Is there something romantic about making pasta from scratch? There might be.
Freshly made pasta is what Craig Strong, executive chef at Studio, prepared on the first date for the woman he would later marry. It played a part in my courtship as well. I prepared fresh fettucine in my cooking class the first time I met my husband. That evening the spinach-green strands hung from the chandelier for merriment.
The scratch-pasta topic was the draw for a recent sold-out cooking class at Studio, Montage Laguna Beach. Strong was our pasta professor and proved to be a talented teacher. Known for his modern French cuisine with California influences, his skills spill into Spanish and Italian cuisines as well.
His devoted students happily worked doughs into alluring shapes, their confidence building as they progressed from one to the next. Motivating their expertise was the eat-it-later lunch element. The student-made pasta would be the cornerstone of their meal. Strong plus two sous chefs would be in the kitchen to keep everyone on track.
Strong started with the simplest of questions. “Nobody is gluten free, right?” he queried, a question that was greeted with laughter from the students that filled four tables of eight. Each participant was clad in a Studio apron with their name embroidered on the front. About a third of the students had taken a previous class there.
“Making pasta is one of the things I love; pasta has so much versatility,” he said in a reassuring tone, the starched chef’s whites on his lanky build set against the bright blue of Studio’s ocean-view windows.
“It is pretty simple to do, but the simplest things can sometimes be a little complex … but if you know the (preparation) tricks and the sauces that go with the pastas, you can make your own versions.”
In the kitchen, we watched as he worked three doughs—one in a food processor, one in an electric mixer, and one simply formed by hand: egg pasta to roll and cut into fettucine, trofie pasta to be rolled by hand into 2-inch tapering shapes, and ricotta cavatelli to be formed into a rope and then cut into ½-inch pieces and formed into snazzy shapes using the tines of a fork as a roller.
There were discussions about flours—semolina and double 0. Talks about the true definition of extra virgin, as it relates to olive oil, as well as thoughts about how California olive oils stack up with those produced in Italy and Spain.
Three sauces were next on the agenda. Strong explained that it’s important to understand the balance between sweet and sour. In savory dishes, he said the balance needs a little coercing.
Strong’s version of Checca Sauce (pronounced KAY-cah) would need a gentle one-hour simmer. He said that the sauce shouldn’t be rushed.
“In a way, you have to make love to the sauce; it’s a slow romance,” he said. “The shallot should cook slowly, as well as the garlic that can burn easily because of its high sugar content. We almost never use canned tomatoes in this kitchen, but for this sauce, we can use San Marzano canned tomatoes; they are picked at the peak of ripeness for canning.”
Strong fielded a question about which wine to use in the Checca. He said it should be something that was good enough to be pleasing to drink, but not expensive; something around $10 should work.
He showed how to make alfredo sauce that would pair with the freshly cut fettucine. Heavy whipping cream gave a luxurious mouthfeel to the mix of gently sweated shallots and garlic, the addition of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese bound the sauce, giving it a just-right thickness. Pinches of salt, ground white pepper, and freshly ground nutmeg seasoned the mix to perfection.
His third sauce, his version of basil pesto, surprised me. He quickly blanched the fresh basil in boiling salted water (about 30 to 50 seconds), then shocked it in an ice-water bath. I’ve always made pesto with the leaves fresh from the stem, but quickly blanching the herb made the sauce a brighter green and gave it a silky quality that made it better stick to the pasta.
“Add a little of the pasta cooking water to the pesto,” he advised. “It will make it a little starchy, so it makes it saucy.”
Rolling, pinching, and crimping. Studio’s students worked in teams to produce impressive mountains of pasta. Some were highly focused and almost silent, others jovial and boisterous. When the last of the noodles were cut, trofie rolled, and cavatelli turned, it was time to return to the dining room for lunch.
“Are the chaffers hot?” Strong asked the kitchen crew about the chaffing dishes housing the sauce-napped pastas. “Yes, chef,” they responded in unison.
Indeed, the class was ready, too. For loads of pasta, a beautiful salad, and decadent desserts. And wine, too.
Upcoming Studio Cooking Classes
Saucing It Up – Saturday, May 19, 11 a.m.
This class will reveal the prized secrets of sauce making, so students will have go-to sauces in their repertoire to deliciously top meat, seafood and vegetables. Participants will focus on basic meat sauces such as béarnaise and bordelaise, learn how to make beurre blanc for seafood and prepare the ever-popular hollandaise for vegetables and egg dishes.
Spices of Life – Saturday, June 9, 11 a.m.
Learning how to choose and use spices in cooking favorite dishes is what Chef Craig Strong will be sharing at the Spices of Life cooking class. Participants will create their own version of a spice blend for shrimp, make a Thai green curry fish soup and prepare spicy chipotle chicken.
Cost for each class including a wine-paired lunch is $150, plus tax and gratuity. Class size is limited. Reservations are available by calling (949) 715-6420.
2 shallots, finely diced
1 large garlic clove, peeled, thinly sliced or finely sliced on Microplane
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
8 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Pinch of salt, to taste
Pinch of ground white pepper, to taste
1/2 pinch ground nutmeg, to taste
- In large deep skillet, place shallots, garlic and oil on low heat. Sweat the vegetables slowly for 10 minutes. Take care to make sure no color develops on the vegetables. Add wine and reduce in volume by half.
- Add cream and reduce in volume by one third.
- Remove from heat and whisk in cheese. The cheese will thicken the sauce. Season with salt, white pepper and nutmeg.
Source: Craig Strong, executive chef Studio at Montage Laguna, 30801 South Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”