is a cook at Fish & Game
I was uneducated on the subject, and uncomfortable, but I knew I wanted to do it. He was a one man show: tossing pans with both hands, seemingly not using timers, and yet he always new when it was right. I had only cooked (or what I thought was cooking) for free at this point, trying to rebound from a less than stellar college career where weather was the determining factor for my attendance. Inclement weather put an end to college for me. Maybe it didn't for others, but the gloom, rain, and snow was enough for me to reconsider any college where you need to pay to retake classes from freshman year at public high school.
All I knew was that he was the busiest person in the restaurant. It seemed like he was being picked on by the customers, but in reality they were just showing their appreciation for his skill. He had worked there for years and people probably knew when he was working because it was just better. Why? I couldn't understand. And sometimes you can’t understand until you do it. He had a passion for it. He loved it. He loved working. He loved being “the guy.” Machismo in every sense of the word. He often refused help, sometimes to his own detriment, but he was so practiced in his craft he only slightly slowed down but never missed a beat.
At the time I watched him sling pasta, the restaurant was regarded as one of the best spots in New York to eat pasta. Now, people who have watched him and worked alongside him have taken his tricks, secrets, and passion to kitchens of their own. We always had orecchiette on the menu as a special at this spot. It was large, chewy, and “texturally rewarding,” as the chef would say. I watched him make them over and over and over again. Almost to the point of nausea, but it was impossible not to love it.
That is the quality we are striving for with our orecchiette di prete. “Priest’s ears,” essentially cavatelli by another name, are an old hand-formed flour and water pasta from Puglia and the surrounding region. The essential step is rolling the pasta over a cavarola, in this case a board made from walnut found in Nyack and reclaimed by my brother. He is a seasoned craftsman from whom I draw much inspiration (and now I owe him a set of Swiss wood gouges).
The cavarola has entered the limelight recently, helping to expand pasta culture in America. It is a hardwood board, traditionally carved with a herringbone design. I decided to use a more modern, geometric design, which ensures that each piece of pasta is perfectly unique. Working your way around the board or slightly varying the pressure yields something different every time. This shape has tremendous sauce-catching capabilities, whether butter, sausage, braised turnip greens, chicories, tomato, or a ragù. It’s a chewy and versatile pasta. The board produces other shapes, such as stracenate (in Puglia) or stracnar (in Basilicata).
We make our orecchiette di prete with leftover white wine. Originally, we used wine in ravioli dough, but we have come to find that it works just as well in this application. For the dough we use two cups of white wine for each 500 grams of high gluten bread flour and 500 grams of semolina flour.
Do not add salt; seasoning is most effectively done in the cooking water, which should taste like the ocean. The transfer of salt into the pasta by boiling water is the most important part of pasta making. All your effort can be for naught if you do not season your water appropriately. With that being said, mix the dough (either in a mixer or by hand) until it has formed into a smooth ball that has a nice spring to it: that means you have activated the gluten. The mix of semolina and high gluten flour achieves a perfect balance: the semolina imparts a silky texture and the high gluten adds an appealing chewiness. Let the dough rest until you can press your finger into the ball and it doesn’t bounce back. You want the dough to be relaxed so it will receive the impression and hold its newfound texture.
Now you can roll out your dough into a “snake” of approximately finger circumference: half an inch if you need a measurement. Cut off an inch-long nub and firmly pull the knife toward you over the piece of dough, pressing down into the board as you pull. You can use a bench scraper, knife, or any other tool that you feel comfortable using. You can even use your fingertips or your thumb if tools are not available. Let the pasta sit out on a towel or a sheet of parchment with some semolina to let dry. You are not looking to make a dried pasta (which you could under the right conditions) but to let the pasta stiffen a bit so that once stored, cooked, and then tossed with your sauce its impression will still be firm.