The Dry Run – Fresh Pasta with Duck Ragu

While I’d like to say that I’ve never attempted to make fresh pasta before, I know I’d be lying. I just can’t remember when I would have done it, though.

Here’s the deal – I have had, in our apartment before we moved, and now, in the basement, an Atlas brand manual pasta maker. It’s the kind that clamps to the side of a table and has a hand crank. I don’t remember ever using it, but the box has still got the price tag from Fortunoff on it, and when I opened it, inside was a yellowed, crunchy newspaper clipping about making your own pasta.

The clipping is dated from 1990.

So, eighteen years ago, I bought this pasta maker, probably tried it once, and then put it away. But now, I’m older, wiser, and more nimble with my kitchen skillz.

It’s time to give it another shot.

As you may remember, we have a dinner party coming up, and in fact, it’s been moved up to this Friday evening. I’ve already tried a short rib recipe, which I concluded was too heavy for this time of year. I finally did decide on a soup course, a pasta course, and then a main course, which, at this point, will probably be shrimp.

This is my dry run for the pasta course. The recipe for the pasta dough comes out of a recent issue of Saveur, and the duck ragu is from last month’s issue of Gourmet, which I normally would not have picked up except I was stuck in Houston airport and needed reading material.

As it turns out, making fresh pasta is really easy. It’s just flour (3 C), eggs (3, plus one yolk), a little bit of salt, and some water (1 T) and olive oil (1 T). Using a large plastic sheet that is designed for rolling out pie dough, I mound the flour in the middle, make a little space in the center, and throw everything else in there. Take a fork, whisk the eggs to break them up, and then incorporate the flour a little bit at a time, until your arm starts getting tired because the dough is getting stiff. Switch to your hands, knead the dough for about ten minutes, then wrap the ball in plastic wrap and leave it alone for 30 minutes. This would be the time where you clamp the pasta maker to your kitchen counter, and set out a number of sheets of parchment paper, which will serve as your resting areas for your pasta sheets. You can probably start the sauce at this point.

Every pasta recipe I’ve seen seems to follow the same pattern. Take your dough ball, cut it into four pieces, taking one and leaving the others wrapped, and form it into a rough, flat rectangle with your hands. With the rollers set to the widest setting, feed the dough through the rollers, fold into thirds like you were dropping it into the mail, and run it through again. Do this four or five times.

Set the rollers to their next thinnest setting, and run your dough through again. You don’t need to fold it anymore. Keep reducing the width of the rollers and running the dough through until you’re at the last, and thinnest, setting. Around three-quarters of the way through, you will wish that you had set aside more counter space for this project, since the pasta sheet will get progressively longer as it gets thinner – I keep a knife nearby and like to cut the sheet in half (remember what setting you were on when you did this) to keep things more manageable.

If the sheet is a little tacky, dust it with some flour – don’t worry about drying it out, the extra flour will come out in the cooking water. As you are done with each sheet, dust it on both sides with flour and, draping it over your forearms, set it down on parchment while you roll out the rest of the dough. I find the act of rolling pasta very relaxing and therapeutic, especially feeling the cool pasta sheets against my arms, and the cutting.

Oh yes, the cutting. Once you are done making all of your pasta sheets, take your first sheet (which will have dried a bit) and roll it up loosely, so you have something akin to a canneloni or egg roll. Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into ribbons (keep in mind that when you boil them, these noodles will get wider, so try for thin cuts). Sprinkle flour over the ribbons and work your fingers into them to separate them into noodles. Repeat with the other sheets, forming a loose pile of flour-dusted noodles on your parchment. This is a task that can easily be delegated to others, so if you are in a hurry you can get your sheets turned into noodles faster by aggregating the work.

I suppose this is the right time to talk about the duck ragu. You can find the recipe in Gourmet, but, in a nutshell, you take a duck breast and saute it, skin down, in butter and olive oil for six minutes, then two minutes on the other side. Set that aside, throw in some garlic, onion, half of a cup of red wine, rosemary, chicken stock, and chopped canned tomatoes. Stir it all up, put the duck breast back in, set the heat on low, covered, and get back to your noodles. After an hour, you take the duck breast out, chop up the whole thing, defat and reduce the sauce, and put the meat back in. It’s really easy and amazingly good.

Time to put it all together. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil – and realize that it will take about 3000% longer to boil the water than it will to actually use it to cook the noodles. Seriously. Once your water is boiling, throw some salt in there, and put your pile of noodles into a colander, and set the timer for one minute, thirty seconds. Really. One minute. Thirty seconds. Put your noodles into the water and start your timer – use something to stir the noodles so that they don’t stick to one another.

You now have exactly one minute and thirty seconds to put a small amount of hot duck ragu at the bottom of a bowl. There’s a story behind this, actually – the first time I had tried this recipe, my noodles stuck together as soon as I drained them (also, I cooked them for three minutes, so that may have had something to do with it) and when I put the ragu on top, it kind of sat there on top of a block of noodles (which is, actually, the picture that you see here). My neighbor recommended draining the noodles, but then immediately tossing them with the sauce, which helps to separate the noodles.

So, that’s what we’re doing here. When your timer gets close to the end, drain the noodles in a colander and immediately mix them with some of the duck ragu. The fat in the sauce will coat the noodles and keep them (mostly) separate. That’s it, you’re done.

Because of its simplicity and the ability to make the sauce ahead of time, this dish is most definitely going to comprise the pasta course for Friday night. Running it through two dry runs has enabled me to tweak the cooking time for the noodles, as well as learning the trick about tossing it with the sauce.