Cook Like a Local

I tried a new dish and I liked it. I liked it so much I want to share it with you…tagliatelle cooked up in a saute pan (like risotto) in lemon broth, served with lemon cream sauce. This was a dish that I saw demonstrated via the internet directly from Vittorio’s kitchen somewhere along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Vittorio works in Italy’s travel industry and gave his demonstration after an information session led by Angela in Sicily and assisted by Laura from Tuscany. How cool is that? I’ve written before about how my culinary inspiration comes from the most unexpected places, and you can add this to the list.

If you saw my blurb about this on Facebook or Instagram and all you want is the recipe, I’ve included it at the end of this post…feel free to skip right to it and good luck. You’ll mess it up. No really, you will. But hey…take that as a challenge! If you can tolerate my pedantic style, read on and your taste buds will be rewarded. I’m not being immodest when I say it turned out good. Really good. That has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the terroir of the Amalfi Coast and staying true to both the ingredients and the local customs.

My version of Vittorio’s dish was a play on nuanced flavors and textures both in the sauce and, surprisingly, the pasta. I say surprisingly because pasta usually isn’t the star of any dish…it is the near flavorless delivery vehicle for the yummy sauces that are the star. In this dish the pasta held its own against a really good sauce. The pasta being tagliatelle, long flat noodles made to an exacting standard, fresh for the occasion and cooked al dente. The pasta delivered a buttery lemon flavor which served as the perfect accompaniment to the sauce, carrying it without surrendering to it. The lemon cream sauce was decadent. It was rich and silky with a lemon citrus bite that reminded me of lemon cheesecake. What made the dish for me was how the flavor from the pasta blended so well with the sauce both in taste and texture without either losing their individual identity. If I am being honest, I found the grittiness of the Parmigiano Reggiano that I added to the sauce at the end to be off-putting in an otherwise creamy and smoothly textured dish. I served the tagliatelle and sauce as a side to lemon herbed chicken that I cooked up sous vide. The chicken turned out good, but it was lost in the yumminess of the tagliatelle and sauce. I’ll have to work on that.

I had enough Sorrento lemons left after the first dish to try it a second time, so I decided to make the Take 2 version a few days later as a side to a well marbled ribeye steak. I omitted the Parmigiano for Take 2 and instead tossed some goat’s cheese crumbles atop the pasta as I plated. The sauce’s silky texture without the grit from the Parmigiano was much more harmonious, and the flavor profile of goat’s cheese was a better fit for the ribeye. It worked. And that’s the nice thing about learning the hows and why of a dish…it allows you to adjust the dish to the menu rather than the other way around.

The Hows, and Whys of This Dish

When I start working on a new dish it is important for me to learn the provenance of the ingredients, the history of the techniques involved, and details about how everything fits together at a molecular level before I’m ready to hit the kitchen for my test runs. I usually start by searching the internet for recipes that are the same or similar to what I plan to make. I found pasta noodles with lemon cream sauce to be a pretty popular dish on the internet. Most of the recipes were very similar and where there were differences it was easy to understand why. A couple of the recipes I found took a deeper culinary understanding of how the ingredients interacted to fully unravel. For example, Andrew Zimmern uses Meyer lemons when he makes his version of this dish, and Martha Stewart adds a dash of EVOO to her pasta. Why? I learned why, through my research, and based on what I learned I opted not to copy anything from either recipe. Except…I’m not gonna to lie…I did steal Martha’s idea for plating the pasta. Martha’s idea, my end result and picture:

How to Screw Up a Recipe…Follow It

When it comes to writing down a recipe, I break it down into an ingredients list and a list of steps or directions. There are always adjustments that I make along the way that don’t get written down because they are episodic, and the adjustments work because I don’t start to make something until I completely get the hows and whys. I organized the ingredients for my tagliatelle and lemon cream sauce into four main components: the pasta, the lemon broth the pasta is cooked in, the lemon cream sauce, and the protein used as the main. I broke the prep down to five tasks: making a lemon broth, making fresh tagliatelle, cooking the pasta in the lemon broth like you would risotto, making the lemon cream sauce, and making the protein that will serve as the main for the dish.

