Simply Pasta: The Gateway Handmade Food
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 2
A perfectly al dente fettuccine blanketed with a velvety smooth vodka cream sauce punctuated by fresh farmers market heirloom tomatoes, sweet and deliciously pungent basil, fresh cracked black pepper and a light sprinkling of Parmigiano. This meal left an imprint on my palate that forever changed my appetite in favor of pasta as pasta should be—fresh.
This pasta was unlike any I had ever tasted. Handmade and boiled just moments before plating, the tender bite and light, earthy wheat flavor of the fresh fettuccine married beautifully with the sauce.
Borrowing the words of renowned chef Paul Bertolli, the “pasta and sauce were equal partners in a harmonized interplay of texture and flavor.” Yes, harmonized tasty goodness.
Food memories like this have always inspired me to be more creative in my home kitchen. Making handmade pasta was as intimidating as the thought of making my own cheese and cured meats. Honestly, I am not terribly skilled in the kitchen, but I will say from one home cook-in-training to another—pasta is the simplest of handmade foods and a gateway to others. If you are not careful, you will soon be whipping up a fresh goat’s milk chevre or hand-stuffed sage and apple sausage. Ravioli for dinner anyone?
RP's Pasta: Handmade with Heart
Others, too, have been transformed by the gastronomic effect of fresh pasta. On a recent culinary field-trip to Madison, I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Peter Robertson, Madison’s own fresh pasta-making aficionado. If you should know one thing about Peter, it is that his love for pasta is infectious.
Peter’s pathway to pasta was a rather serendipitous one. Seeking a more dynamic field of study, he left mechanical engineering for a more alluring theatre degree at Boston’s Northeastern University. He was soon touring Europe as a stage carpenter, and after seven years spent sampling France and Italy’s culinary delicacies— including one especially memorable plate of fresh pasta—Peter came home and started re-creating those same dishes in his home kitchen. In 1994 after sharing his handmade pasta with neighbors, he was encouraged to take off his home apron and turn a kitchen hobby into a career. Soon RP’s Pasta Company was born and has become one of the most successful fresh pasta companies in the United States.
RP’s Pasta produces a diverse line of fresh pasta products including linguini, fettuccine, rigatoni and lasagna, as well as filled ravioli and tortelloni. Peter and his small team of dedicated employees whip up incredible fillings such as portobello and parmesan, asparagus and Asiago, spinach and feta, and sweet potato and gorgonzola.
For all you non-gluten eaters, RP’s started experimenting with gluten-free pasta recipes in 2008. Spurred by national growth in the gluten-free market, they launched a complete line of gluten-free pasta products in January 2011—the only fresh gluten-free pasta on the market.
Peter is an artisan food producer to his core. He strictly adheres to small batch production, which can be tricky in an industry built for large producers. Finding equipment that will produce his comparatively tiny 30-pound batches means ordering straight from the factory in Bologna, Italy. Peter also wants his team of employees to “know” the dough. “With small batch equipment you can see and feel the dough,” says Peter, comparing his operation to a larger production facility where the quality of the dough is the result of a computerized, machine-fed process.
As he explains the nuances of artisan production, one of his employees carefully feeds 30 pounds of freshly-made dough into a machine no bigger than the employee himself. The machine then extrudes perfectly shaped pieces of rigatoni. The most expensive and highly-technical piece of equipment in the whole RP’s operation is a reduced oxygen packaging machine, which increases the shelf-life of fresh pasta without the need for preservatives.
In keeping with the artisan mission, RP’s Pasta sources the bulk of their ingredients from other artisan producers. The flour is a hard winter wheat flour from a state-owned mill in North Dakota that is known for producing consistent, high quality flour—a must for a fresh pasta business. Peter hopes to someday find a Wisconsingrown whole grain, high protein wheat flour.
RP’s cheese is sourced from BelGioioso Cheese of Denmark, Wisconsin, and Cedar Valley Cheese of Belgium, Wisconsin. The vegetables that go into the filled pasta line are also local, such as sweet potatoes from Don’s Produce of Arena, asparagus from Lost Lake Acres of Fall River, and spinach from JenEhr Family Farm of Sun Prairie. The vegetables are processed at the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point, and the fillings are always made in-house to ensure quality and consistency.
Pasta Helps Build Community
In his spare time, Peter serves as president of the Madison-based Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP Food Group). REAP Food Group is working to build a sustainable regional food system in southern Wisconsin, and businesses like RP’s Pasta are a critical link in the chain that connects and strengthens community. Whether it’s teaching 110 students at the Middleton Middle School how to make pasta, supporting family farms by sourcing ingredients locally, or donating pasta to the Grace Food Pantry, Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center and Luke House Community Meal Program—RP’s Pasta is building community one noodle at a time.
DIY: Simple Steps to Handmade Pasta
Are you now feeling inspired to take the handmade pasta challenge? To make pasta at home you will need a few basic tools and equipment: a large bowl or freestanding mixer, a straight rolling pin, measuring cups, a fork and a sharp knife. A pasta machine isn’t a necessity for the home pasta maker but certainly makes a simple job of kneading, rolling and cutting the dough. We purchased our no-frills Atlas pasta maker for 60 dollars, and it has been worth every penny. You may also need an electric extruder if you want to make a wide variety of common pasta shapes such as macaroni or rigatoni, and you can purchase special cutting or shaping tools such as a fluted wheel cutter for lasagna sheets. Once you have your equipment, you only need to know a few pasta basics before you are on your way to fresh pasta heaven.
Pasta is simply flour, eggs and water. Flour is the essence of pasta and the most fundamental ingredient. For first-timers, I recommend using readily-available “all-purpose” unbleached white flour, though other common pasta flours include durum, semolina, whole-grain, and specialty flours such as rye, spelt and farro.
Whatever your preference, you should choose your flour with care by selecting a locally-produced and freshly-milled, organic flour whenever possible; many are available at natural food stores.
Once you have your flour, there are seven basic steps to making pasta, which are discussed in more detail in Chef Paul Bertolli’s book Cooking by Hand—a must for any home kitchen:
- Weighing or measuring the ingredients
- Moistening and mixing the flour
- Extruding or laminating
- Cutting or shaping the dough
The third step, kneading, is critical to good pasta dough. Kneading creates gluten, which binds the dough together. The process of kneading the dough by hand or by moving it through a pasta machine will create pasta with a uniform, smooth texture.
Enjoy this recipe for Tortelloni with Blue Cheese Cream Sauce by Macon Luhning using RP's Pasta tortelloni. And try your hand at handmade pasta at home using this Basic Pasta Recipe by Peter Robertson of RP's Pasta. You may find it's easier than you think!