Let’s Cook: The “Little Ears” of Italy’s Boot

Very early on in the pandemic, when the news from Italy was still so grim, my partner insisted we stop at the Handy Pantry in Mattituck and buy six sleeves of active dry yeast to mail to his bread-starved friends in Umbria.

I felt a pang of selfish “what will happen when we need yeast?” as he headed off to the post office to mail his strange gift, but I let it fade. We live in a land of plenty. No matter what happens, I thought, we would be fine.

That was nearly three months ago. The baking addiction that marked many of our early days of this pandemic has given way to open windows and summery beaches, and air conditioning is not far behind. God knows people must have shelved baking by now, but there is still no yeast. This is not the America we knew.

The jar of raisins and water that I set out in hopes of catching some wild yeast from a nearby vineyard or brewery doesn’t seem to be doing anything, but at this point I don’t really care.

My calm came, like so many people’s does, from my daily Instagram scroll. You all are cooking so many good-looking things, and making it look so easy. Every bowl of noodles in my feed left me wondering what happened to the rusting pasta maker that I’d bought about 25 years back, the last time I believed I could make anything in the world in my own kitchen.

On the heel of Italy’s boot is a city called Bari. Many of the East End’s Italian-Americans are actually Barese-Americans. 

If you go to the old quarter of Bari, you will find a tribe of grandmothers churning out orecchiette, a small, hand-shaped pasta whose name means “little ear.”

It’s the ultimate in peasant food — semolina flour mixed with warm water, cut with a sharp knife and flicked into the shape of an ear, then set out to dry on large screens in the morning sun before the women carry them out to the street to sell to passers-by. 

There’s no pasta maker required, but that heightens the importance of a smooth technique. Like the East End’s scallop shuckers, these women have a trade all their own.

Now semolina flour may make good peasant food, but good luck finding something so exotic with the baking supply shortage we’ve had here for the past few months. 

A pasta Vesuvio.

Shrug your shoulders and take out the all-purpose flour. There is nothing left to do but improvise. Most pasta other than orecchiette is made with an egg and yes, an egg will certainly make your homemade pasta worthwhile. The proportions are easy, and eggs are no longer so scarce. 

Build a mountain out of a cup of flour on a cutting board, and then dig a hole into it like the crater of a volcano. If you have trouble doing this, consult the world wide web for photos of Mount Vesuvius. Your mountain should look something like that. Send a few shakes of salt over your volcano, like a prayer, then beat the egg and pour it into the crater. Expect a mess. Everything is a mess. 

Wash your hands before you do this (wash your hands before you do anything). Keep the egg from running out of the crater if you can. If you can’t, don’t panic. Just continue to work the egg into the flour with your hands. 

When the egg is thoroughly worked in to the flour, add cold water to the rubbery pile of egg-flour mixings until it begins to form a thick dough. Two tablespoons should suffice but you might need a little more. 

If you’ve already gotten used to kneading bread during the pandemic baking frenzy, don’t expect a bread’s consistency from this project. This dough will be dense and unforgiving. Knead it anyway, until it gives a little. Then put it in your Frigidaire to rest for a while. The correct amount of time seems irrelevant at the moment. Leave it in for an hour or leave it in for a day. You’re not going anywhere. You need to rest up for the next part of this experiment, which will leave you, like Allen Ginsberg, mumbling a curse along the lines of “Death To Van Gogh’s Ear!” in which mountains of eggs were reduced to powder and burned in the halls of Congress.

Cutting the little ears.

Take your dough out of the Frigidaire and roll it into several long tubes, slightly less than a half inch in diameter. Get out a small paring knife and cut this log into little pieces, flicking an indentation into each piece with each cut. Don’t expect this to be easy, and don’t expect it to not be tedious. Lean in to the technique. If it’s not flowing, conduct some YouTube research. The women of Bari have been doing this for thousands of years and they give YouTube lessons. We all need lessons. 

Despite the fairly robust Barese heritage of many Italian-East Enders, few here are lucky enough to have grown up under the kitchen tables of first generation immigrant mothers as they osmosis-imparted this knowledge. 

Drying the orecchiette.

Your finished little ears should be given a little time to dry in a single layer on a baking sheet, or if you are fanatical, you can get a large new window screen to devote to this task. Lacking any belief that making orecchiette will become my new vocation, I opted for the baking sheet.

Boiling fresh pasta is almost as simple as boiling water. Here’s how: Boil a pot of salted water. Add a dash of olive oil. Slide in the orecchiette and stir. They will be ready quite quickly, when they float to the top. It should take less than five minutes but go by feel, not the clock. Make sure you reserve a cup of the pasta liquid before you drain the pot.

The final touch.

Now what you do with this pasta is up to you, but the basics are important. You must have a large sauté pan and you must begin with some olive oil and a little garlic and just enough heat for alchemy to occur. Add spinach and lemon juice, or broccoli rabe, or asparagus, some chick peas or cannellini beans, perhaps some browned sausage, a vital bit of Sunday’s tomato sauce, and then stir in the pasta and the reserved cup of water. Take the time to stir the pasta thoroughly in to this enduring elixer, then serve in warmed bowls topped by finely grated Pecorino, or some black pepper. It’s ok if the pepper isn’t freshly ground. It’s ok if your beans come from cans. It’s ok if your vegetables come from the forgotten depths of your crisper. I won’t tell if you are using Kraft Parmesan either. Use everything in your cupboard up. It is time to stop hoarding canned goods and live again.

Sit on your back porch or your stoop, or at the only window in your apartment. Soak in the bright early evening sunshine, and be glad today that you are alive today to eat. We still live in a land of plenty.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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