There are so many ways to go wrong with this dish. Fortunately, my recipe is a copy of Vittorio’s, which means Vittorio had already figured out all the wrong ways to make his dish. All I had to do is figure out how he made it. Without a recipe. All I had was what I could remember of his cooking demonstration along with the few notes I was able to jot down, and the oh so helpful internet. Here are a few cautions:

1. Using the wrong lemons

This recipe can only be made with Sorrento lemons. Vittorio was quite clear on that point. You can’t go to the grocery store and pick up a bag of common domestic lemons and expect this dish to work. Common lemons are wrong for this dish in every way. Trouble is…Sorrento lemons are next to impossible to find in this country. With the exception of one small ranch in San Diego County that grows them to supply local restaurants, you have to rely on imports from the Amalfi Coast. Those imports are few and far between because the main use for Sorrento lemons in Italy is to make limoncello. I’m not sure that they are wrong!

Food channel addicts who can’t find Sorrento lemons will be tempted to use Meyer lemons as a substitute, because that’s what food channel addicts do. You can approximate the taste and texture profile of this dish using Meyer lemons, which is why Andrew Zimmern uses them in his recipe, but it requires additional adjustments throughout the recipe. And it takes a highly accomplished chef who knows the complex interplay between ingredients at a molecular level to come up with the necessary accommodations. Zimmern is a highly accomplished chef. I am not. His dish works with Meyer lemons, but it is an approximation of the dish he had at a Sorrento restaurant, and it is an approximation of the dish Vittorio made. His recipe is different in many ways from Vittorio’s because of the accommodations he had to make in order for the Meyer lemons to work. It will be a tasty dish…just not as tasty as Vittorio’s dish. So…if you can’t find Sorrento lemons and are tempted to use Meyer lemons, don’t. At least not in my recipe. Use Zimmern’s recipe. It won’t be as good as my recipe made with Sorrento lemons, but it will be a heck of a lot better than my recipe made with Meyer lemons.

I believe in putting my energy into sourcing a hard-to-find ingredient rather than coming up with a substitute. My last hard-to-find ingredient, Mayan xcatic chilis, took me five years and several trips to Mexico to find just enough to bring home for one shot at the dish. Xcatic chilis are only grown in the Merida area of the Yucatan, and they aren’t exported at all. When it came to the lemons for this dish I got lucky…my sister found a supply of Sorrento lemons at an Eataly Italian market, just outside of the West Village in NYC. And the dish turned out lovely.
Amateur tip (because I’m not a pro, otherwise it would be a pro tip): if you find lemons advertised as Sorrento lemons but are unsure of their provenance, every Sorrento lemon from Italy has a sticker on the skin certifying it as a an I.G.P. Lemon of Sorrento. It’s OK to peel it off before using the lemons. They know where they’re from.

2. Failing to Respect the Pasta

Italians are passionate about many things, but especially their pasta. You cannot make this dish without respecting the pasta and that is the number two reason people who try to follow my recipe will fail. Forget about the drizzle of EVOO or water Martha Stewart’s recipe calls for. I get where that “hack” comes from, but it has no place in a recipe for tagliatelle.

When Vittorio demonstrated this dish, in addition to admonishing me to use real Sorrento lemons, he told me I would have to make fresh tagliatelle for his dish to work. No worries…I make fresh pasta all the time, but I had never heard of tagliatelle. The noodles he used in the demo looked like fettuccini to me. I googled tagliatelle and found that many people consider tagliatelle and fettuccini to be synonymous. I also found all sorts of interesting trivia about the difference between tagliatelle and fettuccini which mostly sounded made up.

I discovered from a reliable source that there is only one way to make the pasta known as tagliatelle, the source being a notary deed for the dish Tagliatelle Bolognese, kept under guard in the bowels of the Bologna Chamber of Commerce building. Didn’t I say Italians are passionate about their pasta? If I am being honest, I think the notary deed is probably sitting in some bureaucrat’s over-stuffed five-drawer filing cabinet along with last year’s grocery list, but whatever.
Amateur tip: Use “00” flour, large whole eggs, and a pinch of salt. NOTHING else. Take that Martha Stewart.

