If you look at the pasta display in your local supermarket, you’ll be overwhelmed by the choice — not just of shapes, but of composition.
Concern about gluten, carbohydrates and healthy cooking in general has resulted in pastas made from whole wheat, corn, rice, quinoa, ancient grains like spelt and farro as well as pastas with added vegetables and fiber. Some of those I’ve tasted are really best suited for those who can’t eat wheat pasta, I fear.
These uncommon pastas may be new to grocery shelves, but Italians have been making pastas from oats, buckwheat, whole wheat and other grains for centuries.
So I was delighted when local chef and cookbook author Janet Fletcher invited her friend, Italian cook Gisella Isidori, to teach a private class on unusual pastas in her home. Isidori, who is from the Valtellina Valley in Lombardy next to Switzerland in northern Italy, has spent most of her professional life promoting Italian food in New York and across the U.S.
During the class, Isidori both showed us how to make pastas from whole wheat, buckwheat, farro (emmer) and even oats, and also provided suitable accompanying sauces. All were traditional except for the addition of avocado to one sauce, but after all, tomatoes came from the New World, and they’re a mainstay of southern Italian cooking.
She has also made pastas from einkorn and chestnut flour, the latter requiring the addition of xanthan gum for binding.
Of course, Asians also make different pastas, including from rice, beans, sweet potatoes and other starches.
Here’s the menu:
— Farina integrale: Tagliatelle con ragu napoletano (whole-wheat tagliatelle with meat sauce)
— Grano saraceno: Buckwheat pasta with broccoli rabe and anchovies
— Semolona: Pasta corta con sugo di pomodorini/avocado/cipolla rossa (short pasta with a tomato, avocado and red onion sauce)
— Farina di avena: Pappardelle con sugo di funghi (oat-flour pappardelle with mushroom sauce)
These days, these flours are commonly sold even in major supermarkets, many under the Bob’s Red Mill or Anson Mills brands.
The easiest way to make the pasta is with a food processor or stand mixer and electric or manual pasta machine, though you can make them strictly by hand, mixing on the counter in the Italian manner or in a bowl.
Be warned, however, that they’re not as forgiving as regular egg and wheat pasta, and some require care to make. Some like buckwheat, which contains no eggs, are quite challenging to mix and knead by hand.
Making the pasta
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Here are the general instructions for making all strip pastas:
Place ingredients in a food processor and whirl until the dough collects in a ball and rotates around the center. Add small amount of water if necessary.
You can also mix in a bowl with a mixer or by hand on a board, forming the flour into a well in the latter case.
Remove and knead briefly until smooth, sprinkling surface with semolina. Ideally wrap in plastic and let rest for 20 minutes or more, then divide into four pieces. Run each in turn through the widest setting of the pasta rollers a few times, doubling each time. Dust with flour it sticks to the rollers.
Reduce the spacing and run the strips through but don’t try to make it too thin; all of these pastas should be a bit thick for ease of handling.
Let dry for a few minutes until almost leathery, then run through wide cutting rollers for linguine, or roll up or leave flat and cut by hand ½-inch wide for pappardelle, 1-inch wide for tagliatelle.
Alternately, you can divide the dough into small balls and roll out by hand into fat-spaghetti-like pieces, cutting to shorter lengths if desired.
It’s interesting to make these unusual but tasty pastas with their unique flavors. All were tasty, with the oat pasta being surprisingly subtle, the buckwheat most assertive (as is its sauce). All the sauces but the one with avocados seem ideal for winter weather like we’re having now.
Like most experienced cooks, Isidori didn’t follow recipes exactly, so these are only approximations.
The sauces, of course, can be used with other pasta.
Buckwheat pasta with broccoli rabe and anchovies
Buckwheat pasta is perhaps the most challenging. It doesn’t contain eggs, just water, and is difficult to mix or roll out by hand. Be sure to let it rest for half an hour so the buckwheat can absorb the moisture. Hand-rolled strips are traditional.
According to Isidori, the buckwheat was introduced to her mountain valley by Mongolian slaves brought there in the 14th century after a disease killed all the women and children in the valley while the men were at sea.
Though not common in Italy, buckwheat was traditionally used to make bigoli pasta in Venice, though whole wheat is now more common.
Isidori also provided a recipe for Pizzoccheri della Valtellina, a hearty casserole with buckwheat noodles, potatoes cabbage and fontina cheese, but felt it was too heavy for a summer meal. Email if you want a copy of that recipe at email@example.com.