La Panarda ~ Abruzzo, Italy
Photograph by Steffen Springstein
Abruzzo is one of Italy’s little-known treasures: a tranquil mingling of mountains and coastline, it is sparsely populated and rarely visited by tourists.
The most interesting Abruzzese culinary tradition is la panarda, a multi-course feast of gargantuan proportions. A legend holds that la panarda was born when a young mother, gone to fetch water near her home, returned to find her newborn in the mouth of a wolf. Desperate, the woman prayed to Saint Anthony of Abate, and the wolf let the baby go. The grateful young mother promised to prepare a feast for Saint Anthony, starting a tradition that would be passed down from generation to generation for centuries to come. Most panarde consist of 35 to 50 courses and last all night, thus enabling guests to partake of every dish at a leisurely pace. The mountain town of Villavallelonga has preserved its panarda traditions more fervently than others, and local families still host the feast on an annual basis. To go to Villavallelonga, take Highway 25 to the Celano exit, then follow the road to Trasacco and look for Villavallelonga.
“Guitar Pasta” with Spicy Tomato Sauce
Abruzzo is queen of handmade noodles. Pastas include fettuccine sauced with onion, parsley, basil, and Pecorino; spaghetti with garlic and chili, as in Molise; and vermicelli in a saffrony sauce infused with zucchini blossoms. Maccheroni alla chitarra, the region’s proudest pasta, derive their name from the instrument (a wooden frame on which parallel strings are mounted) used to cut the pasta. Fresh maccheroni alla chitarra have a rough texture that grabs onto sauce splendidly; if you don’t have a “guitar,” use 1/2 pound of dried maccheroni alla chitarra instead. For this recipe, you will need:
For the sauce:
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 24 basil leaves, thinly sliced
- 1 fresh chili pepper, minced, or 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
- 1/2 pound fresh grape or cherry tomatoes, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the pasta:
- 1 and 1/2 cups semolina flour, plus extra as needed
- 2 large eggs
To cook and serve:
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano (optional)
Make the sauce: Place the olive oil, garlic, basil, and chili in a wide skillet.
Turn on the flame and allow the aromatic ingredients to warm gently for about 1 minute. It is essential that they release their aroma into the olive oil without burning. This is best achieved by starting the aromatics in cold oil and warming the oil along with the aromatics, rather than adding the aromatics to hot oil as most recipes indicate.
Using a wooden spoon, stir well and add the tomatoes to the skillet.
Season the tomatoes with the salt and pepper. Bring to a gentle boil over a medium-high flame, then cover with a tight-fitting lid.
Cook without uncovering the skillet for about 5 minutes, shaking the skillet every minute or so. The tomatoes will break down into a nice, chunky sauce. Once the liquid surrounding the tomatoes takes on a warm orange hue, the sauce is ready and the flame should be turned off. This sauce tastes best if cooked quickly, not simmered a long time.
The raw ingredients for homemade maccheroni alla chitarra are simple: just semolina flour and eggs. The standard formula used by most Abruzzese cooks is 3 and 1/2 ounces of semolina flour in all per egg. If you like your pasta less rich, you can replace 1 of the eggs with tepid water.
Make the dough: Place the semolina flour on a counter. Make a well in the center and crack the eggs right into the well.
You can use a fork to beat the eggs if you like, or simply use your fingertips like I do to mix the eggs into a nice frothy mess.
Then start drawing in the flour from the edges of the well, little by little, until the eggs become a thick slurry. It will be a bit messy and may seem sticky at first, but as you draw in more flour, the dough will start to come together and form a shaggy mass. It will gather around your hands.
When almost all of the flour has been incorporated into the eggs, begin kneading the dough by hand. The goal is to incorporate all the flour into the eggs, so don’t stop just when it seems the dough has come together; remember, this has to be a firm dough, so if it is sticky, it will be a problem later on.
Begin to knead the dough with the palms and heels of your hands.
If the dough is dry, add a touch of water; if it is moist, add a touch of flour.
Alternately, place the semolina flour in a bowl, make a well in the center, and add the eggs to the well. Work the eggs into the flour in the bowl, then turn the resulting dough out onto the counter and knead it as above; this method may be easier for beginners.
Use a dough scraper (sometimes called a bench scraper) to scrape up any flour or egg that is stuck to the counter. (You can buy this handy tool at any good kitchenware shop or baking supply store; it makes cleaning up after working dough a snap.)
Incorporate these bits into the dough while the dough is still in its initial stages; if you wait too long to incorporate these drier or shaggy bits, and you add them to a nearly finished dough, they will ruin the smooth texture you have already achieved in your dough.
Knead the dough until it is smooth and supple with your hands; it will take about 5 to 10 minutes.
Use all the strength you have in your hands; this is a rather firm dough, nothing like bread dough; it is quite dry, and needs to be pushed, compressed, turned so that the flour absorbs the eggs and the resulting dough becomes smooth and supple.
The aim of kneading the dough is not to develop the gluten in the dough, as in bread-making, but rather to produce a dough that is homogenous and workable. This will take a few minutes of vigorous kneading.
Now it is time to let the dough rest about 30 minutes so the gluten relaxes and the dough is easier to roll out. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or with a clean, dry towel, and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Once the dough has rested, lightly sprinkle a counter with semolina flour and start rolling the dough out into a thin rectangle with a rolling pin.
If you have a long wooden dowel, or thin, tapering rolling pin, this will be easier. But even a regular rolling pin works.
Try to keep the dough rectangular as you roll it out. The length should be slightly shorter than the stringed portion of the guitar. The total thickness should be about 1/4 of an inch.
In essence, maccheroni alla chitarra are square spaghetti; so they should be as thick as the strings are wide. Since most guitars have 2 settings, select the setting you prefer and roll out the dough into a rectangle of that thickness.
Cut the dough with a pastry wheel into rectangles similar to the stringed portion of the guitar.
It is much easier for the guitar to cut the dough into strands when the dough has had a chance to dry out a bit at room temperature. The metal of the guitar cuts better through a slightly dry dough than through a dough that is still rather moist. So let the dough rectangles sit about 15 minutes before cutting on the guitar.
One by one, place the dough rectangles on the stringed portion of the guitar.
Place the rolling pin on the bottom-most portion of dough and roll with all your strength up, towards the top. The dough should cut into nice, even strands. Ideally, you will only need to roll upwards once if the guitar strings are really sharp.
If the strings do not cut the pasta well, it may be that they need tightening, or that you need to apply more strength on the rolling pin as you roll.
When the pasta is cut, it will look like square spaghetti. Toss with semolina flour and place on a semolina-dusted tray, separating the strands so they do not stick together.
The pasta can be held at room temperature for a few hours or refrigerated for up to 24 hours, as long as you make sure to toss it with semolina flour once in a while to prevent sticking.
To cook the pasta: Bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil and add the salt.
Add the pasta and stir well to separate the strands. Cook about 3 minutes, or until al dente. This is a thick, toothsome pasta, so it will take longer than most fresh pastas to cook through. In fact, when rolled to the same thickness, all semolina flour pastas take longer to cook though than pastas made with all-purpose flour.
Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Toss the pasta with the warm tomato sauce, the olive oil, and the reserved pasta cooking water as needed to dilute to a coating consistency. You may not need all of the reserved pasta cooking water.
Taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Sprinkle with Pecorino if desired and serve hot. Serves 2 hungry people