Meat’s Ital­ian dal­liance

Hen­nie Fisher demon­strates how to give good old bil­tong a new edge

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BACK in the day when I was a ma­tric­u­lant, ini­ti­a­tion at school was not yet the un­ac­cept­able prac­tice it has since been de­clared. I there­fore con­sid­ered it a suit­able task for my stan­dard six sis­ter, as part of her in­tro­duc­tion to high school life, to cart my sand­wiches to school. Of course it all ended abruptly the day she and my mum con­spired be­hind my back and put pen­cil shav­ings in­stead of pow­dered bil­tong on my sand­wiches — into which I bit with gusto to ap­pease a se­ri­ous mid-morn­ing hunger.

I un­der­stand the need to pro­mote our unique cul­tural her­itage and our lo­cal and lekker prod­ucts, and no doubt bil­tong is right up there as one of the most cul­tur­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive prod­ucts unique to SA. I also un­der­stand we should pro­mote it by giv­ing it a new edge, us­ing it in new and in­no­va­tive ways. But not all of it works. I’m yet to eat a bil­tong soup that is nice. I’m yet to savour a bil­tong pâté that does not just taste like bil­tong and cream cheese mixed to­gether. I’m yet to ex­pe­ri­ence a palat­able bil­tong “potjie”; the mere thought makes me nau­seous. Bil­tong is a great prod­uct, and per­haps best left as is.

How­ever, in the spirit of try­ing new things, I thought a shaved or pow­dered bil­tong, mas­car­pone and feta cheese fill­ing for ravi­oli might be a novel and tasty way to serve this cul­tural sta­ple. So, while writ­ing this, I tested the recipe: alas, I am far from con­vinced.

Cold the fil­ing is great, with depth and smooth­ness and just the right hint of meaty savouri- ness. The prob­lem is that as soon as the bil­tong fill­ing is sub­jected to heat, the taste pro­file changes to that of badly cooked meat with none of the caramelised notes we as­so­ciate with meat cooked prop­erly. As a con­trol, I also cre­ated a fill­ing truer to the Mediter­ranean roots of pasta by com­bin­ing feta, chopped black olives and chopped Pep­padew to cel­e­brate an­other truly South African in­gre­di­ent, which tasted a great deal bet­ter.

For Ital­ians, says Gior­gio Lo­catelli, fast-food does not con­sti­tute con­ve­nience food (some­thing to open and pop into the mi­crowave). In­stead, Ital­ians would rather (in roughly the same time it would take to de­frost said con­ve­nience food) sauté some onions and gar­lic, open a tin of good qual­ity toma­toes and have ready in min­utes a lit­tle sauce that takes the same time to pre­pare as boil­ing the ac­com­pa­ny­ing pasta.

Served with freshly chopped herbs, pasta is about the plea­sure of a food that feeds a nation. As Sophia Loren fa­mously said: “Ev­ery­thing you see I owe to spaghetti.” Ital­ians be­lieve pasta to be the fuel on which their coun­try runs.

Pasta is hugely nu­tri­tious and about 60g of dried pasta should be suf­fi­cient to sat­isfy an av­er­age per­son. It is there­fore also eco­nom­i­cal and, bar the sauce, not fat­ten­ing at all like many peo­ple be­lieve. It has such a huge reper­toire of shapes and ac­com­pa­ny­ing sauces that there re­ally is no rea­son to eat the same pasta dish twice. But we are crea­tures of habit, of­ten mak­ing the same favourite pasta dish at home when life be­comes slightly hec­tic and com­fort food is needed.

Good qual­ity flour is im­por­tant, and some spe­cial­ity stores in SA do keep some spe­cial Tipo 00 flour ground from hard wheat. The best flour, of course, is strong, pro­tein rich du­rum wheat that im­parts a spe­cial chewi­ness and nut­ti­ness to the pasta.

But some un­bleached cake flour will suf­fice, and hand­made filled pasta is a fab­u­lous al­ter­na­tive to the pre­pared and pack­aged ravi­o­lis and tortelli­nis found on our su­per­mar­ket shelves, that the type of flour plays a lesser role in the fi­nal plea­sure.

Since tap wa­ter is of­ten “hard” (made al­ka­line to pre­vent pipe cor­ro­sion) one would do bet­ter to al­ter the pH of the wa­ter to a slightly acidic six with some lemon, cit­ric or tar­taric acid.

Re­mem­ber to add a good mea­sure of salt so that the wa­ter tastes al­most like the sea, and un­less you plan to lift the pasta through the sur­face of the wa­ter dur­ing cook­ing, the ad­di­tion of oil to the wa­ter makes lit­tle or no dif­fer­ence: the old wives’ tale that oil pre­vents the pasta from stick­ing is just that — a tale. Since good qual­ity olive oil does not ap­pre­ci­ate be­ing warmed, it would make more sense to add the olive oil when drain­ing the pasta. Re­serve a bit of the cook­ing liq­uid to moisten the sauce be­fore serv­ing. For the pasta: In the bowl of a mixer with the pad­dle or dough hook at­tach­ment first make the white pasta dough. Quickly mix to­gether 1½ cups nor­mal cake flour, ½ tea­spoon salt, 4 ta­ble­spoons wa­ter, 1 tea­spoon olive oil and two medium farm eggs. Once all the flour has hy­drated, knead the dough un­til elas­tic and smooth. Wrap in plas­tic and rest for at least two hours. Re­peat the method and make a smaller batch of green and red pasta. For the green pasta, puree to­gether an egg and ½ a cup blanched flat leaf pars­ley, 1 cup of flour, ½ tea­spoon salt, 1 tea­spoon olive oil and 3 ta­ble­spoons wa­ter. For the red pasta, com­bine 1 cup flour, ½ tea­spoon salt, 3 ta­ble­spoons Ital­ian tomato paste and 2 ta­ble­spoons wa­ter.

Di­vide all the pasta into three por­tions. Roll out with a pasta ma­chine with the rollers on the wide set­ting. Sand­wich to­gether the dif­fer­ent colours (should your pasta be dry, moisten slightly with a damp cloth be­tween the lay­ers) and then cut through the en­tire stack in 1cm-thick slices. Now roll these into thin­ner lay­ers.

Make ei­ther tortellini, ravi­oli or some other filled pasta shape. Roll two sheets of pasta on a floured work area, en­sur­ing you don’t make them too thin. Brush with egg or wa­ter and dot about a tea­spoon­ful of fill­ing along the bot­tom layer, al­low­ing suf­fi­cient space to seal your par­cel all round. Place the sec­ond layer over, press­ing down well to seal the two lay­ers. Force out all the air that sur­rounds the fill­ing. Now cut these in a suit­able shape (us­ing a round cookie cut­ter or a small glass) and set aside to dry be­fore boil­ing in plenty of salted wa­ter. Serve them passed through some melted but­ter sea­soned with salt and pep­per and a dust­ing of nut­meg if it com­ple­ments your se­lected fill­ing.

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