To make tagliatelle according to the notary deed your dough should be rolled out into sheets with a thickness of less than 1mm. Each sheet is then rolled over itself and hand cut into strips that are as wide as the 12,270th part of the height of the Asinelli Tower (located in Bologna). I’m not even kidding about that. That works out to about 8mm wide noodles (cooked) if you count the 2.2 meter battlement that sits atop the 90.2 meter tall Asinelli Tower, which I’m pretty sure they do. If you think there is any wiggle room in making tagliatelle, the notary deed will set you straight. It wraps up the tagliatelle recipe by stating, “Any other size would make it lose its inimitable character” or words to that effect in Italian.

The Bolognese are so particular about tagliatelle they have memorialized the measurement in a golden tagliatelle sample, on display at said Chamber of Commerce. Oh and one more thing. You are allowed to use your Kitchen Aide to mix the dough and roll out the pasta, but you must not use the fettuccini cutter attachment to cut the noodles. Because then it wouldn’t be tagliatelle, it would be fettuccini. The one thing that makes tagliatelle different from fettuccini is that it must be hand cut in the manner described in the notary deed. I cheated and used my fettuccini cutter, and I still called it tagliatelle. The fettuccini cutter yielded pasta strips at a perfect 6.35 mm width which, after I cooked them like risotto, swelled to the required 8mm width. It was tagliatelle.

Whatever you do, don’t give in to the temptation to pick up a box of dried fettuccini noodles at the grocery store. While tagliatelle and fettuccini may well be used interchangeably, fresh pasta and dried may not. I am not being a pasta snob here…well actually I am, but not because I have anything against dried pasta. I use it all the time. The choice of fresh or dried pasta should be driven by the characteristics of the sauce it is intended to carry to your mouth. This dish is engineered for fresh pasta…whether you call it tagliatelle or fettuccini doesn’t matter as long as it is fresh. Fresh pasta and dried pasta act differently after they are cooked, and if you use dried pasta in this dish you won’t get the intended result. Honestly you probably wouldn’t notice unless you have an incredibly sensitive palate trained to detect subtle differences in texture as well as flavor. But if you go through the trouble of sourcing Sorrento lemons why not go ahead and cook up the dish the way it was intended? Make your own fresh pasta.

Another mistake I want to keep you from making with this dish is trying to use that faux “fresh” pasta you can get in the ethnic/specialty/regional food section of your grocery store. Wegmans stocks pasta in a refrigerated case packaged under their Italian specialty label. It is intended to look like fresh pasta, and it is certainly priced higher than dried pasta, but it is not fresh like you would make at home. It is full of chemicals and additives that are used to make pasta that isn’t fresh, look like it is. Those additives then play havoc with any dish that is designed for fresh pasta. I tried them in one of my test runs…the faux “fresh” fettuccini turned my pasta and sauce into paste. The kind of paste you used to eat in kindergarten. Not very appetizing. Please don’t waste a single Sorrento lemon in such a dish. I’m happy to go into the science behind why it doesn’t work for anyone interested…drop me a note. This is one of the few details about this dish that I actually understand at a molecular level. I credit the molecular gastronomy kit my kids got me for Christmas.

3. Boiling the Pasta

For this recipe, don’t boil the pasta. It won’t turn out properly. Instead, cook it like risotto. That’s the main reason to use Sorrento lemons, to infuse their lemony goodness into the lemon broth you make to cook the pasta in.

The Sorrento lemon broth this dish calls for is the real secret ingredient. It is a labor of love since infusing water with the Sorrento lemons takes time. Infuse the broth with too much lemon and it tastes overly acidic. Too little and it tastes flaccid. Vittorio told me he takes 4-6 hours to fully infuse his broth with Sorrento lemon flavor from the skins or zest of the peel. Since I had some extra Sorrento lemons to work with, I decided to try several different extraction approaches that took from two to 12 hours, to see which worked best. For me, using a French coffee press extracted the right amount of lemon flavor in the shortest time…six hours. I pressed the skins every 30 minutes and between pressings kept the carafe lidless in the fridge. I didn’t want to risk introducing off flavors if the acidity from the lemon interacted with the metal of the press. After six hours the water was infused with enough lemon to represent a proper lemon broth.

