Pasta, Pretty Please | Linda Miller Nicholson
Pasta, Pretty Please
By Linda Miller Nicholson
Intro: Welcome to the cookery by the book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Linda: Hi, my name is Linda Miller Nicholson of Salty Seattle, and my new cookbook is called Pasta, Pretty Please. In it, I have hundreds of recipes for beautiful colorful pasta dough, and I make all of the doughs using vegetables, herbs, and super foods.
Suzy Chase: Your homemade, naturally dyed pasta comes in an amazing array of rainbow colors, shapes, and designs. How did you get started making this unique pasta?
Linda: Well, I've been making pasta since I was four years old. It was something that really resonated with me when my grandparents taught me, using nothing more than a rolling pin and my little four year old muscle. It was really something that has followed me through my entire life, and when my son was about the same age as I was when I learned to make pasta, he went through that inevitable picky phase that all kids go through, and would not eat his vegetables. I was just tearing my hair out, trying to figure out what to do to get this kid to eat his vegetables. If I were to tuck spinach under the cheese on a cheese pizza, he would detect it right away, like a truffle pig, and just ferret it out of there, and get rid of it or, you know, green smoothies forget it. And so, refined white carbs was just what this kid lived on, and even if they were organic and made by mom, I still kind of felt that little bit of guilt.
I decided, "Well, you know what, I make pasta all day every day. Why don't I just puree the vegetable ingredient with the eggs, and color the pasta that way?" knowing that he would eat pasta. The rest really has turned into this beautiful colorful career that I have now, because he, he bit it hook, line, and sinker. For me, just knowing that I have this peace of mind of, "Okay, he's eating a cup and a half of noodles. He also secretly eating a cup and a half of spinach with that," or turmeric with that, or parsley, or beets. At this point he's 10, and he's well aware of what happened when he was younger, and he knows what all the colors come from, and he actually started to embrace some of the vegetables that composed the colors of pasta dough. But I think it's really cool that I have this sort of longtime family history with pasta, and then bringing it back to my progeny, into the next generation. It all sort of ties in and I was able to make my career out of something so a rooted in family.
Suzy Chase: You are the first pasta ninja I've ever talked to. How is pasta like textile to you?
Linda: Well, first of all, pasta ninja is not a thing I came up with, that was Harry Connick Jr. He decided that that would be my moniker and it has stuck ever since. I don't know that I necessarily have ninja-like quality with the pasta. I mean, I can't like scale walls with it or anything, so I suppose I could put that on my bucket list to try. Pasta sort of transcends food for me, and really moves into this form of artistic expression that is very similar to patterns that you might be able to achieve if you worked in textiles, so in fabrics and in patterns that, that exist on cloth.
I think I realized that the first time when I was sheeting out like a really massive, massive, maybe, I don't know, 10 pounds, sheet of pasta, and it was very heavy, and as the pasta started flowing through my hands, and sort of achieving this leather like quality, I just got this real intense tactile sensation of, "Gosh, I could just drape this around myself," and that was just a single color sheet. I took it farther and started laying patterns down on the pasta, basically using other pasta to create lines and shapes and things overlaid on the pasta. That's when it really was like, "Wow, you know, the pastabilities are endless."
Suzy Chase: Pastabilities.
Linda: I had to get that in. I just, I had to get that in somewhere where. We're lucky we got it out of the way early on.
Suzy Chase: You say you have no professional training but you're not self-taught. What does that mean?
Linda: I think that you could say that you're self taught as sort of a ... We're in some by our life experiences, and so you don't just wake up knowing how to do something, you will have to put in a lot of hours, and part of that comes with live in the school of hard knocks. So, even though pasta is something that my grandparents taught me from a very sort of rudimentary perspective, just really making that well of flour on the kitchen table, dropping some eggs into it, stirring it up with a fork, and then kneading it into pasta, rolling it out with a rolling pin, you know, that was a very basic pasta lesson from them.
