Cavatelli with Molisian Mixed Meat Ragù

There are few things in life more satisfying than handmade pasta. Sure, you can’t beat the texture of the dough you have formed and loved with your own hands, not to mention the fact that when you make something yourself – from scratch – you can be sure of what has gone in it. But perhaps most satisfying is actually having the time to patiently form the dough, let it rest for as long as you want, and then carefully cutting and forming each piece into the shape that you fancy – today, cavatelli! But here’s the thing: this pasta is quick to make. You could be impatient and use a mixer with a dough hook, but this is a very forgiving dough. You’ll have it resting in the fridge in under 10 minutes. How long you then let it rest before quickly cutting and rolling the curls is entirely up to you.

My inspiration here is Silvia Colloca, the Italian born and Australia residing medio-soprano singer, actress, food lover and passionate cook. I spent this week rewatching her series ‘Made in Italy’ on SBS On Demand. If you haven’t seen this sensational series where Colloca returns to her family home in Torricella to trace the traditional cuisine of her heritage throughout Molise, Marche and Abbruzzo, then you are missing out! It is such a relief to see Italian cooking presented in the way it truly is: uncomplicated, rustic, highlighting fresh local produce and, ultimately, generous! ‘Made in Italy’ showcases the food and these parts of Italy in exactly this way, so if you plan on making Italian food at home I think it is essential that you use the best ingredients you can find, use good local oils and wine, and prepare and serve your food with absolute generosity. In the spirit of sourcing locally, I used Italian sausages from Barossa Fine Foods, extra virgin olive oil from Gumeracha in the Adelaide Hills, fresh herbs from my own garden, and a Montepulciano from my favourite winery in Marananga in the Barossa.

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A note on the wine: Tscharke’s Wines are a revelation. Just down the road from Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop you’ll find a cute little villa posing as a cellar door. It looks like a Gingerbread house overlooking the vines; in fact, you’d walk through the door and expect to see Hansel and Gretel eating a biscuit window frame or Snow White dancing around with half a dozen dwarves. Instead, what you will find are the loveliest and most welcoming staff who are all too ready to generously showcase winemaker Damien Tscharke’s European influenced varieties: Savagnin, Mataro, Graciano, Touriga, Tempranillo, and my current preference – Montepulciano. The lighter drinking style and dry finish of Tscharke’s ‘The Master’ Montepulciano is perfectly suited to this meat ragù; it’s not so bold that it overpowers the other flavours. You only need a cup of wine in this sauce but you do not want to leave it out as the sauce needs the depth of flavour that the wine provides. If you’re not a red drinker (mind you, my husband isn’t much of a red drinker and even he enjoyed a few glasses of this bottle with me over the weekend) I would prefer that you salvage the rest of the bottle portioned into snap lock bags and keep it in the freezer for the next time you need a cup or two of red wine in a recipe. It keeps well and you won’t feel so guilty using a good bottle of wine since nothing is going to waste – another characteristic of Italian cucina povera.

I have used Colloca’s recipe for the cavatelli pasta and it is an excellent dough, and I have followed the basis of her meat sauce but, like every Italian recipe since the dawn of Italian time, I have edited it based on what I could find and what I had on hand – and also what I instinctively thought would ‘work’. Colloca’s original recipe can be found here and in her book ‘Made in Italy’ which features the recipes and stunning scenery from her tv series. My recipe for cavatelli with Molisian mixed meat ragù follows.

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CAVATELLI FATTO A MANO CON RAGU MISTO ALLA MOLISANA
Handmade Cavatelli with Molisian Mixed Meat Ragù
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
For the cavatelli

  • 300g ’00’ or all purpose plain flour
  • 250ml lukewarm water
  • Pinch of salt

For the ragù

  • 2 lamb shanks
  • 400g Italian pork sausages, casing removed
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
  • 2-3 Tablespoons parsley stalks, finely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon rosemary leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 x 400g tins whole peeled tomatoes (I like Mutti brand pomodori pelati)
  • 1 cup dry red wine (I used a locally produced Montepulciano)
  • 4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Water
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Grated pecorino

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To prepare the ragù

In a large deep heavy based pan or casserole dish, heat half the oil then fry the meats to brown on all sides. Start with the lamb shanks then put aside to rest before frying the uncased sausages. The sausages will probably hold their shape – don’t be tempted to mash them up into mince, this will come later. Remove the sausages and place them to rest with the browned shanks.