Once you have the lemon broth ready, heat it up without boiling it in a saucepan on the stove, and press on cooking your tagliatelle like risotto. Vittorio started his dish by making a sofrito with onion and butter. Using butter instead of EVOO for your sofrito will lend a rich flavor to the pasta since it will absorb it as soon as the tagliatelle hits the pan, and rich is what this dish wants to be when it grows up. You do have to watch the heat though…butter has a lower smoke point than vegetable based oils. I did substitute shallots for the onions in my recipe…I prefer the sweeter, less bitter profile of shallots to onions. Maybe I’ll try using a Vidalia onion next time.

Cooking pasta like risotto gives the noodles a different texture than when you boil them…the tagliatelle comes out plump and creamy, but without losing the roughness it needs to grab onto the sauce. You also save the starch normally lost to the water when you boil pasta, and it serves to naturally thicken and enrich your sauce without making it pasty and without having to use any additives. My addition of lemon zest to the pasta flour gave the tagliatelle a hint of lemon flavor even before it began absorbing butter and lemon broth, and that organic lemon flavor added a level of depth to the tagliatelle’s flavor.

It took about 6-7 minutes and three or four ladles of lemon broth stirred in constantly to get the tagliatelle cooked to al dente. At that point I removed the pasta from the saute pan and set it aside on a wide plate. Next, I added one more ladle of lemon broth to the saute pan to pick up the starches left behind by the tagliatelle and I let it heat up to a simmer. I slowly whisked in the cream, tasting as I went along to make sure I didn’t overdo it. I was going for a balance of richness from the cream without overpowering the acidity and flavor from the lemon. I reached that point after whisking in about two thirds of a cup of cream. At that point I felt the sauce needed a touch more sweetness, so I stirred in about a tablespoon of honey which is a common addition to sweeten lemon cream sauces. Why? Because it works.

The last thing I added to the sauce was about a third cup of Parmigiano Reggiano. Once the cheese was melted into the sauce I added the pasta back in, stirred it a bit to reheat it then plated it alongside a chicken thigh that I cooked in my sous vide cooker in 160 degree water and some fresh asparagus that I steamed up in my Instant Pot. I got all the gadgets in on this dish!

That’s it. If you can find some Sorrento lemons you’ll want to try this dish. It is delish!

Jeff’s Tagliatelle a Risotto in Lemon Cream Sauce

Note: all references to lemon are Sorrento lemons. If you can’t get Sorrento lemons, don’t try this recipe until you can.

2 large eggs
1 level cup flour (loose, not packed) plus 2-4 TBS to work the dough with
1 lemon, zested

Lemon Infused Water:
3 lemons, skins pared into strips
1 qt water
Juice from 1 lemon

Lemon Cream Sauce:
4 TBS unsalted butter
2 shallots finely diced
1 TBS honey
½ cup Parmegiano Reggiano (add to taste)
1 cup heavy cream (add to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 TBS chopped parsley for garnish

1-2 chicken or fish cutlets (mild white fish like tilapia)
1 lemon, sliced
Italian herbs for garnish


Lemon broth:
Scrub the skins of 4 lemons with a vegetable brush then dry them with paper towels. Set one aside for use with the pasta dough. Remove outer peel/zest from 3 lemons in slices, being careful to get just the yellow and not the bitter white pith. After peeling, cut the lemons in half and squeeze out the juice and reserve for use later. Put reserved juice from one lemon and the zest/peels from all three lemons into the carafe of a French press. Add about a quart of water and use press to combine. Remove press, cover with plastic wrap and put in fridge. Let lemon infuse water for 4-6 hours while removing infusion from fridge and re-pressing every 30 minutes.