But then I was a voracious reader, and apt student of anything I could get my hands on that talked about pasta. I would really dive deep into the microregions of Italy and figure out what the pasta shapes were there, and kind of try to, "Okay, what does Liguria make, and how can I really get into the trofie al pesto that Liguria's famous for, or the agnolotti del plin that Piemonte's is famous for." So a lot of reading and things like that, and then I lived in Italy for a few years. You just can't help but absorb the life of pasta. I mean, your veins bleed pasta after being there for a few weeks, or mine did anyway.
Yeah, I mean I don't like to, I feel like self-taught is sort of giving yourself all the credit and I'm definitely informed by just the entire experience that I've had, meeting people, talking to people, trying a little bit of this, seeing what works, seeing what doesn't. I mean, that muscle memory is something that you can only create by practicing, by doing it yourself. But I really do, I feel like I find inspiration in absolutely everything in the world around me, in art, in media and cinema, in politics even, and I try to start to weave that into my medium, which is food.
Suzy Chase: Let's talk about sourcing. What kind of flour do you use?
Linda: I am a big fan of not getting too picky or too fussy with trying to source particular products because pasta, at its root, actually was something that really it was just designed to preserve flour. People had figured out a way to mill wheat down into flour, which was much easier to work with than just the raw wheat and less volatile. Then they needed a way to preserve that wheat, so that they could take it on conquests and Rome could become the Roman empire. Initially they mixed the flour with water and dried it, and that is where we got our first pasta, so no tools at all, no fancy, just wheat and that's it. So when people get too far down the path of, "All rIght, I need to source this particular flour and it's got to come from the downy hairs on virgin arms that grow in the Trevi fountain," I like to say, "All right, dial it back. Where do you live, and what's local to you? Let's figure out how to make pasta out of that."
That being said, I tell people to look for certain qualities in the flour to make their lives a little bit easier, and the two qualities are that the flours should be fairly finely milled, and a way to think about that is, most people are aware of what semolina flour is, or even have felt something like cornmeal in their hands. That's very coarse and rough and has gone through a mill, but the mill lets the particles come out in a thicker fashion, whereas a finely milled flour, is going to feel like, almost like cornstarch in your hands, very light and very airy. The reason that the more finely milled flour is easier to work with with pasta, is because it absorbs the egg, or in my case, the egg mixed with the color puree better. Then I also tell people to look for a lower protein content, just because a lower protein content flour is going to make the dough easier to work with under your hands, so a nice, soft, easily kneadable texture.
I do love ... Antimo Caputo makes a great flour called Pasta Fresca & Gnocchi, and that's a wonderful, very supple flour to use, if you can get your hands on it. Again, not a big deal to try to source it. Go to the store, go to the bulk bins. Look for something that ... One other thing to look for is, its color is your primary objective. You want a flour that's very light colored, so that the color of the flower itself doesn't impact the color of the puree that you're putting into it. But I always say to people, just go to the bulk section of your local grocery store. I probably shouldn't advise the people to feel the flour in the bulk bin. You can use the little scooper, you know, and kind of pour it back into the bin stuff. Look for one that is real light, real fluffy, and real white colored, and then the protein content should be on that bulk bin too. Look for one that's lower protein and that is your flour right there.
Suzy Chase: So let's say we don't have a pasta machine, how can we make your pasta?
Linda: I try once a week to make pasta with no tools beyond a rolling pin, because that's how I learned to do it. Or now that I'm an adult, in my case a bottle of wine makes a fantastic rolling pin.
Suzy Chase: That's what I used last night.
Linda: You get to drink the contents.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Linda: Perfect, you get to drink the contents, and then you have this perfect thing to roll out the pasta. You know, my one ninja-like quality I guess with pasta I would say is, I have to make pasta everywhere I go and travel to and I'll bring a little tiny pasta cutter, like a little wheel, but I don't really bring anything else, so I immediately go buy a bottle of local wine, and I come back to my hotel room, and I find some kind of surface, clean it off, and roll it out using basically no tools, whatever I have on hand. I have tried to boil pasta water using an iron. It turns out the coffee maker works a little bit better for boiling water.
Suzy Chase: Wait, how did you do the iron? What was that setup?
