciano, the owner, serve me. He discouraged me from using formaggio, which would overpower the pici as it was so ‘delicato‘ (because it was only flour and water). After another wonderful meal and a glass or two of the prized Brunello di Montalcino, I wandered around the steep hills and lanes of the village, with a smile plastered on my face, ‘molta contenta.’
Do not be overwhelmed with having to make homemade pasta – give it a go if you are up for a flour flying workout – but you can just as easily substitute spaghetti or perhaps perciatelli.
Buon appetito! Enjoy….
2 cups semolina flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 to 1-1/2 cups warm water
2 cups peeled, diced tomatoes (fresh, if possible; I used the very last of my jarred tomatoes from last summer; drain if using canned)
4-6 cloves of garlic (I used 6; use less if you desire)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of hot pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Make the pici:
–Mix the semolina and all-purpose flour together on a board. Make a well in the center (as shown below). Add the water, little by little, into the center of the well, mixing using your hand each time, until a dough is formed. Be careful not to break the outside of the well or the water will run out. You may need to add more or less of the water, depending on conditions. Start with 1 cup and go from there.
-Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, roughly about 10 minutes (as shown below). Cover or wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow to stand for about 30 minutes.
-Pinch off a piece of the dough and roll into long pieces about 1/4 inch thick (as shown in the photo at the top). The thinner, the better! (The first batch I made was too fat. They swell when you cook them. My first batch came out like fat, lumpy string beans. Second batch did the trick.)
-Put the pici on a cookie tray dusted with flour. Place a clean dish towel over them as you make them. (You can freeze the pasta at this point if you want.)
Make the sauce:
-Thinly slice 3 or 4 cloves of the garlic. Put the oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the slivered garlic and saute only until the oil bubbles around the garlic. (Do not brown!)
-Add the tomatoes. Season with hot pepper and salt.
-Leave the remaining garlic cloves intact. Add to the sauce. (Throw in a few extra if you want.)
-Cook the sauce for about 15 or 20 minutes, until the garlic softens and the sauce is thick.
-Adjust salt to taste.
Put it all together:
-Cook the pici (or whatever pasta you are using) in salted water until al dente.
-Drain the pasta and add to the sauce in the pan. Stir until pasta is coated, plate and serve….