Monday, April 20, 2009

Mushroom Ravioli w/Pesto, Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread, Spring Salad

We've been talking about possibly taking a trip to Italy this summer. I was there 9 years ago on a business trip, but have never been there with my family. Anyways, thinking about Italy got me hungry for fresh pasta served simply with bread and salad. I made this on Sunday. Perfect fare for a rainy spring weekend. If you are daunted by the work to make fresh pasta, I encourage you to try it, at least once. If you don't have a pasta roller, you can use a rolling pin to roll out pasta. It's a little tricky getting the thickness right, but it yields a rustic result that has home-made charm.

A word on fat - are you afraid of fat in your diet? You shouldn't be. Humans need fat, and the right fats are an important component of a healthy diet. I believe in eating real food, and real food has fat. But here's the thing: if you eliminate processed foods from your diet, cook real recipes and eat a balanced diet, fat will take care of itself.

This meal has eggs, olive oil, nuts and cheese, but relatively small amounts amounts of each, and no meat (not that you should be afraid of meats, either!). Further, most of the fat comes from olive oil, which is a monosaturated fat (think: helps good cholesterol, lowers bad) and is high in anti-oxidants. Check out this link for more on the merits of olive oil:

So remember: fats are not all created equal! Eat real food, and live well and healthy!

Mushroom Ravioli w/Pesto
Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread
Spring Salad w/Balsamic Vinaigrette

Mushroom Ravioli w/Pesto
(serves 4)
Mushroom Filling
8-10 crimini mushrooms (small portobellos), minced
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic, minced fine
generous pinch of dried thyme
2-3 generous pinches salt
freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. butter
1/3 c. ricotta cheese

Melt the butter in a small saute pan over medium-low heat. Add mushrooms and garlic and heat through until beginning to steam, but not brown. Add thyme, salt & pepper. Reduce heat to low and slowly cook, stirring often, until the pan has no remaining moisture, about 25 minutes.

Transfer to a small bowl and add the ricotta cheese. Allow to sit for a minute so the mushrooms heat the cheese a bit to soften it. Stir together thoroughly and taste for salt. It should be just a bit salty, but not brightly so - the earthiness of the mushrooms and cheese should prevail. Set aside.

Fresh Pasta
2+ c. flour
3 extra-large eggs
1/2 tsp salt

Next, make the pasta. Place the flour in a medium bowl. Form a small well in the flour and into it add the eggs and salt, and, with a fork, blend the eggs and begin to draw in flour. Continue to work with the fork until the dough is forming chunks. Dump out onto a work surface and begin to knead and work the dough to thoroughly mix it, about 5-6 minutes. It should be very firm, but not sticky or dry - it should hold together without being crumbly. Add more flour if needed. If it's too dry, wet your hands with tap water and work it into the ball of dough - you should not need much.

(Liquid-to-flour ratios are difficult to get precise in pasta recipes because eggs are not all the same size, and flour is more or less dry in different climates. You just need to get used to the feel of it when its right.)

It is critical to rest the pasta dough at this point. Wrap it in plastic wrap and allow to rest for 15-30 minutes, or up to an hour. You will find the proteins have relaxed and the texture is much more malleable.

Cover a large sheet pan with wax paper or parchment. Lightly flour a board on which you'll work the ravioli. Set your pasta roller on its thickest setting. Work with 1/4 of the dough at a time, keeping the rest tightly wrapped. Roll the chunk of pasta dough through the roller. Fold it in half and repeat (still on widest setting). Do this 6 or 7 times. You are actually finishing the kneading process.

Now, begin to roll it thinner by reducing the thickness on the pasta roller by one setting each time, then rolling the sheet through. After it is at its thinnest, lay the sheet on the lightly floured work surface. With a sharp knife, trim the irregular ends. Picture (but don't actually do this!) the sheet being cut into two rows of evenly-sized squares. Using a teaspoon, scoop a dollop of filling onto the middle of each of these imaginary squares in the row closest to you. Using a pastry brush and a small bowl of water, brush a very small amount of water all around each dollop of filling. Carefully fold the pasta sheet over, pressing out the air as you go to avoid sealing in air bubbles, and press down to seal. Using the knife, trim away the edges around the ravioli, and cut them apart. Transfer them to the paper-lined sheet until ready to cook (as you pick each one up, pinch all around to make sure they're sealed).

