Worth the Effort: Homemade Ravioli and More

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I no longer fear ravioli. It’s not that I have ever been intimidated by pasta. I have, however, encountered a few setbacks when making the stuff from scratch.

I first attempted to make my own ravioli about fifteen years ago and my endeavor did not end well. The filling wasn’t quite right, nor was the pasta surrounding it. Most of the ravioli fell apart during the cooking process, leaving me with many flat squares of cooked pasta and many loose bits of wet filling. I had honed my tomato sauce making skills earlier on in life, but even the finest sauce in the world would not have saved that sorry-looking mess. My family was supportive, assuring me that the meal was still edible despite appearances, but oh, the shame of it all!

I can tell you with confidence that my ravioli has improved a great deal since that first attempt and my friend Ann recently gave me an opportunity to prove it. For our first cooking endeavor since last November, we put out a traditional southern Italian spread that would have made my mother smile.

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We began fairly early in the day, preparing our meats and a sizable pot of homemade tomato sauce in which to simmer them. The sauce was made using a two quarts of home-canned purée, a large can of crushed tomatoes, and a few fresh plum tomatoes that Ann had in her well-stocked kitchen. For meats we used mild Italian sausage from Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, plus meatballs that we made from ground beef and pork, and some braciole that we made from a beautiful flank steak.

Ann runs circles around me when it comes to certain culinary skills, one of which is knife work. She keeps her blades razor sharp and knows how to use them. For this reason, I was grateful when she offered to slice the raw flank steak for our braciole. Within a minute or two, she had horizontally sliced that flank steak into two thinner pieces, which I then flattened out using her tenderizing mallet. I seasoned the pieces with salt and pepper before layering garlic, parsley, and grated cheese on one side — using my best approximation of how my mother used to do it. Then we rolled the pieces, tied them up, and browned them with the other meats before adding all of the meat to our sauce, which had already been simmering.

While the meat was still browning, we prepared a basic pasta dough using an imported Italian “tipo 00” flour, some eggs, a bit of olive oil, and enough water to gain the proper consistency. I worked the dough to death before wrapping it in plastic and tossing it in the fridge to rest. Then we made our filling using fresh ricotta and grated Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Asiago cheeses, plus an egg, some parsley, and other seasoning. Once that was all blended and creamy, we covered the mixture up and chilled it for an hour or two.

IMG_0324When the noon hour had passed, we broke out the antipasto and poured some wine. We wrapped thin slices of prosciutto around chunks of fresh canteloupe and set that out with some aged provolone and dry hot sausage. There were marinated mushrooms, artichoke hearts, black and green olives, and more. Our break was relatively brief, but much needed. All the while, our meat sauce simmered and our ravioli fixings chilled in preparation for the next step. By this time Ann’s kitchen was smelling quite wonderful.

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Then came the big project. Using an electric pasta machine I had inherited from an aunt of mine, we rolled out the pasta dough into ever-thinner sheets. We then applied the filling between two sheets of pasta, using a tray-type mold to form, press, and cut the square pillows of heavenly goodness. As an added measure of security, we crimped around all the edges with fork tines. We ran out of filling before we ran out of dough, so i switched out the press rollers for cutting rollers on the pasta machine and we made some spaghetti.

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Not one ravioli broke open during the cooking process. Once all the pasta had been cooked, we served it all with the meats, some oven-warmed crusty bread, a lovely tossed salad, and more wine. As is usually the case when I cook Italian, there were ample leftovers. Ann took some, I took some, and I suspect we will both be feeding people for a little while. The last time we cooked a meal similar to this, Ann fed ten to twelve people from her share of the leftovers. I blame my mother, who was my first and probably my best cooking teacher. That woman would have rather died than run out of food when she was feeding people.

By the end of the day, all the food had been divided and packaged up, some for my wife and I and some for Ann and her “kids” (neither her kids nor mine are kids anymore). All the pots, pans, dishes and utensils had been washed and put away, and every food preparation surface had been thoroughly cleaned. The only evidence of the feast we’d prepared and eaten was the wine we were still sipping and smiles on our faces.

I’d say that turned out alright. Wouldn’t you? As always, thanks for hanging with me.

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Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

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As the old adage goes, if you don’t like your situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your mind. What might have been a dark, depressing weekend for me turned out to be a wonderful one, with a good bit of help from a dear friend and the timely ripening of a somewhat unusual Italian vegetable.