Linda: It didn't work very well. It didn't work very well. We wound up sort of making crispy pasta, almost cracker-y toasts instead, and melted some mozzarella on the top. It was still really delicious because I think any food you make sort of under duress or with a challenge always tastes better. But in all practicality, in all achievability for what people are probably ... lengths people are willing to go to in context of the book, there is an entire section of gnocchi and other rolled pasta, and those are very easy to make. You don't even use the pasta machine for gnocchi.
I think there are something like at least 20 recipes there that really don't require any tools at all, beyond rolling into snakes and then cutting those snakes with either a dough scraper or a knife, which most people have access to. That's the section of the book that I recommend people start with if they don't have a pasta machine. However, even, the sheeted pastas, even the rainbow sheet, is entirely pastable, I'm throwing it in there again, to make just with a rolling pin. You'll get a little bit of a workout, but it's entirely doable.
Suzy Chase: Let's go through some of the colors, and you can tell us what makes that color.
Suzy Chase: Yellow. Let's start with yellow.
Linda: My favorite ingredient to make yellow is turmeric. Turmeric root is sort of having a moment right now. Maybe even as little as five years ago you weren't able to find fresh turmeric root in produce sections of grocery stores, and now I sort of make it a point to look through grocery stores everywhere I am, whether I'm in Peoria or San Francisco, and turmeric is really pervasive now, and you can find it almost in every produce section or at the farmers market. I prefer to use the fresh, whole turmeric root rather than powder. That's one of the things I cover in my pasta workshops, because I have access to both and I show my students, "This is what the powder looks like, this is what the fresh cut into turmeric root looks like."
You'll see if you cut through a turmeric root, it's bright and vibrant and really just the essence of that color, whereas powdered turmeric starts to sort of take on a mustard hue as it ages in the bottle. For me, I love that bright just sunshiny, it's going to make you happy if you look at it yellow. so I go for the whole turmeric root, which incidentally is brain food. I'm not a doctor, and I don't necessarily want to make health claims, but I do know that I have a lot of turmeric in my diet, and I feel its lack if I am traveling for a week and don't have it. Incidentally, turmeric bioavailability is increased, so it's better for you if you mix it with fat, so it's fat soluble. I think that the turmeric pasta is really perfect for rich and delicious sauces, like cacio e pepe or you know, something with a little bacon or pancetta in it. I use that as my license to justify that richness.
Suzy Chase: Okay. Blue.
Linda: Blue is, there are two things that I commonly use to make blue pasta. One of them is a special spirulina called blue magic spirulina, and they have isolated the blue phytochemicals from the green, and so it's like the color of beautiful aqua blue tropical sea water. It's just a gorgeous, gorgeous pasta color. It is a little bit on the pricey side, and so the more economical alternative to that is a special flower that's native to Southeast Asia, called the butterfly pea flower. You simply steep these dried flowers in water until you have the desire blue that you're looking for. They get really dark really fast and they're just gorgeous.
I like to make that one as a water-based dough, so I don't usually add eggs. If I do, I'll just add one or two, because the yolk of the yellow in the egg will kind of dial back the blue blue of the butterfly pea flowers. But they also are a very popular ingredient right now. I know a lot of bartenders are using them in mixology, because they have some interesting pH qualities where they'll go from pink to purple to blue, depending on what you're mixing them with.
Suzy Chase: Green.
Linda: Green is, the world is our oyster there. Virtually anything that grows that's green, and that you like the taste of, can be made into pasta, and green, I feel, is really well covered in terms of the spectrum. You can go dark, dark, dark with a lacinato kale, and get almost like a deep sort of foresty green, or you could make a really cool, almost khaki color green with matcha. One of my favorite greens, because I am a big fan of brightness and colors that bring joy and happiness, is parsley because it's really like crayola, just classic, classic sunshine, garden, summer day green. So parsley really is, it's sort of my go to. It's also really easy to work with, because it doesn't have a lot of fibers like some of the darker green leafy greens do, so you don't have to blanche it or straighten it. You can actually just puree a parsley straight into the well of a blender with the eggs, and move forward making pasta, so it's also a really easy, versatile one to work with.
