Saturday, 21 May 2011

Lessons from Italy

Practise makes perfect, so they say. Well even if doesn’t actually bring about perfection, it’s essential in the kitchen.

For some reason or other, I seem to have an inbuilt belief that, if I follow a recipe closely, it’ll turn out exactly right – even if it’s the first time that I’ve attempted that dish and it requires skills I’ve never learnt.

By now you’d think I’d know better. It wasn’t until I’d actually eaten risotto in a restaurant, for instance, that I could understand what al dente really meant in terms of the rice. And if you don’t understand that, then you really shouldn’t hope to know how to cook this famous dish.

Pasta is the same. I’ve tried making my own pasta in the past – once – but made it too thick. Last weekend, I decided to give it another go.

Now there’s nowt wrong with dried pasta and I’ve no great desire to make little bows: what I want to get into is the flavoured stuff – tagliatelle and pappardelle, for instance – and the filled pastas like ravioli.

Quite apart from anything else, this screams of the opportunity for masses of culinary creativity and experimentation with flavour. Even more so when you remember that The Other Half doesn’t like cheese, so such classic fillings as ricotta and spinach are off the menu.

Browsing through A Taste of Italy, a recipe for ravioli with a traditional meat filling had caught the eye.

We had ravioli at home when I was a child – the tinned stuff from Heinz, in gloopy, orangy tomato sauce.

At the weekend, I’d just minced down the remains of a leg of lamb and decided to adjust the recipe to use some of that. It takes quite some cooking – long and slow – with onion and garlic and tomato purée and stock. After simmering away under cover for nearly an hour, you take the lid off, turn up the heat and reduce the liquid until it’s really quite dry. Let it cool – and then beat an egg into it.

But let’s consider the pasta itself.

Since I now have a good mixer, I decided to use that. So, 250g decent plain flour and two eggs. Mistake number one was in assuming that, since pasta dough is – well, a dough, I’d be best advised to use the dough hook.

Wrong. All that was created was a mess that refused to come together properly (even with chilled water added) and, when I pressed it together by hand, was a grainy lump, with plenty of flour that hadn’t been blended in.

It was back to square one – and using the ordinary beater this time.

Having got that far – and then kneaded by a hand for a couple of minutes – you leave it then to rest in the bowl under a tea towel.

And then comes the rolling out.

There is a picture, in Jamie’s Italy, of Mr Oliver with a group of Italian ladies of indeterminate age, all with their rolling pins, ready for some pasta contest.

Some of the pins were huge. Their muscles must have been like Popeye’s. I’d bought a better rolling pin and this made it a easier to put some real weight behind it. But boy. It’s hard work!

Lesson one is to pay attention to the recipe and not assume that, just because I’d used half quantities, it wouldn’t benefit from being cut in half (or quarters) for rolling (you can keep the rest under a damp, clean tea towel).

I thought perhaps I’d got it thin enough – but I need more practice; and not in a year’s time when I’ve forgotten the lessons of last weekend. Not that I’m short of ideas.

Because The Other Half doesn’t eat cheese, I’ve been trying to think of classic-style ravioli fillings, other than meat ones, that don’t involve cheese. I want to try flaked crab meat, with lemon zest and paprika, bound together with a little crème fraiche, which should also provide some moisture.

But the next question is that of fitting a pasta dish like this into the structure of a meal: do you have to search for some way to add vegetables to it? Does it demand a big sauce?

What I did on Sunday was to try to take lessons from Italy. We started with asparagus, cooked in a slightly different way that I’d just read about: spears lying flat in barely enough water to cover; bring to the boil, give around four minutes (less if they’re very thin – but test).

The smaller amount of water and the lack of a ‘shock’ to the vegetable of starting it in boiling water does seem to help preserve the taste better. I’ve done it this way three times now, with asparagus from different places, and it’s worked well each time.

That was served simply with a drizzle of Balsamico and a sprinkle of course salt – which works a treat. You can add shavings of Parmesan or Pecorino if you like.

I’d made the ravioli in advance – you can leave them on a dish, dusted with cornflour and covered in a tea towel, until you’re ready to cook. Then it was a matter of just a few minutes in salted, boiling water (memo to self – use the largest pan you have next time). Test to make sure it’s cooked.

They were still too thick – but with a decent taste. The meat filling worked. It was served simply with a drizzle of my best virgin oil.

And for dessert, some strawberries, with a first taste of the strawberry ice cream I’d made that morning.

I like the simplicity of such a meal – but it relies on decent ingredients.

Next time, I may be less ambitious and simply try to make some pasta ribbons before moving to the more complex types. It’s as big a business as making puff pastry: rolling into a circle, then folding over and rolling again – a number of times. And you need to allow yourself far more time than I did on Sunday.

But like so many other things in the kitchen, it’s a rewarding feeling to find that you can make something like this on your own – even it needs practice to make it at least better next time around!


  1. Try the Swabian 'Maultaschen' i.e. seriously big German ravioli filled with spinach and sausage meat. They are served in a bit of broth, a sprinkling of fried breadcrumbs on top, Swabian potato salad and a green salad on the side. Simple but tried,tested and loved by generations.

  2. This sounds great – I'm going to follow this up. Thanks.