The executive chef at Spiaggia shares his secrets for better pasta.
It's been an incredible year for Spiaggia and Café Spiaggia executive chef Joe Flamm. This time 12 months ago, he was cooking against some of the most talented chefs in the industry right here at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen as the 15th season of Top Chef drew to a close. Flamm ended up taking home the top prize, and included in that honor was a return trip to Aspen this year where the chef, accompanied by one of his mentors, Tony Mantuano, drew an enthusiastic crowd for his demonstration of a gorgeous green fermented ramp dough agnolotti stuffed with Parmigiano fonduta and served up in a spicy, springtime take on aglio e olio. (You can find that recipe and all the recipes from the 2018 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen here.)
During the demonstration, Flamm shared some expert tips for cooking pasta dishes that are employed at the Michelin-starred Spiaggia in Chicago. Here's how to master cooking, saucing, and making your own pasta.
Make (or buy) great pasta to begin with
Flamm admits making your own pasta at home can be intimidating, but to keep at it. "After about 20 disasters, you get the hang of it." Flamm prefers a double-zero (00) superfine flour for its silkier texture and mouthfeel in the finished product. But you can just use that as a starting point. Don't be afraid to mix in other flours like semolina, whole wheat, or grano arso (burnt wheat) flour to find a texture, color, and flavor that you like.
When mixing the flour with eggs, Flamm uses a fork to slowly incorporate the egg yolks sitting in the well of flour he makes on the counter. He warns it's important to keep the walls of your flour well up and sturdy. "Pay attention to your pasta walls." Flamm uses a combination of yolks (about 20) and whole eggs (two) for a stuffed pasta like agnolotti so that it will retain its chew and bite while still being a "smooth and sexy pasta dough." As for how much flour to use, Flamm says there's no real rule to follow other than letting the pasta tell you when it has come together. "It’s not a perfect science. It’s a living breathing little pasta beast."
And no, you don't have to make your own pasta at home. If you do decide to purchase pre-made pasta, Flamm reminds us to look for a well-regarded local producer if possible and to not skimp on quality. "You get what you pay for. Spend that extra buck a pound."
Prep the right pasta water for the job
“You always hear people spout off 'make the pasta water as salty as the sea.' Okay, yeah, sometimes," Flamm clarifies. "You should make it salty as to what your cooking and season to taste." It all depends on how salty the oil, sauce, cheese, or filling might be in the finished dish. "If you’re making caccio e pepe or carbonara, you’ve got to go way lighter on that salt.” In the case of the dish Flamm was making in the demonstration, the fermented ramps in the dough and the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in the filling were bringing their own salinity to the table, so the water didn't need to be too briny.
Oh, and you can flour the water, too. Yes, you read that right. When you're ordering up a pasta dish from a restaurant, chances are your pasta was cooked in the same water that's been boiling away cooking other people's pasta all day, picking up all that starch along the way. So if you're just cooking up one batch at home, Flamm suggests tossing some semolina flour (00 clumps up but it does the job, too) into the boiling water. When you pull the pasta out, it will have extra starch on the outside to help it marry to the sauce in the pan.
Cook pasta 50/50 in the pot and in the pan
Whenever I'm cooking pasta I want to go 50 percent in the water and 50 percent in the pan," Flamm explains. The boiling is really just to "loosen the dough up." You can tell when the pasta can be pulled from the water by its color and when it "picks up that sheen and that starchy gumminess is gone."
Flamm tosses the pasta in a pan with some butter and a touch more pasta water to create a simple sauce and finish the cooking process. "When you go to really good restaurants they understand the idea of marrying the pasta to the sauce, but in the pan, you can also cook it right to the edge when it's really al dente and really plump. That's how you get perfect pasta."