Suzy Chase: Red.
Linda: Red. Again, there are options for red. My go to is a mixture, so this is the first on we've talked about where you mix two things together to get a particular shade, and lots of shades can be achieved by mixing multiple ingredients together. You just want to be careful of mixing things that are across each other on the color wheel. You wouldn't want to mix with something purple with yellow, because you will wind up with something brown. For red, I mix beets along with a little bit of either paprika or harissa, so the orange from the paprika or the harissa, which is north African spice paste, will kind of tone down the pink in the beets, and achieve a very sort of fire engine, classic color red.
Suzy Chase: Okay. The last color is black. How do you do that?
Linda: So traditionally, black has been a very common color in Italian pasta, and they would make it with nero di sepia, or a squid ink, but it was always prepared with a seafood dish. They would have this nero di sepia pasta, often with vongole, clams or something like that. It has a very distinct taste that is delicious if, again, you're serving it with a fishy sauce. I was looking in the book to find a black that could be a little bit more neutral, and not have such an overt flavor, so that it could be paired with any sauce, and I came upon activated charcoal. It is essentially charcoal that's food grade and made through a particular process that removes any kind of carcinogens or big particulates, and it's made from very clean, usually it's made from bamboo.
I use just a tiny little bit of that, like an eighth of a teaspoon will turn a four person serving of pasta nice and dark. It's a very nominal amount that you're getting, but it makes a very beautiful, neutral black that, doesn't have any extra flavor, because again, if we remember, this whole book was designed around achieving these colors, getting some kind of health benefit with the colors, but also not making them particularly detectable to sleuthing and enterprising picky people. Exactly.
Suzy Chase: Is there one color that just isn't pastable, that you just can't get the hang of? See how I did that.
Linda: I love that. I thought that was great. For me, the hardest color was blue initially, because blue, while it's one of the most common colors that occur in nature, it does not occur in a lot of plants. I mean you would think blueberries, but in all reality if you were go to blueberries, it's more purple. So blue really took me awhile, and it threw me for a loop in trying to come up with, "Okay. What's blue?" It always amazes me when people are like, "Oh, where do you get these esoteric ingredients for your pasta?" And the vast majority of them come literally from the grocery store, but there are a few like butterfly pea flowers, they're not expensive, but you do have to order them and they'll take a few days to arrive on Amazon.
But yeah, I mean by and large people are like, "Oh, that book seems so intimidating. There's all these crazy colors and I don't think I can do it," and then after sitting with it and trying one or two of the recipes, people ... In fact, they say as an author, don't look at your Amazon reviews. I couldn't resist. Finally, after a couple months of the book being out, I had to go and look at them yesterday and I started to cry. They were all just so overwhelmingly positive, but this overarching theme through the reviews that really struck me and made me so happy was, people were nervous at the outset and they felt like I was there holding their hand the entire way. By the end of accomplishing their first recipe or their fifth or 30th, they felt super empowered and like there was no big sorcery or big mystery. This really is just a simple process that's been going on for thousands of years, at its core.
Suzy Chase: Last night, I attempted to make colorful farfalle with beets. It turned out super light pink, and more like gnocchi. I feel like I didn't roll out the dough thin enough. Can you talk a little bit about the dough preparation and rolling process?
Linda: Yes. You said that you used the wine bottle, right?
Suzy Chase: Yep.
Linda: To roll it out?
Suzy Chase: Uh-huh.
Linda: Okay. If you're using a wine bottle or a rolling pin, you do have to really kind of get your groove on from a muscle perspective, and roll it out nice and thin. People often ask, how do you keep the colors so vibrant? Well, the answer to that is to shape the pasta very thin. If you have a pasta sheeter, it's doing the work for you. You're just reducing the number down. There are two barrels that go across and they get thinner and thinner and thinner together. That's what makes the pasta sheet go from thick to thin as you're sheeting it through a machine. If you're doing that with the rolling pin, you're essentially doing the exact same thing, you just need to, as you're rolling it out, press harder and harder.
