Ultimate Noodle Challenge8/28/2013
Noodles have stabilized Iowa’s diet since our ancestors first cleared fields and planted seeds. Their simple paste of flour and water has stretched food dollars through 200 winters, a Civil War, two World Wars and a Great Depression. Today there are more fancy names for this once humble food than there are wheat farmers in the entire state. Choices confuse even the most contemporary chef: campanelle or farfalle; fiori or cellentani; udon or soba? Do you want eggs in your pasta, and if so, whole eggs or just yolks or just whites? Do you need gluten-free pasta or a low-carb version? Would you like your noodles colored or transparent?
Clearly, noodles aren’t what they used to be. In fact, many aren’t “new doughs” at all, but old, hard doughs. Most modern restaurants avoid the labor costs of making their own, preferring dried noodles that are mass produced. However, some Des Moines restaurants still make their noodles, particularly cavatelli, the old fashioned way — from scratch.
American attitudes about noodles have changed, too, thanks to carbohydrate paranoia and other nutritional concerns. Health food and Asian stores sell noodles from pulses such as split peas, lentils and mung beans. All are higher in protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates, and lower in calories and sodium than traditional wheat noodles. So is this a new noodle age, or is it just déjà voodle? The answer depends upon where you ask the question.
In romantic lore, Marco Polo brought noodles from China to Europe 700 years ago. In reality, early Italians had been making pasta for many centuries before Polo’s travels. In first-century Rome, Apicius described a pasta called “lagana,” with suggestions for layering and seasoning it. In the 11th century, the Arab geographer Al Idrisi wrote about a flour-based product in the shape of strings that was produced in then Arab Sicily.
Soon after Polo returned to Venice, it was discovered that Italy’s climate was ideal for growing durum, the hard wheat that yields semolina — the perfect flour for making noodles that store well. Soft wheat is usually used for fresh pasta, but semolina is necessary for dried pasta, which became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries when it became a staple on ships exploring the New World.
By the 17th century, pasta was a mainstay in Italian diets. In the early 19th century, King Ferdinand II, of Naples, hired an engineer to invent a machine that kneaded and cut noodles. Since Naples’ climate was perfect for drying pasta — neither too moist nor too dry — that city became the pasta center of the world. While liberating the city in 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi said famously that “Italy would be united by macaroni.”
Yet Arabs and Italians were both late discovering pasta. The Chinese cooked a noodle-like food as early as 3000 B.C., probably made from breadfruit. In Mexico, corn was ground into a flour that was made into a pasta for tamales 9,000 years ago. Since tamales were usually boiled or steamed, not baked, they can claim status as the world’s first pasta.
Early Europeans in Iowa grew lots of wheat. Mills abounded here, and chicken and dumplings became a familiar pioneer recipe by statehood in 1846. Wheat began to disappear from Iowa after the Civil War, when the first railroads transformed grain-fed cattle into an economic bubble. More valuable corn was planted in place of wheat. Ironically, by the end of the 20th century, only West Virginia grew less wheat than Iowa, yet central Iowa became home to two famous noodle plants, Reames and Barilla.
Today almost every kind of worldly noodle can be found in central Iowa restaurants. So this year, Cityview is asking readers to help us find the “Ultimate Place for Noodles.” Here are some things to consider:
Semolina is coarsely ground durum wheat, a highly glutinous, hard wheat that is the base of dried Italian pasta. It is not easy to work, so most fresh pastas are made with softer flours. Some Des Moines chefs like the challenge of semolina enough to use it exclusively, though. Enosh Kelley of Bistro Montage explains why.
“I like the bite it gives,” he said. “I just can’t get past the doughy taste of soft flour for fresh pasta.”
Elsewhere in town, semolina gets less respect. George Formaro, chef and owner of Centro, explains bluntly,“Semolina is overrated. I much prefer a soft flour and egg pasta. For some pasta, I will use a half-and-half mix of semolina and soft flour to give them some stiffness, but it’s not the right flour for fresh pasta.”
Most Italian cafés in Des Moines make their cavatelli from scratch with softer flours. One place, Café di Scala, makes all their pasta from scratch. Tony Lemmo and his chef Phil Shires prefer soft, all-purpose flour and whole eggs but sometimes add a small amount of semolina for stability. Formaro says he tried making his own cavatelli but gave up when he tasted Lemmo’s, which he now buys fresh.
Lemmo is a great-grandson of Teresa Lacona, whose recipes and offspring have given Des Moines Noah’s Ark, Mama Lacona’s, Bambino’s, Café di Scala, Gusto and Papa Lacona’s. Noah’s “lasagna” is Calabrese style, made with rigatoni, not flat pasta, a local quirk. Besides cavatelli, which was the Sunday dinner of mid-20th-century Calabrese Des Moines, Noah’s fettucini and ravioli are made from scratch, and this place was also the pioneer of gluten-free pasta for those with medical needs, made from brown rice and rice bran flours.
Italian Des Moines pasta history is widespread. At Baratta’s, founder Cat Baratta’s spaghetti recipe is still used, and the ravioli are made from scratch in the house. Chuck’s has been serving homemade dishes since 1956. Linda Bisignano began working in her father’s restaurant when she was 12. Her Italian sausage, cavatelli and three kinds of ravioli are made from scratch.
Jimmy and Rose Pigneri brought southern Italy and New York Latin Quarter recipes to The Latin King, where Bob and Amy Tursi keep faith with the traditions. Ravioli, manicotti and the legendary potato gnocchi are made fresh in the kitchen. So are the chicken-and-noodles specials for which people plan a week ahead and sometimes order by the hundreds. Sorrentino and Marsala sauces are made the old way — in the pan when ordered, with real dairy products, wine and with real chicken and beef stocks from pan drippings and bones.
