Using Your Noodle

Talk about basic ingredients. Look at a package of pasta sometime: flour. You can't get much simpler than that. (All those chemical names are vitamin enrichments for the flour.) Yet pasta is anything but plain-tasting once it is cooked and sauced. It is amazing that the most elaborate lasagna, stuffed manicotti, linguine with pesto, red spaghetti, humble macaroni 'n' cheese, all begin with that nutritious, easy-to-prepare building block, pasta.

In the "Mediterranean Diet Pyramid," put out several years ago to describe how some of the healthiest, longest-lived people in the world eat, pasta is literally a building block. The Mediterranean model, a takeoff on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, places breads, grains, pasta, rice, polenta, and bulgur on the foundational block. (Daily portions of fruits and vegetables come next, then beans and legumes, then smaller amounts of cheese and yogurt, olive oil, then weekly portions of fish and eggs, and sweets. Finally, in the eat-only-a-few-times-a-month category, comes red meat.) I can't think of a more pleasurable way to stay healthy than to sit down to a plate of warm pasta, salad, a glass of wine, and bread dipped in olive oil, the Mediterranean way.

Entire cookbooks have been devoted to the subject of pasta, because there are so many shapes and sauces. You could eat a different pasta meal every day of the year if you wish. Make it simple or complex. Mix and match such ingredients as garlic, olive oil, onions, broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, black pepper, herbs, walnuts, pecans, bacon, shrimp, roasted peppers, anchovies, or olives. Almost anything goes; I was once surprised by how well potato chunks worked in a pasta sauce.

A special category of pasta is egg noodles, especially homemade egg noodles. When a neighbor, Emma, showed me how to make them, I couldn't believe I had been missing out on such a simple pleasure all these years. She takes a dozen eggs, stirs in flour (four to five cups) until the resulting golden dough is too stiff to stir anymore. It is kneaded on a counter top until smooth, divided into smaller balls (about seven), and then those are kneaded yet again. More flour can be added as necessary. Each ball is rolled out with a rolling pin into a big circle, somewhat like a thin pizza crust. Emma dries her dough disks on a clean sheet spread on the bed in front of an open window for about one-and-a-half hours. (On a damp day, sometimes an electric fan is necessary, too.)

When dry, but still pliable, the disks are rolled up into tubes. Each tube is cut into three parts and stacked up so the cutting will go quickly. Working with a sharp knife, thin wedges are sliced off, and pretty soon a loose pile of tender noodles lies on the table. A dozen eggs makes about 24 ounces of dry noodles. They will keep several months if stored in the refrigerator. You can make a much smaller batch with as little as one egg and a half cup of flour.

Of course, the best way to use such noodles during these dark, cold months is in chicken noodle soup. Once the noodles are made, the soup can be made very quickly.

Chicken Soup With Homemade Noodles

This version does not contain strong-flavored vegetables, so it is mild enough for sick people.

4 cups chicken broth (homemade or canned)
2 cups carrot wheels
2 tsp. onion powder
2 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. sage
1/4 tsp. dry mustard
a few sprinkles of celery salt

Sauté carrots in a little oil until tender. Add to simmering broth. Stir in spices and bring to a boil. Add one cup of homemade noodles-two if you desire a thick soup. Cook noodles five to seven minutes. Serve.

CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.

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