Sunday, October 23, 2016

Buckwheat Cavatelli with Roasted Winter Squash and Cipollini Onions

Have you ever tried to figure out your personality type? (In and out of the kitchen.) Are you a risk taker? Competitive perhaps? Organized? Creative? Disciplined? Fearless?

Have you ever wondered?

Well, you can find out by taking The Chef Quiz from the Culinary Institute of America. Or, you can go ahead and make yourself a bowl of cavatelli.

That was one of the first things we learned in our pasta-making lesson with the James Beard Winning chef Tim Cushman of Covina.

It's been only a month since we gathered in New York City for the Saveur magazine's Food Blog Awards festivities. Four short weeks only, but it kind of seems like an eternity. As if the gathering never happened. A dream perhaps. Life takes over sometimes and shifts into the high gear, and suddenly you are in a spaceship, racing through the universe, defying time, defying memory. If it had not been for that pasta-making session, I would have almost forgotten the two intense days of events. The good folks at Saveur put a lot of thought and energy into organizing a slew of gatherings, activities and workshops that truly made us feel special. There was the welcome cocktail party the night before the awards, pizza making workshop and how-to-butcher-a-pig workshop, lunch at the Saveur test kitchen, wine tasting, "ask a cookbook editor" panel, and finally, uber-phenomenal Big Night of the Awards at the rooftop of the William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg, with drop-dead-gorgeous views of New York City, sunset and procession of glorious food from chef Andrew Carmellini's kitchen.

And then, there was the pasta-making lesson with chef Tim Cushman of Covina. Truth to be told, I originally intended to sign up for the pig thing, after all, I am a girl-and-her-pig kind of gal. But making pasta is my favorite pastime activity, and my red Imperia is the extension of my right hand, so I went with pasta. It would serve me better in the long run, I thought.

I did not regret it.

Covina is a newly opened restaurant in Park South Hotel in Manhattan. Once upon a time, before Miss Pain was born, when I was totally on top of things, I followed the Gotham restaurant scene religiously, but these days are long over, and when the folks from Saveur sent us the itinerary for the festivities, I admit it, I had to turn to Google to find a fact or two about Covina.

I learned that "Covina is an American/Mediterranean/Italian restaurant with a name that sounds like a made up Italian word but is actually a town in Southern California."

I learned that "(chef) Cushman spent seven years as a globe-trotting corporate chef, and before that, in the ’80s, he worked at Trumps in West Hollywood for Michael Roberts, who became famous for serving lobster in vanilla sauce and making guacamole from peas decades before Jean-Georges Vongerichten had the idea."

I learned that "(at Covina) Cushman is channeling a little of that playful, multiculti, proto-California-cuisine spirit, where the Cal-Med menu runs the gamut from lamb kofte to asparagus cacio e pepe."

God bless the restaurant critics.

Chef Cushman is a cool guy. He confessed to having a bachelor’s degree in Jazz and Classical Guitar from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He wears his hair on a longer side, and cooks foods influenced by his travels. He shared bits and pieces of his food philosophy (he likes garlic, San Marzano tomatoes and bold flavors), gave us a tour of the kitchen and the restaurant, and then put us to the serious work of making pasta for two dishes from Covina's current menu: a) Mandilli with Basil Almond Pesto, Housemade Ricotta and San Marzano Sugo, and b) House Milled Farro Cavatelli with Wild Mushrooms, Summer Squash, Lemon Zest, Basil, Parmesan and Pecorino.

Mandilli, or the "handkerchief pasta", are super-thin lasagna sheets, which half-way to the lasagna pan changed their mind and refused to go into the oven. Once the sheets are cooked, they are smothered in pesto, then folded over onto themselves and served on a plate. Tada! Stay tuned, a post on mandilli is destined to happen sometime soon, because mandilli are close to the top of my dishes-to-cook-list, but for the moment it's the cavatelli folks. Cavatelli were the absolute highlight of that pasta-making morning at Covina. They totally stole the show, I fell in love, and have been making no other pasta since.

Cavatelli is a beautiful shape. A miniature patch of pasta, curled into a half-shell, so that the ends of the patch are embracing one another in a loving hug, yet barely so, leaving a tiny hollow in between. Therefore, the name: "little hollows". Many claim that cavatelli is the best pasta shape of all, and they are probably right, but in my case, it was not the shape, but the process of making this pasta that made me fall in love with it.