At Lucca, Steve Logsden uses an old family recipe on a special when he can find the ingredients. That pasta is made with roasted chickens, a porcini ragu, plus all spice, cinnamon and cloves. Tumea and Sons’ baked “Sicilian spaghetti” is a family recipe that redefines local ideas about the dish. Noodle dishes at Sam and Gabe’s, Noodles, Pagliai’s, La Pizza House, Marino’s, Christopher’s and Mezzodi all trace their roots back generations to the Old Country.
Non-Italian noodle dishes in Iowa became popular during the Depression as a means of stretching more expensive proteins. Chicken and noodles, chicken and dumplings, macaroni and cheese, beef and noodles (including beef stroganoff) and goulash became synonymous with the term “blue plate specials.” Today these dishes thrive in supermarket carryout cases, diners and cafeterias. Some places have taken them upscale with fresh ingredients. Tursi’s Latin King’s chicken-and-noodle specials are legendary. Noah’s beef and noodles has been a menu regular for 50 years. Americana, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines, Drake Diner and Trostel’s Dish have macaroni-and-cheese dishes, many with truffles, that have cult followings.
Symbolic of long life, noodles are considered lucky in China, from where they spread to all Asia. Japan’s most popular noodle, “ramen,” is simply the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for “lo mein,” or boiled noodle. Asian recipes often call for rice noodles, which are now easy to find in Des Moines’ Asian markets. Rice vermicelli, also known as rice sticks, are white in color, chewier than wheat noodles and sold in various thickness. Since all are precooked, they don’t need to be boiled; just soaked for 15 to 20 minutes and rinsed of starch.
Chinese egg noodles are made from a mix of eggs and wheat. Most popular in stir fry dishes, these are sold fresh or dried. In other shapes they are used to make egg rolls, pot stickers, dumplings and wontons. Nearly every Chinese restaurant in the area serves lo mein as well as fried noodles. Dim sum spots like Kwong Tung and Wong’s Chopsticks offer an array of dumplings and other noodles. Other Chinese restaurants’ noodle specialties include both stir-fried long noodle dishes and dumplings like shu mai, won tons and potstickers. You can find an array of noodle specialties at Great China, Mandarin, Tsing Tsao, Hong Kong, Rice Bowl, China Place and China Chef.
Ramen are possibly the world’s most famous budget food, having sustained starving artists and college students since their popular invention after World War II. A three-minute soup, their rectangular brick of curly, long noodles can also be added to a wok with sauce with chopped vegetables and meat to make stir fry dishes. Korean ramen is highly spiced and often contains packets of black bean sauce. Chinese ramen comes in hot Szechuan flavors. Thai ramen is thinner and is very hotly spiced. Japanese flavors tend toward seafood, seaweed and mild spices. Akebono 515 makes a ramen dish (in chicken/pork broth) that includes slices of grilled pork belly, braised shoulder meat, broccoli rabe, fish cakes and a poached egg. Gateway Market alternates several versions of ramen, including a vegan one, with homemade noodles.
Other Japanese noodles are more complex. Udon is made from white wheat flour, salt and water. They are thick and firm. Most udon are served in hot broth made of soy sauce, sweet sake, sugar and dried fish stock. Soba are made with a mix of buckwheat flour and wheat flour. They are as thick as spaghetti and are mixed, rolled and cut into noodles the same way. Somen are made of wheat flour and oil and are always sold dried. Taki serves ramen in both miso (soy broth) and chicken broth with marinated pork shoulder and vegetables. They offer udon in broth with tempura (deep-fried) shrimp or with beef, fish cakes, spinach and eggs. Wasabi Chi, Wasabi Tao and Haiku also serve udon and/or sobe.
The Vietnamese noodle dish pho is made in Des Moines as it is in Asia — by boiling cow bones for six to 12 hours. So few non-Asian restaurants bother to make real bone stocks this laborious way that Vietnamese cafés are called “a broth of fresh air.” Pho stock is made usually in Des Moines with rib bones, legs and knuckles — skeletal royalty. It’s often spiced with star anise and other herbs. Noodles and a diner’s choice of different cuts of beef, from exotic to familiar, are served with bean sprouts, fresh coriander, green or red chilies and mint sprigs — typical accompaniments. Fresh lime, hoisin sauce, hot chili oil, fish and soy sauces are common condiments. A Dong, TNT, Café Fuzion, Pho 888, Vietname Café, Saigon and Aroy-Dee all treat noodles to real beef stock in their pho and offer several other noodle based dishes. Most of them are made with rice flour. Some offer chicken and vegetarian broths. The Laotian Café Lily offers a wider variety and uses mostly pork bone broths instead of beef
Thai cafes such as King and I, Thai Flavors, Taste of Thai, Cool Basil, Jasmine Thai, Lemongrass, Zuzap, The Spice, Thai Kitchen, Thai Kitchen, Thai Basil and Thai Café offer noodle menus that include pad thai, a dish created during the Depression to encourage Thai’s to eat more Thai rice (in noodle form) and import less wheat. It’s also made now with silver or cellophane noodles (made from mung bean starch) and rard nar (wide noodles made with and without eggs). Peanuts, lemongrass and holy basil are popular treatments.
Some Asian restaurants offer noodles from multiple cuisines. Fawn’s, Red China Bistro, Café Su, Nut Pob and half a dozen Chinese buffets such as Bamboo, multiple Dragon Houses, W. China and China One fit this bill.
That’s a lot of noodles for one’s noodle to contemplate. Nominations for Des Moines’ Ultimate Place for Noodles are open. Check upcoming issues of Cityview as we halve their field each week until our winner is announced on Oct. 24. CV