Las Vegas is pure excess. Excess that drips off the walls of any place remotely associated with the Strip, like a coat of gloss that is hard to wipe out. A tacky playground for grown-ups who want to play, eat, drink, shop with abandonment. Personally, I find Vegas exhausting. Five minutes wandering around Caesar’s Palace or the Venetian and I am frazzled and overwhelmed by the rowdy, drinking and smoking throngs. By the assault of colors, sounds, the pinging of the slot machines, not to mention the uniform lighting that makes it impossible to distinguish what time of the day it is and the weird smell of the oxygen that is pumped to keep players awake.
The first time I visited, many years ago, with my still very European eyes, I was appalled – it felt like visiting a studio lot, where the Victorian houses are cardboard facades and the emperor definitely has no clothes. I went back years later and stayed on the shores of a man-made lake, hiked with the dogs and went into Vegas proper only for one fancy dinner. The desert, with its pink and grey hues, can have a mystical aura and, when in bloom, it is downright beautiful.
And I returned last week, for some r&r with a friend. Counterintuitive? Maybe. But the half day spent at the Canyon Ranch Spa was worth every penny; hiking at Red Rock early in the morning is always spectacular, and lounging by the pool with a drink wasn’t bad either. I just had to survive the in-between bits on the Strip. A couple of lovely (and expensive) meals were consumed and, after two days and three nights I was good and ready to head back to the quiet of Los Angeles.
If you have never visited Las Vegas and, like me, you don’t gamble nor party until 4 in the morning, there is a way to enjoy the city: most of the extravagant live shows cannot be found anywhere else in the country and heading into the desert is a wonderful counterbalance to the madness that is encapsulated within the two square miles of the Strip. The older casinos, even if renovated, still evoke the “good old days” when it was the Italian Mafia that ruled gambling and, if it is pampering you are after, both the Four Seasons and the Venetian have fantastic spas. And, if anthropology always piqued your interest, observing how humanity goes about exploiting the old advertising motto “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” might prompt you to write a treatise.
Once back home, bleary eyed from the early morning flight and the late night before, I enjoyed the quiet, the fog that still enveloped the coast and luxuriated in a couple of simple poached eggs on toast. And when dinner rolled around, it was still simplicity I craved.
Homemade pasta may sound counterintuitive. For many years, even if I grew up with a pasta master in the house in the form of my mother, the thought of making my own fresh pasta made me edgy. Until I faced the fact that two ingredients cannot be that hard to master and until I bought a rolling machine that streamlined the process of rolling the dough myself. It might take a few tries to make the dough perfect but do believe me when I say that even your worse effort will still be edible and better than anything that comes out of the box. Once you get some practice, it’s really easy to whip up an impressive dinner with some fresh pasta and any condiments you have sitting around: a jar of store-bought sauce; some fresh vegetables; maybe some tomatoes and basil. Fresh pasta catches the sauce in a way that boxed one never will and its chewiness is so satisfying.
Some cookbooks will devote entire pages to the art of making pasta and some chefs add salt or water or some oil to the mix but I keep it simple, the way my mother taught me.
Start with one egg and 100g of flour per person. If you live in Italy or Europe and have access to Italian 00 flour, great but I use all purpose with equally good results. Don’t get caught in the hype.
Place about 75% of the flour in a bowl, make a well in the center and break the eggs into it. Using a fork, start stirring, working from the center out, slowly incorporating the flour into the eggs. If the dough is still wet, add the remaining flour in small increments (while I gave you the standard measurements, the dough will vary depending on humidity, hence never start with the whole amount).
If you have a mixer, you can use it to do the mixing for you, with a dough hook attachment. If not, once all the flour is incorporated and you have a dough that is neither too wet nor too dry, transfer it to a lightly floured board and start kneading with the heels of your hands. This is my favorite bit, as if I were channelling all the women of past generations who have been making pasta for centuries. Once the dough feels smooth and elastic, cover it with a cotton or linen towel and let it rest for half an hour, letting the gluten develop.
In the meantime, set up your rolling machine or take out your rolling pin.
Cut the dough in several balls, and start rolling them according to your machine’s instructions (usually, a couple of times on the 0 setting, then moving on to each setting once) until your reach the desired consistency. If your machine allows you to cut noodles, do so. If not, just use a knife and cut the sheets of pasta into strips or whatever shape you desire. Let them dry on a floured board. Fresh pasta is best cooked on the same day but you can also freeze it in plastic bags and drop it into boiling water still frozen.
When ready to cook, bring the water to boil, salt it and place your pasta in it. Three or four minutes later you will be ready to drain it. Taste it before doing so: you want to retain some bite and not overcook it.
After my Las Vegas trip, I simply sauteed some peas and asparagus in some olive oil. I added salt, pepper, red chili flakes, a knob of butter and a splash of creme fraiche – then I mixed everyhting together in a bowl and dusted with Parmesan. Not even the best restaurant in Vegas could top that.
Here are some step by step instructions with photographs on how to make pasta with a mixer, courtesy of Stefan’s Gourmet blog.