Cavatelli can be made by a machine or by hand, and it is the latter that makes this shape stand above all others. When you use your hands to make pasta, there is always a certain amount of unevenness -- even with the most skilled of pasta makers -- so that at the end, when you are done shaping, and you arrange the cavatelli on a board, or gather them in a pile, they begin to dance a hectic dance, like an ensemble of tiny ballerinas, all beautiful in their uniqueness. Sort of like a dance of the snowflakes in The Nutcracker.

There is the shape, and then there is the ricotta. The history of Italian pasta-making teaches that cavatelli can be made with two types of dough: the standard pasta dough (oftentimes eggless), and the ricotta-based dough (which elevates cavatelli to a level of greatness industrially produced pasta can not achieve in many lifetimes.)

Would you care to learn which one we made?

After we prepared the dough, Chef Cushman and his team showed us the technique of shaping the pasta by hand on a wooden gnocchi board. They then gave each one of us a brand new gnocchi board to practice (and take home, thank you!!!). And that's where the real fun began. I've made my share of pastas, but I have not made cavatelli before. Partly because of ignorance, partly because I did not own a gnocchi board. Now that I have one, I might not make another shape ever again.

"Be careful," told us Chef Cushman jokingly, as we embraced the challenge, "some say that everyone makes cavatelli differently, and that the shapes are the reflection of their personalities." 

There was a great deal of truth in chef's words, because once I looked around, I saw an amazing display of different personalities in that kitchen. The "disciplined" ones, they tried and tried and tried until they fully replicated chef's technique and shape. The "fearless" ones, they embraced the challenge with all their mighty spirits, without any restrictions and constraints. Then, there were the "annalists" (count me in), we could not relax until we figured out the way to produce an army of almost-identical-looking shapes. (In the spirit of full disclosure, when cavatelli are concerned, I am not so sure that it is a good thing. Ditto with everything else in life.) Some shapes were smaller and flatter, some were bigger and curlier. "Simple" vs. "complicated". The "risk-takers" found novel ways of rolling the dough, the "playful" ones produces a myriad of different looking shapes, while the "creatives" pulled off entirely new shapes altogether.

Yet, no matter how different they looked, they were all cavatelli.

After the session was over, and after we packed our gnocchi boards to take home, they brought us big bowls of mantelli and cavatelli fresh from the kitchen, and we took our spoons and dug in. Communal style.

I am so glad that I chose that class. At the end, it was not so much about the pasta-making skills, but first and foremost, it was a wonderful reminder of what a great experience it is to make your own food. How precious it is. In this day and age it is easy to take food for granted. Making your pasta, by hand, and then cooking it, serving it, sharing the results of your labor with those you love -- it's an entirely different playfield. I've made tons of cavatelli since. And every new batch brought with it a newfound appreciation for what's on the table, because so much work, and so much patience, and so much love went into it.

It is food at its best.

p.s. Do take that CIA test. It's a lot of fun.

Buckwheat Cavatelli with Roasted Winter Squash and Cipollini Onions

* 1 lb buckwheat cavatelli (see recipe below)
* 1 small butternut squash or 4-5 honey nut squashes
* 14 oz red cipollini onions
* 2 tsp of finely chopped fresh oregano, thyme, marjoram or savory (if you do not have fresh herbs dry ones will do)
* 1/3 cup of dry white wine
* 1/2 tsp lemon zest grated on a microplane
* 3 tbsp butter
* olive oil
* salt and freshly ground black pepper
* grated Pecorino Romano (for serving)

Preheat oven to 425F (400F convection).

Clean the squashes and cut them into 3/4-inch dice. Drizzle generously with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the squashes on a baking sheet in one layer, and roast them in the oven until gently caramelized outside and soft inside, for about 25 minutes.

Clean the onions, and cut them in half cross-wise.

Preheat broiler to medium-high heat.

Drizzle the onions with olive oil and season with salt and paper. Place the onions under the broiler, about three inches away from the broiler, and broil them until tender and gently charred, for about 20 minutes. (Not all broilers are born the same, so keep an eye and use your judgment.)

