Italian Master Chef Marc Vetri has finally achieved what he set out to do 20 years ago: write a cookbook on pasta. Before realizing his passion for cooking, the James Beard Award-winning chef worked in restaurants throughout much of his life and fell in love with the art of pasta during his culinary training in Bergamo, Italy. Now, Vetri demonstrates his culinary prowess beyond the restaurant, where he blogs about the industry and its related verticals on Huffington Post and has founded the Vetri Foundation to help revolutionize children’s experience. Penning years of research into a cookbook that explicitly explains the science of various types of flour, Mastering Pasta: The Art and Practice of Handmade Pasta, Gnocchi, and Risotto aims to help any type of cook develop the skill set needed to make classic, authentic pasta dishes, perhaps similar to the ones served at one of the Vetri Family’s critically acclaimed restaurants.
Vetri discusses the difference between simple and complex dishes, the challenges of making homemade pasta, his opinion on the current state of food journalism, and his goals for his nonprofit organization.
New Times: What’s the biggest misconception about Italian food?
Marc Vetri: People assume that because there is only two or three ingredients or flavors in an Italian dish that it is easy and uncomplicated to cook. I think most people feel this way when they look at a plate of something with a simple noodle and a sauce. In my opinion, it is actually harder to make than a complicated plate that includes multiple components. In Italian food, you can’t mask the quality of the dish behind one piece of food. Every flavor and every texture has to be exact; otherwise, it ruins the entire dish and the whole experience. A complex dish may not be good, but you might like the sauce or something else on the plate that makes you overlook the overall taste and experience. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to that type of dish. When you make a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce, you have to think about the ingredients and the technique to make it right. For instance, you have to think about how well the spaghetti is cooked and the ripeness and sweetness of the tomatoes. It has to be cooked with the right amount of aroma too. A plate of pasta with tomato sauce can be one of the most amazing things to eat, but it depends on the skill of the person making it.
What do people usually get wrong when making homemade pasta?
Most people don’t understand anything about flour. People think the quality of the pasta has something to do with the brand of the flour, but once you really start to understand how to use flour, you can make anything you want. There’s a whole section on flour in Mastering Pasta.
Your first two cookbooks are about Italian food as a whole, which include pasta recipes. How does Mastering Pasta compare to your first two cookbooks?
I didn’t address the science of making pasta in my first two cookbooks. I just dived into the recipe instructions, but this time around, I want my readers to apply the science of flour to their cooking. Once you start to do this, you can make pasta with anything you want. I don’t think there’s another pasta cookbook that includes this much research and explanation of the fundamentals of cooking pasta. This cookbook could actually be used as a textbook for schools that offer courses on pasta.
You recently tackled the current state of food journalism through an article on Huffington Post. What lead you to do that? It’s uncommon for chefs to directly address their opinion of food media.
I think it was a result of observation over the years. There wasn’t a particular instance that made me feel this way. A lot of local writers emailed me and expressed similar sentiments. I wasn’t harping on food writers either. I was trying to address the impact of the Internet, because now you have to think about how much information is out there in the industry. Journalists writing the same article about a restaurant three months after it opens is pretty irrelevant, because everything has already been written about it. While writers know how to write, it doesn’t have the same effect after the fact. I think it results in a loss of readership, along with other things, and then some writers dumb down their writing. I was just trying to point out the snowball effect. Many chefs feel this way, too. Philadelphia Magazine went after me with an article about an hour after my article went live on Huffington Post. There’s also a five page article titled, “Death of the Critic,” and it’s all about the points I made that were true. The guys who freaked out about it dedicated half of their next issue to what I said, so it just seems kind of hypocritical. I love reading articles and interesting food magazines, because I think they have a lot of things to offer. I think I shocked everyone, because I wrote what everyone thinks but is scared to address.
Your passion for quality food goes beyond the kitchen and cookbooks. What influenced your decision to create the Vetri Foundation, which aims to help kids experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living?
The organization primarily tries to address children’s poor eating habits. There’s an epidemic happening with diabetes and the quality of school lunch, making it important to understand how to eat and what is good for you. In the beginning, we only assisted with conjuring a healthy school lunch program for children in schools nationwide, but now we are focusing on a curriculum and collaborations with chefs all over the world. We want to start a movement on understanding how to eat healthy, and I think it is up to chefs to support the issue and help propel the movement forward. Chefs that are currently involved include Tom Colicchio, Mario Vitali, Jamie Oliver, and Alex Waters, among others. If you are a chef and you are not involved, you are missing the boat.
Fettuccine with Corn Crema and Charred Green Onions
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Every summer in July, this dish goes on the menu at Amis, and it stays on until we get the last of the sweet corn in the fall. Fresh corn with charred green onions is one of those combinations that should be up there with tomatoes and basil. The sweet freshness of the corn and slight bitterness of the green onions make an awesome contrast. The creamy corn puree and the delicate chew of the green onions are another delicious contrast. This dish has a great look, too, with bright green on bright yellow.
Any thick noodle works well here. Try pappardelle or corzetti.
- 1 pound (454 g) Egg Yolk Dough (page 26), rolled into sheets about 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick
- 2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
- 2 tbsp (21 g) finely chopped yellow onion
- 2 large ears corn, shucked and kernels cut from cobs
- ¼ cup (60 ml) water
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 small green onions, trimmed
- 1 chunk ricotta salata cheese, for grating (optional)
Lay a pasta sheet on a lightly floured work surface and trim the edges square. Cut the sheet into 9-inch (23-cm) lengths. Fit your stand mixer or pasta machine with the fettuccine cutter and set it to medium speed. Feed 1 length of dough
at a time through the cutter, dusting the dough lightly with flour as it is cut into strands. Coil the fettuccine into nests and set them on a floured rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining sheets. Use the fettuccine immediately or freeze in an airtight container for up to 1 month. Take the pasta right from the freezer to the boiling pasta water.
Heat 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of the oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Add the yellow onion and sweat it until it is soft but not browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add all but ¼ cup (40 g) of the corn kernels and the water. Simmer the corn gently until it is heated through and almost tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste the mixture, adding salt and pepper until it tastes good to you. Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until smooth.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat until it is smoking hot. Add the green onions and cook, turning once, until charred on two sides, about 1 minute per side. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the onions to a cutting board, and chop finely. Heat a large, deep skillet over medium heat and pour in the remaining 1 tablespoon (15 ml) oil. When the oil is hot, add the reserved ¼ cup (40 g) corn kernels and the chopped green onions and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, then stir in the corn crema. Keep warm over very low heat.
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Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the fettuccine and cover the pot to quickly return the water to a boil. Cook the pasta until tender but still a little chewy, 4 to 5 minutes. Using a spider strainer or tongs, drain the pasta by transferring it to the pan of sauce. Reserve the pasta water.
Add about ½ cup (118 ml) of the pasta water and cook the mixture over medium-high heat, tossing and stirring vigorously until the sauce reduces slightly, becomes very creamy, and coats the pasta, about 2 minutes. Keep the pasta moving until pasta and sauce become one thing in the pan, adding a little more pasta water if necessary to create a creamy sauce. Taste it, adding salt and pepper until it tastes good to you.
Dish out the pasta onto warmed plates and grate the ricotta salata over the top.
Gillian Speiser is a contributing writer for About.com's Cookbooks & Food Writing page. Follow Gillian Speiser on Twitter.