Add the rest of the oil to the pan then tumble in the onion, garlic, celery, carrot, chopped parsley stems, rosemary leaves and dried oregano. Sautee for a few minutes until the vegetables start to soften.

Return the meats to the pan along with any juices released while resting. Add the wine and cook for a minute or so to let the alcohol burn off.

Add the tinned tomatoes one at a time, squeezing each one with your hand to mash them and release their juices. Half fill each tin with water and give a good swirl before adding the combined water and remaining tomato puree to the pan. Season with salt flakes and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a simmer before placing the lid on, reducing the heat to low, and allow to cook for 3 – 3 1/2 hours. Check the sauce every hour and give a stir to prevent sticking.

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Remove the meats from the sauce. The lamb should already be eager to fall of the bone but help it along with a fork and shred the meat into small pieces. Use the fork to mash the sausage meat into mince then return all the meat to the sauce. Check for seasoning.

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If the sauce it still a little watery, remove the lid and boil on high heat for 10 – 15 minutes or until it has reduced and slightly thickened.

To make the Cavatelli

To make this a low mess, low fuss process, prepare the dough in a large deep bowl. Tip in the flour, season with a little salt, and the create a well in the middle of the flour with your fingers. This is imperative: you are going to make the dough by carefully pouring the water into the ‘well’, a little at a time, incorporating the flour into the water bit by bit with a fork. Wait for the flour to absorb all the water and the mixture starts to crumble before adding more water. Don’t add the water all at once because you are unlikely to need all the water. In Italian cooking, the measurements are usually described as ‘as much as you need’, and this could not be more true than when making a pasta dough such as this.

Keep up with this process until you can form a firm dough. All the flour should come off the sides of the bowl and off your hands – that’s when you know you have added enough water (I probably used 225ml water this time).

Turn the dough onto a floured board. This next step is important: oil your hands before kneading the dough for about 5 minutes. Oiling your hands will ensure that the dough continues to form and doesn’t stick to your fingers like one big goopy mess! Don’t overwork the dough either. A good 5 minutes of kneading will help to activate the gluten in the flour with the heat from your hands helping your dough to produce an elasticity. Wrap the dough in cling wrap and rest in the fridge for at least half an hour. (NOTE: Colloca says you can make this dough well in advance and keep it in the fridge a day or so, just make sure you bring it out of the fridge an hour before you want to use it to bring it to room temperature)

Cavatelli should have a dented appearance, a flat curl of pasta that traps and carries the sauce so that each bite is flavourful. To form the cavatelli, oil your hands and cut the dough into 5 or 6 pieces. The process is similar to making gnocchi. Take a piece of dough and roll it on a floured board into a long sausage shape about half a centimetre thick. Cut the rolled dough into pieces about 2cm wide. Pinch the ends of piece and stretch to help flatten and lengthen the pasta. You are aiming for a fairly thin yet pliable piece of dough which you with then press into firmly with your three middle fingers and roll back toward yourself in order to make the curl.

Place the rolled cavatelli on a floured tray and either snap freeze before freezing in bags for later use, or let dry about 30 minutes before boiling in a large pot of salted water. The cavatelli are ready to be scooped out with a slotted spoon before being lathered and bathed in the ragù when they float to the top of the water. Don’t be tempted to drain them in a colander, the little bit of starchy water that is transferred from the pot with your slotted spoon will help to thicken the sauce so it sticks to the pasta.

Toss the cooked cavatelli through the sauce with some grated pecorino. Serve with more pecorino and dried chilli flakes if you like a little extra heat.

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