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a rolling boil. Add the cavatelli and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until pasta floats to the surface. Drain the pasta in a colander and reserve one cup of the pasta water.

Place the pasta back into the pot (or into a large saucepan) and onto the stove over medium-high heat, add the butter, and about a half a cup of the reserved water, herbs and lemon zest. Mix well. Once the liquid begins to emulsify (it will take a minute or less), add the wine and continue to stir gently. Keep stirring until the sauce thickens and coats the cavatelli nicely. (If the liquid reduces a lot, you can add a bit more pasta water at this point.) Add the squash and onions and mix gently. Transfer the pasta to a large bowl, or individual plates, top with mounds of Pecorino and serve immediately. 

Serves 6

Buckwheat Ricotta Cavatelli

* 1/2 cup buckwheat flour
* 1/2 cup semolina flour
* 1/2 cup whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur white whole wheat flour), plus more for dusting
* 6 oz ricotta
* 1 large egg
* a pinch of salt


* gnocchi board

In a small bowl beat the egg gently and mix it with ricotta.

In a large bowl, mix the flours and salt. Make a well in the center, and add the cheese and egg mixture. Using a fork gradually work the cheese and egg mixture into the flour, until it reaches the consistency when it can be kneaded by hand. Then let the hands take over, and gradually work the mixture together, adding more flour if necessary, to make a soft but not sticky dough. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until it is smooth. Let the dough rest at room temperature, wrapped in plastic, for 30 minutes to an hour.

When ready to make the cavatelli, cut about one eight of the dough (and cover the remaining dough with plastic). On the work surface roll the dough into a rope, about 3/8 inch in diameter. Cut the rope into 3/4-inch pieces.

(A couple of observations at this point. #1 Many recipes suggest dusting the work surface with flour. I experimented with marble and wooden boards, and found that in both cases dusting the board made it more difficult to roll, as the ropes became to "slippery". #2 The size of the cavatelli is entirely up to you. But the size will greatly affect the amount of time you will have to put in making the shapes. With lots of practice I reached about 45-50 minutes of work for a pound of cavatelli using the measurements above. These measurements are slightly bigger than 1/4 inch in diameter for the rope, and 1/2 inch length for the pieces, which based on a majority of recipes on the Internet, seems to be somewhat of a golden standard. #3 The type of sauce you will use with the cavatelli will also play a role in the measurements. For thick and robust sauces, and chunky ingredients, as in the recipe above, you actually want bigger shapes because they complement the rest of the ingredients better.)

Dust the gnocchi board with flour lightly. Take one of the pieces of dough, place it on the board and with your thumb or index finger press it into an oval shape. Start pressing at the top of the shape and continue towards the bottom, dragging your fingers toward you and causing the pasta to roll over on itself. (This part requires a bit practice.) Continue until all the dough is used and make sure you keep the gnocchi board dusted. Transfer cavatelli to a lightly floured pan or board, and let dry at room temperature for at least one hour.

If you are not making the pasta immediately, cover with plastic paper and place in a refrigerator for up to two days, or in the freezer for about one to two months.

Makes about 1 lb of pasta



  1. Wow first I am mesmerized by your photo's they are like a beautiful still life painted by one of the masters and what fun to attend that class. It sounds like such a wonderful time at Saveur's blog awards. Cavatelli is my favorite pasta, my Mom used to make it but I have never attempted it before, my pasta making skills are not the best, I'm ok with the long pasta but the shaped are hard for me. Yours are beautiful and I love the pasta with the onion and butternut squash. Simply delicious,

    1. Suzanne, thank you. I also thought that shaped pasta is a big deal, but the Covina experience, reassured me. It does take a bit of practice at the beginning, but once you figure out the move, it is quite straightforward. And incredibly soothing, I have to say. Almost like a meditation :)

  2. I took the quiz! Result: You are The Entrepreneur! lol. I have never ventured into the homemade pasta-making world. I'm one-handed now from a recent accident which has left my left hand enclosed in a traction device. Nonetheless, your photos and enthusiasm at the awards give me hope I actually could make my own pasta one day. Brava for you!!

    1. Kathryn, I am sorry to hear about your hand, I hope that it will heal soon.


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