My friend Ann and I were supposed to have gone on a fall motorcycle tour around Lake Michigan last weekend but because I had not yet resuscitated my personal finances following the complete and utter demise of my most recent employer (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), I was forced to cancel our trip. While I’d like to think I can shake anything off like so much dust from my sandals, the fact of the matter is my mind was headed for a very dark place as the result. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve had to cancel plans for practical reasons. And yes, as a rule, having to do so sucks like a top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum. But what burns me most is not that I was inconvenienced—I can deal with that all day long—but that it had affected a friend of mine. It doesn’t even matter to me that this friend didn’t really mind all that much. If you want to end up on my bad side fast, do something, anything, that adversely affects one of my friends. When that happens, you may want to step back a mile or two.

But you see, though my employer had failed, miserably so, that had occurred last July. This was September and I still hadn’t pulled out of my own tailspin. So while the time span was quite within reason given my career stage (over seven years at the director level), whom could I blame for inconveniencing one of my dearest friends more than me? Nobody. Thus my smoldering ire was turned back on myself. Fade to black… almost.

Enter the cucuzza, a type of gourd that is grown as a summer squash in southern Italy. The Americanized term for this vegetable sounds like “googootz” and thanks to the myriad of Italian dialects, you may also hear it called something that sounds like “cogozza” or “coguzzigia.” It’s all the same thing. They grow on vines and they grow rapidly to substantial lengths, often over three feet long. The skin is inedible. The flesh beneath is white and tasteless raw, but when cooked, it takes on a translucent, pale green hue and has a mild, somewhat sweet flavor.

So there I was, looking at the prospect of spending four days—the length of our planned trip around the lake—obsessing over something I could not change, and that just seemed so pointless to me. So I reached out to Ann and said as much. “Why should we write off the entire four days? Let’s take at least one of those days and do something worthwhile.” Then for good measure, I added, “I’ve got a cucuzza that will be ripe for picking by this weekend. I could bring it up if you promise not to laugh, and we could prepare something with it together.”

“Like what?” Ann seemed intrigued by that idea—such is the power of a nice cucuzza—and so we so we laid pans for one day of riding, walking, and cooking together. In addition to supplying the cucuzza, on the eve of our day together, I offered to harvest some large leaf basil and grill some Italian-marinated chicken breasts for our culinary endeavor. Ann, in turn, obtained the additional vegetables and grains, along with some bread, wine, and other assorted goodies to complete the meal. Game on!

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The following morning, I carefully wrapped my cucuzza in a favorite cotton hoodie, strapped it securely into the passenger area of Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision touring motorcycle, and headed to Ann’s place up in Wisconsin. What I was not prepared for, one-hundred-plus miles later, was the immediate affection Atlas, one of Ann’s cats, displayed for my well-endowed squash. When it came time to peel and cook my unusual vegetable, the photogenic feline posed no issues. Still, it made us smile and laugh a bit.

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The temperature and humidity were unusually high for late September, so Ann and I opted to restrict our motorcycle outing to the morning and early afternoon hours. This meant staying relatively close to home, but I didn’t mind. We rode a relatively short distance to Oconomowoc and ever my reliable navigator, Ann directed me to Fowler Lake Park, a delightful spot on the eastern shore of Lake Fowler, right in the midst of Oconomowoc proper. Once off the bike, Ann proceeded to lead me on a walking tour of approximately three miles around the lake, pointing out all manner of man-made and natural points of interest. Sure, it was a little warm, but the day was beautiful and we had a really fun time together.

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Once we got back to Ann’s place, we set about to chopping, sautéeing, and simmering our food. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out to get the full non-recipe, but the essential elements are the cucuzza, some aromatics and root vegetables, tomatoes, stock, meat, grains, and seasonings. Many options and variations are possible. The end result is a hearty, flavorful stew that makes a meal in itself. A few hours later, Ann, her son, and I had eaten our fill and true to the Italian tradition into which I had been born, there were ample leftovers.

It had been such an awesome day. In the course of that day, everything wrong had quickly become overshadowed by all that was right. Still, as is often the case, the ending was bittersweet. Why? Because it was an ending. After all the pots, pans, and dishes had been washed and put away, I packed up a few leftovers on Miss Scarlett and after we had exchanged our goodbyes, I headed for home, literally riding off into the sunset before turning south.

Sometimes all you need to do, in order to understand that all is not bad, is to be willing to see the good. Thanks for hanging with me.