It’s getting to be that time again…when my stash of comfort foods from home has waned and I’m weeks away from my next trip, so it’s time to get creative with local finds in a non-local kitchen (see Somali loxoox, still beyond my level of skill). It’s an expat food-lover’s conundrum: How to create magic, or at least something edible, out of a selection of options you’ve spent too much time with already. (This may also be a regular lover’s conundrum).
I recently had a visit from a friend and old colleague in Hargeisa (Hi, Sam!) who moved back to the States, and he mentioned how overwhelming all the choices can be when you first arrive back home, when you’ve grown used to a limited array. Admittedly, I’ve come to tears at the magnitude of a Pennsylvania cereal aisle after an extended stint out here; it’s a weird feeling. But therein lies the drive to creativity, for any aspiring artist: Let us appreciate what’s in front of us, and Let us lose our marbles in one less public place. Amirite?
Pasta, or baasto, is a Somali staple from north to south, the definition of ubiquitous around these parts, but it’s made from dry, tired, boxed stuff, and nearly always in the shape of spaghetti or macaroni. Flour and eggs are easy enough to come by, and I spotted a canister of semolina in the local shop, so I tried my hand at a fresh batch (and/or these grannies made me do it). I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s a reasonable enough labour while catching up on podcasts, and the exercise yields quicker gratification than bread making, another skill I’d love to dig into.
In every online pasta tutorial, the first step is an intimidating act of culinary sculpture: building a mound of dough on your lovely marble block or generations-old wooden table, making a crater within it, popping in a few eggs and slowly developing your dough with artful skill. Great.
In the interest of honesty, I’ll admit that the first cute little flour volcano I molded and filled with bright yellow eggs on our slightly angled counter top turned into a sticky, slip-and-slide disaster; I tried to whip it together with the gentle dexterity of Godzilla and ended up with egg yolks in my lap. That may have happened with the second cute little flour volcano as well. Then I wised up, forwent my ego, and mixed the dough in a perfectly reasonable bowl, which worked out a bit better, per my lap. But the doughs were too hard, too stiff to roll out, let alone yield shapes. Somewhere around the 5th try, I let my inner Italian granny goddess shine through, and a reasonable dough came together.
Among the earliest attempts: A few dozen improvised swans (yeah that’s right, swans, or so those contorted ugly ducklings fancied themselves) to swim through a bright green, almond-basil pesto. The sauce was great, but my free-form friends were gummy, a bit rubbery, not quite right. Then, a breakthrough: orecchiette. Al dente thumbprints that held pockets of buttery tomato sauce and delivered them in perfect form right down the hatch, one after the other.
Those first few batches included a portion of semolina, but for last week’s ravioli –inspired by a block of cheese brought in by a colleague, hurrah! — I stuck with regular flour for a smoother, more pliable dough to roll into sheets without a pasta machine.
Aside from the cheese, the filling ingredients were bought nearby or plucked from the backyard garden: spinach, basil, red pepper flakes, eggs, salt, and pepper. Without the standard, moist ricotta usually used for ravioli, I added an extra egg to hold things together.
Listen, they’re not beautiful by magazine standards, I’ll admit. But can we agree on a rustic charm? The rim of a metal cup and tongs of a fork lent some shape to these gems, and they cooked through in about 2 minutes in a boiling pot of water. I gobbled ’em up with a sautée of chick peas and spinach, dressing the raviolis with a pat of butter and freshly pounded (mortar and pestle, baby!) black pepper.
I triumphantly declared my success to a long-distance, Italian colleague this afternoon (I see you, Cecilia!). Enthusiastic but unimpressed, she responded about some tagliatelle she’d thrown together (“It’s easy!”) a couple of weeks ago. I give myself extra credit for getting this far with nary a drop of Italian blood in my veins. But it’s been worth the effort, and each batch improves noticeably. I look at making pasta like the game of tennis: hard enough that I’ll probably never be a master; easy enough that it’s still fun (and tastes better than a fuzzy green ball).
These guys rarely steer me wrong when it comes to cooking without a recipe, so they were my early guides. David and crew lay it all out quite comprehensively as well. For my next magic trick, I’ll add some shredded beets into the dough to color it a bit, and to celebrate a friend’s birthday this weekend.
May your baasto be silky, and your marbles intact!