Add 1 cup flour and the zest from one lemon in food processor. Pulse to mix. Add 2 large eggs whole to food processor. Cover and mix steadily until dough forms. Check consistency…if sticky add 1 TBS of flour and run processor again. Check and repeat as often as needed to get dough springy but not sticky.

Roll dough out on floured kitchen surface and knead it by hand for about 5 minutes, dusting with flour as needed. This step is critical to activating the gluten fibers so don’t go easy on it. After 5 minutes roll dough into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Let dough rest on counter for between 30 minutes to an hour. This step is critical to allowing the stretched gluten fibers to properly align.

Once dough has rested, divide into four equal portions. Work with one portion of dough at a time, keeping the others covered so they won’t dry out. Using a rolling pin, form the dough portion into a rectangle. Pass the dough through a pasta roller at its widest setting. Repeat. Progressively work the dough through the pasta roller, pressing it through twice and then decreasing the thickness setting by one step each time. Once the dough has been rolled out to the thinnest setting, lay the it out on a piece of plastic wrap and cover with a kitchen towel. Repeat with each of the remaining three portions of dough making sure each is covered so they don’t dry out.

Let rolled dough rest covered for about 15 minutes before cutting. Using the fettuccini cutter attachment for your pasta roller or Kitchen Aide mixer, pass each dough sheet through, cutting the dough into ¼ inch strips. Lay out the strips on top of a kitchen towel and move on to cut the next dough sheet. Once all four dough sheets have been cut, let tagliatelle partially dry for about 15 minutes, then cover with towel until ready to cook so it doesn’t dry out too much. Try to use it within 30 minutes or so of cutting.

Lemon Chicken or Fish:
If using chicken, season with Emeril’s Essence or something similar. If using fish select a mild tasting white fish like tilapia or halibut and season with McCormick’s garlic lemon. Top chicken or fish with lemon slices and sprinkle with a generous helping of Italian herbs.

For oven, set to convection bake with a temp of 350 degrees. Place seasoned chicken or fish and lemon slices in baking pan and bake chicken until internal temp reaches 165 degrees. Cook fish for 12-15 minutes depending on thickness of the cut until internal temperature reaches 134 degrees.

For sous vide, set water temp to 160 degrees for chicken, 132 degrees for fish. Bag chicken or fish along with lemon slices, evacuate the air, seal and place in bath. Chicken should be cooked for at least 1 hour and can go as long as 4 hours as desired. Fish should be cooked for at least 45 minutes and no more than 90 minutes.

Lemon Cream Taglietelle a Risotto:
Remove lemon infusion from fridge and pour into small saucepan along with the lemon peels. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling remove cover and reduce heat to low.

In a separate saute pan, melt 4 TBS butter over medium high heat taking care to reduce heat before butter starts to smoke or burn. Add small dice shallots and saute 1-2 min.

Using tongs, add pasta and stir until most of the butter has been absorbed by the pasta. At that point add one ladle of lemon broth to saute pan and bring to simmer. Use tongs to stir pasta around in broth. When most of the lemon broth has been absorbed add another ladle and repeat until pasta is cooked al dente. It should take 3-4 ladles of broth over 5-7 minutes time. When pasta is al dente, remove with tongs, and set aside. DO NOT drain saute pan.

Add one more ladle of lemon broth to saute pan and bring to simmer, stirring to pick up any bits of pasta and shallot as well as any leftover starches. Slowly whisk in cream, tasting along the way to get the right balance. Once you have added the desired amount of cream, stir in the honey and Parmigiano Reggiano to taste. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

When sauce has the flavor you want, add pasta back in to reheat, stirring the pasta with tongs to coat completely in sauce.

Place one hollowed out large common domestic lemon on each plate (don’t waste a Sorreno lemon on Martha Stewart plating). Using tongs, pull tagliatelle from sautee pan and make pasta nest inside of each hollowed out lemon. Top pasta with a couple of drizzles of lemon cream sauce. Place protein to one side of lemon pasta and asparagus to the other side. Drizzle lemon cream sauce over protein and asparagus and serve immediately. Pour any extra lemon cream sauce from saute pan into gravy boat or some other serving vessel and place on table.

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