01 July 2009

HTS: High-Throughput Stuffing

Although I don't generally like stuffed meats, I love stuffed pastas for the sheer variety of flavors and textures they offer. I've made ravioli, tortelloni, and even casconcelli, but my current favorite is agnolotti.

Agnolotti differ from most stuffed pastas in that they're produced by folding a single piece of pasta on itself, rather than joining 2 sheets. Stuffed with chopped up leftover meats or vegetables, this folding isn't such a big time saver, since you still have to fill and fold each one individually. But filled with something smooth, you can use a method Thomas Keller includes in his French Laundry Cookbook, which allows you to bang out a hundred agnolotti in no time. High throughput, the number of data points an assay can generate per unit of time, is highly valued in the pharma industry. No reason it can't be appreciated in the kitchen at home.

Today I made artichoke agnolotti. Artichokes have been available here since mid-March, and since we eat them nearly every week, I've had plenty of opportunity to run through my own and other people's repertoire of cooking methods by now. About the only thing I haven't done with them is to puree them. Now I have.

High-Throughput Agnolotti

First, you need a filling. For this method, you want something you can pipe using a pastry bag and regular round tip, or just a plastic bag with a corner cut off. Something with the texture roughly of mousse (which is a more appealing comparator than baby food). Lighter than toothpaste, heavier than whipped cream.

Besides artichokes, I've made fillings out of almonds, chestnuts, peas, fava beans, asparagus, beets, squash, sweet potatoes, and regular potatoes. I've not yet made anything with meat, but I've got chicken mousse with wild mushrooms and fish mousse queued up, and I'm trying to figure out how to make a ham mousse-- any ideas, send 'em. If using a vegetable, first cook the vegetable however it's most flavorful (roast sweet potatoes, eg, or blanche asparagus in salted boiling water and then shock in ice water to set the color; braise artichokes), then puree/mash. Resist the temptation to add liquid while blending. If anything, you might need to let the puree sit in a fine strainer for a few hours to let some of the liquid out. Along with your chosen featured food, mixing just a little ricotta (drained first), mascarpone, thick creme fresh (if you're lucky enough to have it), thoroughly cooked arborio rice (blended in a food processor while hot), fine bread crumbs, etc will help stabilize the texture and carry (but not dilute) flavor. I don't use egg or egg white, because I find it makes the stuffing too wet when filling the pasta and too set when they're cooked. Generally, keep the filling in the fridge until your pasta is ready.

You'll need fresh pasta, of course, but for heaven's sake don't let this deter you! It takes maybe 20 min to make a ball of fresh pasta dough, and the rolling takes another 20. You've got lots of options: use Restaurant pasta, made with buckets of egg yolks that give the pasta a silky texture and rich, luxurious taste, or regular old egg pasta (1 extra-large egg for about every 2/3 cup flour), or heck, don't use eggs at all-- use water and a Tbsp of olive oil and/or milk, or even just white wine as your liquid. The texture without eggs will be tougher, country style. Whatever you use for liquid, knead it well and then let it rest an hour or more, and your dough will be a lot more cooperative.

Roll out a useable portion of your pasta of choice to the 2nd-to-last setting on your pasta roller. Don't have a machine? Roll it with a rolling pin, or a wine bottle. You're looking for something you can read headlines through, but not the fine print.

Say "ahhhhhhh....". About a quarter of the pasta dough rolled to the desired thickness.

OK, now comes the fast part. Pipe the filling onto the pasta, leaving about 1/2 inch on the sides and the bottom. You can make these guys fat and plump or lean by adjusting the piping speed and the tip diameter. When using pasta that doesn't take a dozen egg yolks, I always make plenty of pasta. It doesn't take any longer to make a lot than a little, and it's a shame to have to excess filling, since that's what takes the most time.

A caterpillar of artichokey goodness.

Now pick up the lower edge of the pasta and carefully fold it over the filling. Press down on the overlap along the whole length of the pasta sheet. Depending on the type and thickness of your pasta, it may or may not tolerate having a finger dragged along its length. You now have a tube.

The caterpillar in its cocoon...

Roll the covered filling toward the top edge about a quarter turn, so the tube sits on the joined edge you just made...

... and pinch the pasta with your thumb and a finger to make pillows within the roll. This step is why you can't have any solid pieces of substantial size. With little bits of finely diced artichoke (or pancetta, or whatever you might be compelled to leave in for texture), some of those pieces will get caught in the flat sections, and they just need to be small enough that they don't prevent the pasta from sticking together. The pinches have to be secure over a wide enough area so that when you cut them, they stay together.

Oh nooo... smushed caterpillar!

Now using a pizza cutter, or a zig-zag pasta cutter, or even a knife, cut between the pillows, moving the cutter from the side without the flap toward the flat (in the pic above, from left to right). This pushes the pillows down onto the flap and seals it to the sides.

Cut, ready to transfer.

Separate, and voila-- you've got agnolotti. That flap makes a great little pocket for holding sauce, but depending on your tastes, you can make it extend past the top as much or as little as you want.

Standing up.

Set the separated agnolotti in a single layer on towel-lined baking sheets without touching, and store in the fridge until you cook them. Or, and here's the best part, do what I did today and stick the baking sheets right in the freezer, and once they're hard, dump them in a ziploc bag. It takes little enough more time to make 100 than 50 that it's easy to make a big batch and have something great on hand for when you get home from a training ride or race and need good food fast. Cook them fresh or frozen in salted boiling water until they float (they made need a little TLC early on-- keep them moving in the water so they don't stick to the bottom), and remove them with a slotted spoon, rather than dumping the water through a colander-- they're delicate enough that they'll rip. Some melted butter with garlic or herbs, a couple of chopped canned tomatoes sauteed with some fresh herbs for a minute or two, a little pancetta and shallot and herb, or a little cream sauce... no shortage of serving options.

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