Repeat this process with the next 1/4th of the dough. If you have filling left, repeat with another 1/4th. If you have dough left, roll it out and cut it into whatever shapes you like and cook it for the kids.

Fresh pasta cooks much faster than dried. Bring a large pot of lightly-salted water to a boil, drop in the ravioli, and cook at a low boil for about 4-5 minutes (plain noodles will cook in 3-4 minutes).

Fresh Pesto
1/2+ c. rough-chopped fresh basil leaves
1-2 cloves garlic, cut into chunks
~3 oz. Parmesiano-Reggiano cheese, sliced into thin pieces, then broken up
3 T pine nuts, lightly toasted in a saute pan over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, then cooled
1/3 c. or more high-quality extra-virgin olive oil (I usually use Colavita)
freshly ground pepper

Place all ingredients except oil in a food processor. Pulse until rough-chopped. Begin drizzling the olive oil into the processor and puree continuously. It should start to emulsify and get creamy. Be careful not to add too much olive oil. Transfer to a small bowl, adjust salt as needed, and set aside. This can be done up to 2 hours before dinner and left at room temperature until needed. Stir a bit before use.

To Serve:
Slather a little of the pesto onto each of the serving plates (preferably pre-warmed). Place the freshly-drained ravioli on top, then spoon additional pesto all over the ravioli. Top with a little more of the Parmesiano-Reggiano, cut into thin shavings and broken into pieces. Serve immediately.

Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread
1 baguette or loaf of Italian bread
olive oil
2-3 cloves raw garlic, cut into 2-3 slices each

Cut the bread into thick slices - 1" or so. For baguettes, cut the bread diagonally to get longer pieces. Brush both sides lightly with olive oil. Heat the grill and carefully toast the bread on both sides so that it is slightly charred and shows grill marks, but is not burned.

While it's hot, rub both sides with the slices of garlic. The garlic oil will infuse the bread with its essence. Keep warm until time to serve.

Spring Salad wBalsamic Vinaigrette
green leaf lettuce, torn to shreds
4 radishes, sliced
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 pound of snap peas, shelled (pick the plumper pods so the peas are larger)
3 T high-quality balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. olive oil
salt (about 1/2 tsp Kosher)

Chill 4 plates. Arrange the lettuce, radish slices, and tomatoes attractively. Sprinkle the fresh peas over each. In a shaker, combine the vinegar, oil, salt & pepper. Shake vigorously and pour over the salads. This dressing will not hold its emulsion, so you'll have to shake each time before pouring. Serve immediately.

This is a meal you can work on leisurely while doing other things. I started with the mushroom filling, which took about 15 minutes (with some cooking time in the middle). This can sit at room temperature for a couple hours until it's used. I mixed together the pasta dough, rolled out the ravioli, then started the salad. It's OK for the ravioli to dry out a little after they're made. However, once you start rolling sheets of pasta, you must finish the ravioli fairly quickly - if the sheets get too dry, they won't be easy to work with.

I made the pesto last, right before boiling the pasta. The other important timing step is adding the pesto to the warm pasta. The warmth and moisture of the just-cooked pasta is important to opening up the flavors of the pesto.

I explain most of the technique with fresh pasta above. The resting is critical - breads need to do this as well. Gluten develops via kneading and resting, alternatively. This is a fascinating chemical process which is explained beautifully by Harold McGee in his classic "On Food and Cook: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen".

I adore pesto. And while it's tempting to think of it as a fixed thing, it's not necessarily so. Pesto is really like a Caribbean sambal - a finely-textured melange of herbs, seasonings and oil or acid (or both). I've made arugula pesto, cilantro "pesto" (adding lime juice) for Asian-style grilled fish, and I make a sauce with garlic, parsley, olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper that is fabulous on grilled steaks. It's all pesto, baby!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Chuck

    This pasta w/ pesto looks divine. Are there any ways to cheat when it comes to making pasta that are worth doing? I have heard of using wonton wrappers.