Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The "Mien Dish"

Pastas were originally made in China, then became an Italian specialty, and now are loved in the United States too. The Chinese still make pasta, which they call "mien," as I learned when I spent a year and a half living in Taipei, Taiwan, in a noodle-making district. If I were there now, I would run downstairs (I lived in a small apartment on the top floor of my building) and out the front door and beg to watch them make it. But my interest then wasn't noodles; it was learning to speak Chinese.

I do remember, though, the miles of noodles hung out to dry in the hot tropical sun between poles, like low-slung telephone lines. When I looked out from my balcony, the view was noodles and more noodles - in sunshiny weather. When it rained, the noodles were all taken in, and the streets were just narrow, dirty, and sadly naked.

But pasta making isn't just for exotic places like Taiwan and Italy. Spaghetti, macaroni, and all such ilk are the same basic dough recipe squeezed out into different shapes. "Macaroni" is a narrow, hollow tube. "Spaghetti" is smaller in diameter and has no hole in the middle. Even thinner spaghetti is called "vermicelli." Old-time "noodles" (as opposed to modern Asian ones) are broad and flat.

Noodles are easy to make at home; you don't need any special equipment, although a rolling machine can be fun and very helpful too.

After sampling homemade pasta (made with flour and eggs) you'll never want to go back to bland store-bought noodles (made with flour and water). Noodle dough is simply a couple of eggs, a pinch of salt, and all the flour the eggs can absorb. Try adding 1/4 cup melted butter to the resulting stiff dough to make it easier to handle.

You roll out the dough, cut it into narrow strips, separate them, and spread them out to dry. If you have sunshine, that will do the job. In winter you can dry them just on a tray. Or in your dehydrator. Nowhere is it written that you have to dry noodles before cooking them. You can make them and drop them directly into the pot damp and limp. They cook up fine. The thing about undried noodles is that they won't keep. If your noodles are really crisp and bone-dry, you can put them in a jar and they'll keep a month.

My noodles aren't very thin or very narrow. They take anywhere from 20 minutes to a half hour to cook. Noodle meals here are famous for everybody standing around hungrily saying, "Mama, aren't the noodles done yet?" And then I fish out enough for everybody to try and we argue over how raw is edible. When they finally get done, they are really good, a meal to remember. And cheap. And it's easy to warm up your leftovers the next day for another meal - which will be delicious too.

If your dough is too moist, you'll have trouble with the noodles sticking together. In that case, dust the dough with cornstarch or cornmeal to keep them from gumming up. But if your noodles have too much loose flour on them, you'll have trouble with the stew thickening and burning on the bottom of the pan before you can get the noodles cooked. Practice makes perfect. If scorching is too great a risk, cook the noodles separately in boiling salted water.

And if you're feeling ambitious, try this no-fuss, handmade Ravioli:


Make your favorite noodle dough, only use less flour so that your dough is just stiff enough to roll and hold its shape. Roll it very thin and let it dry on a cloth for about an hour. You can make the ravioli with either a cheese filling or a meat filling.

Cheese Filling:

Blend together 1 lb. ricotta, 1⁄3 c. grated Romano, 1⁄2 t. fresh chopped parsley, 2 eggs, and a dash of salt. This is the real Italian thing.

Meat Filling:

Combine ground cooked beef (or a mixture of ground cooked leftover meat and sausage, with half as much bread crumbs as ground meat), egg, some grated onion, chopped fresh parsley, and salt. Optional: pepper, nutmeg to taste, and the grated rind of a lemon.

Fill and Cook the Ravioli:

Cut the dough into 3-inch squares. Place 1 t. filling into the middle of each square. Fold the square over to make a triangle. Press the edges firmly together to seal. Set down on a floured board and let dry an hour or more. Then have ready boiling salted water. Drop the ravioli in, a few at a time, until they're all in. Cook for 20 minutes.

Serve with a gravy or a topping of grated cheese.

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