Meat’s Italian dalliance
Hennie Fisher demonstrates how to give good old biltong a new edge
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.