Pasta as Food, Pasta as Art

Flour + Water: Pasta, by Thomas McNaughton with Paolo Lucchesi, (Ten Speed Press), 288 pages, 100 photos, 75 recipes, released September 30, 2014

Thomas McNaughton’s Flour + Water is one of those cookbooks that completely transcends the genre. It’s got history, culture, and philosophy—and is so gorgeous it could serve as a coffee-table art book as well.

If you own a pasta machine (or just received one as a holiday gift), you definitely need this book. It has multiple dough recipes. It also has detailed photos illustrating the shaping you’ll need to do with many kinds of pasta post-machine. This is a book that can take you from the basics to levels of culinary complexity that are almost unimaginable until you’ve seen them documented.

But, even if you don’t own a pasta machine, this is a book worth looking at. For each of the recipes, McNaughton includes information on the best store-bought pasta substitutions. The fact that he does this makes what otherwise might be a daunting book approachable: first, because it simplifies the work demanded of a cook and, second, because it clearly signals McNaughton’s openness to different levels of ability and available time. He doesn’t make you feel like a culinary leper if you can’t match his competence and commitment.

He provides background information on all the dishes: the regions they come from, the way particular pasta shapes reflect local culture, the history of the different cheeses used, why and how different regions came to produce specific meats. In other words, Flour + Water makes for fascinating reading, even if you never try a single recipe yourself.

Some of the recipes are things I never would try myself—Squid Ink Chitarra with Sea Urchin, Tomatoes, and Chiles anyone? Or how about Red Wine Rigatoni with Beef Cheeks and Parsnips?

On the other hand, there are also recipes that make me want to head to the kitchen immediately. The mix of speck, braised cabbage, potato, and fontina sounds great—though I’d probably substitute prosciutto for the speck. I’m pretty sure some variation on the Asparagus Caramelle with Brown Butter and Meyer Lemon will be showing up on my dinner table in the next few days.

You can read Flour + Water the way you’d read any high-quality nonfiction or you can use it as a how-to book that will have you producing amazing dishes (with or without a pasta machine).