One thing you can let help you if you are just using a rolling pin or a bottle of wine is gravity. I will often roll for about 30 seconds, and then I will hang the pasta over the back of the chair or on a rod or something, and let gravity pull it downward, which also helps the gluten in the pasta to relax and become more elastic, so that then when you come back to it, 60 seconds or a couple of minutes later, it'll roll and really get so very thin pasta. Only needs to be boiled for 30 seconds to a minute and it's done. That is how you retain the color. For the other thing to think about with not retaining color, you're also experiencing some of the nutritional attrition in the water, because there go all your beets into the water. So I tell people sheet or roll very thin, and boil for a short amount of time and your colors will hold beautifully and you'll have those extra nutrients.
Suzy Chase: Those are good tips. I also made your-
Linda: But also, if you were using the bottle of wine and you were drinking the bottle of wine as you were rolling out your pasta.
Suzy Chase: Yeah. Forget about it.
Linda: Yeah. And experiencing some diminished physical, you know.
Suzy Chase: You may as well go out. No.
Linda: Hey, you're having a great time, and that's all that matters.
Suzy Chase: So I also made your brown butter pasta water sauce. Describe that.
Linda: One interesting thing that people who've read a lot of recipes might be familiar with is using a little bit of pasta water to sort of thicken whatever sauce that they're using. A thing that people don't realize is, when a chef calls for pasta water, they're talking about pasta water that has been boiling at the restaurant during service, and hundreds of batches of pasta have come into and out of it and all of the flours sloughing off of that pasta has essentially made this water sort of a viscous, already an emulsified substance, so it's no longer like water. It's already really nice and salty, and honestly you could just drizzle a little bit of that over some pasta by the end of the night at a restaurant, and it is sauce in and of itself.
Well, so my little hack for doing that at home, because you are probably not boiling 30 pounds of pasta in your pot on the stove, is to sprinkle a little bit of semolina flour into the pot of boiling salty water, in order to kind of achieve that restaurant quality water effect at home by literally just adding your own flour to it. And the reason that I suggest to you semolina flour, and not regular white flour, is because if you throw a regular flour into boiling water, it will clump, whereas if you throw semolina into it, it's course enough and the grains are separate enough that it won't clump. It'll just kind of go in and emulsify into the water.
So the brown butter sauce is very simple. You just brown butter the way you normally would, to the point that your kitchen smells really toasty and almost like warm chestnuts roasting. It's got a very autumnal smell to it, very aromatic, and once your butter is to that point, and it's nice and golden brown, you will add a little bit of the pasta water in there, along with whatever you're flavoring the brown butter with, whether it's sage or whether it's the one with the poppy seeds that we talked about, or there's one with paprika that's really delicious. You can really do anything with brown butter as a vehicle, but when you add the pasta of water into it and you whisk it, it gets nice and thick and sort of almost syrupy in texture, and it's a very simple thing, and yet it just dresses pasta. The way a perfect dress would cling to a beautiful woman.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Linda: That is a really easy, and I know it's probably a total cop out that it's pasta, but ...
Suzy Chase: What kind?
Linda: My last meal is Cacio e Pepe with a lovely and warming glass of Brunello di Montalcino.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Linda: As far as social media is concerned, I'm very active on Instagram, and I feel like it is probably the fastest and easiest way to get a hold of me. My handle is SaltySeattle. In fact, my handle across all social media is SaltySeattle. I also am very active on Facebook, same thing, SaltySeattle. I have a YouTube channel that goes a little bit deeper into video tutorials for people who want that sort of video, visual storytelling component to learning the art of handmade pasta.
Then, some really exciting news that is a little bit more brick and mortar, and not quite social media-wise is that I'm building out a pasta studio and I'll be having lots and lots more pasta workshops and classes and events in 2019. That should be ready in February, so you can head to my website, whIch is SaltySeattle.com, where I'll be, once I have a definitive timeline, posting all of the information on what will happen in the pasta studio.
Suzy Chase: Thanks so much, Linda, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Linda: Thank you so much. This was so much fun.
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