I admit it. I’m a Chef Boyardee baby.
Growing up on suburban Long Island, I just assumed that ravioli came from a can. There were exactly two varieties, which in the 1970s was considered an embarrassment of riches – meat ravioli and cheese ravioli, each covered in a clingy red sauce. The main kitchen tools required for preparation were a sturdy pot, a cover and a can opener.
My palate, my kitchen skills and my culinary wisdom have grown incrementally in the years since.
If only I knew then, what I know now. In 2006, I stood next to a no-nonsense Italian grandmother in Bologna and rolled pasta by hand. In the historic food markets, shop windows were abundant with rows of plump golden pillows of pasta. In Florence, under the tutelage of Chef Roberto, I fed translucent sheets of dough through a pasta machine, prepared egg tagliatelle, cut ravioli by hand, and dressed the dish in melted butter and aromatic sage. Those weeks inspired an “awakening of the senses,” as a culinary icon once said.
Chef Roberto made me promise that I wouldn’t just relegate the pasta-making experience to my European culinary adventure. “You must do this at home,” he urged.
I made good on the promise. I bought an Atlas Pasta Machine and I’ve served up many a platter of tagliatelle. But, I must confess I’ve been a bit of a ravioli procrastinator. No more. It is a frigid February weekend – too cold to go out – so there’s plenty of time to ramble around the kitchen. Ravioli is a time-intensive exercise. The afternoon experiment clocks in at roughly four-and-a-half hours. The spinach must be washed and cooked, and mountains of leafy greens are eventually reduced to about four cups of puree. My kneading hand is a little rusty, but I work the semolina flour and eggs into pliable, shiny dough. Carefully, I spoon the filling onto sheets of pasta and tuck them in.
While the ravioli is resting on the counter, I do a little page-turning through my new favorite reference book, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley. There I learn that stuffed pasta, as it is generally referred, is made in distinctive, traditional shapes, depending on the region in Italy, and that stuffed pasta was considered a gastronomic luxury of the upper-class in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, but eventually became a popular food of the middle-class. Mixtures of fresh spinach, ricotta and herbs are traditional fillings for stuffed pasta in Parma and Modena.
The sun has gone down as I melt butter and slip the pasta pockets into simmering water. The results are pleasing, but the delicate simplicity of the meal does not adequately reflect the labor of the effort. Homemade ravioli is a physical and mental investment. It is hard work, but there is intense satisfaction in preparing a hand-crafted meal. And, the best part is there’s a healthy supply of ravioli now tucked away in the freezer for future quick-cook dinners.
It was time to give my can opener a rest, anyway.
©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved