Thursday, March 19, 2009

Perfect Recipe: Ravioli

The dishes that really impress my guests are often the ones that rely on the simplest ingredients and the greatest technical skill. It’s easy to make an impressive meal out of pricier ingredients, but the mark of a truly competent cook is transforming cheap ingredients into something spectacular. (In other words, rack of lamb will always be an easy showstopper but it’ll always be expensive.) Especially during Lent, when plainer meals are in season, I favor simple food served with impeccable style. Something like creation ex nihilo, or at least nearly nihilo.

One dinner that consistently impresses my guests is homemade ravioli. This version, with a goat cheese and ricotta filling, makes a great Lenten Friday night dinner. Since filled fresh pasta freezes beautifully, I always make a big batch and freeze the majority for later. It’s almost as easy and quick as ordering pizza.

Actually, homemade pasta of any kind still carries with it a certain mystery because most people think making it is a complicated project. Actually, the dough practically makes itself and it requires just one piece of specialty equipment, a pasta roller, which even at $100 isn’t even that expensive when you consider the lifetime of service it promises to provide. The savings from making fresh pasta at home will more than pay off the investment of an authentic hand-crank pasta machine.

My favorite memory of this recipe is from a charity dinner for 22 people I hosted about five years ago. I challenged myself to keep the grocery bill as low as possible because all the proceeds of the meal went to Love Makes a Family, a CT-based non-profit advocacy organization working for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. I spent a full day rolling out hundreds of cheese ravioli and making a slow-simmered vodka tomato cream sauce. The total cost for a beautiful salad, homemade foccaccia and a plate of ravioli came to just a few dollars per person. I was able to raise so much money for a great organization that night by spending time, instead of cash, on my guests.

Homemade Ravioli
(makes about sixty 1.5-inch by 1.5-inch ravioli)
Fresh pasta:
½ cup (7.5 ounces) semolina flour
1 cup (12.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoon olive oil
5 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon salt (not coarse salt)
Cheese filling:
6 ounces Chevre
15 ounces Ricotta
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
One small head garlic (about ten cloves)
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
¼ teaspoon Lemon zest
¼ teaspoon nutmeg

To make the pasta, mix the flours together on a clean countertop and form a mound with a well in the center. Drop in the oil and eggs and stir, carefully, with a fork, gradually adding more flour to the dough bit at a time until a shaggy ball develops. Knead the dough for five minutes and allow it to rest in a bowl, covered in plastic wrap, for about fifteen minutes. (Alternatively, the mixing and kneading can be achieved in a food processor.) Divide the dough into six or seven pieces and work each piece through a pasta machine to the thinness of the 5 setting.

To make the filling, coat the head of garlic in olive oil and wrap in foil. Roast at 325°F for 20-30 minutes, or until the cloves are soft. Allow the garlic to cool to room temperature. Squeeze the soft roast garlic from the papery skins and mix thoroughly with the cheeses, salt, pepper, zest and nutmeg. The filling can be made days in advance. Other grated cheeses can be substituted as long as they will remain a bit firm when melted.
Plop one-tablespoon blobs of filling, assembly line style, every three inches down the sheet of thinly rolled fresh pasta and “glue” the top sheet to the bottom by painting the edges with water. Carefully use your fingertips to squeeze any air out of the ravioli. Cut out the ravioli into squares and freeze individually on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
After about thirty minutes, the pasta will be frozen solid and you can flick the ravioli off the parchment and into plastic zipper bags and into a safe spot in the freezer until you’re ready to eat. To cook, boil the ravioli in small batches in rapidly boiling salted water for about three minutes, or until the ravioli have risen to the surfaced and float there for about sixty seconds.