Epic Pasta

Ernest Hemingway writes in The Sun Also Rises that the road to hell is paved with stuffed dogs. I disagree. The road to hell is paved with stuffed pasta: ravioli to be exact.
Somehow, I’ve managed to spend this Tuesday, my day “off,” attempting (in every sense of the word) to make homemade ravioli.

Sure I had a million other things to do today like grade, prep for class, run errands. But when the morning is still new and the whole day stretches before you like a freshly paved road, you feel like you have all the time in the world. And besides, how long could it take to make pasta?

I started at 9am with a twinkle in my eye, a spring in my step, and infinite patience for my two-year-old who would “help” me cook today (in my fantasies, he’s often a world famous chef and gives me all the credit for initiating him in the culinary delights). To the operatic sounds of the Match Point soundtrack, we made what Deborah Madison calls simple pasta dough.

The dough-making part was simple enough; my son and I mixed flour, salt, eggs, and olive oil until a lumpy substance formed. “Knead until smooth and pliant,” Madison instructs. So we kneaded. And kneaded. And kneaded (or is it “kned”). The resulting mass was neither smooth nor pliant. But encouraged by her advice to “let [it] rest” because “if your dough is dry and difficult to knead, this resting period will help soften it,” we kept our spirits up. Resting. Okay. Good.

While our dough rested, we made the filling, which–if you don’t mind my saying so–kicked major ass. I had baked the other half of that pumpkin-like squash last night, so I mushed it in with the following:

  • olive oil
  • 3 shallots, chopped
  • fresh sage, chopped
  • fresh thyme, chopped (considerably less than the sage)
  • fresh parsley, chopped (equal amount to the sage)
  • two red chard leaves, chopped to bits
  • 1/2 c. panko bread crumbs
  • 1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan

Saute shallots in olive oil. Add herbs and chard. Add squash. Mush all up. Remove from heat. Add bread crumbs and parmesan.

This is your filling.

Filling done, my son and I returned to the dough which had not become any more smooth and pliant during the resting period. Still glowing from our filling success, we decided to roll the dough out anyway. Here was a hitch: Madison assumes her readers have a pasta machine that rolls the dough out for you with a simple turn of a crank. I do not own such a device (yet).

Undaunted, I determined that I would be able to roll the dough out by hand with a rolling pin, losing only a few more minutes of time in the process. And with the measureless patience I still had, I gave my son a rolling pin too and a small piece of dough.

I’ll wait for those of you in the know to stop laughing.

From now on, whenever I hear the phrase, “he/she rolled a sheet of pasta out by hand” I will be overcome with awe and wonder at not only the amazing upper body strength but by the remarkable patience this act takes. I saw in my mind those matronly Italian women with their thin little broomsticks, rolling out wide sheets of dough, and I asked myself, “How hard could that be?”

After three hours of “rolling” out dough, I decided impossibly, from the pit of hell, hard.

With only seven pitiful raviolis to show for my efforts and my son in his third time out, I decided to approach ravioli making from another angle: I began making phone calls to various kitchen supply stores around San Diego, searching for a pasta roller. Finally, after four unsuccessful calls, I located my silver grail. Assenti’s Pasta, in Little Italy, had a pasta roller.
Liam and I quickly journeyed to Little Italy. And discovered a little kink in our pasta roller acquisition plans:

  • Gas to Little Italy: $5
  • Pasta roller: $50
  • Store that only takes cash and you only have two $20’s: priceless

So, I initiated plan b which was to purchase sheets of pasta dough from Assenti’s. The sheets of pasta come in little pre-package stacks. To an inexperienced eye, the pasta dough stack looks very large. So I asked man behind the counter at Assenti’s how many raviolis one pasta dough stack would make. He looked me straight in the eye and answered, “Fifteen.”

I glanced again at the stack of dough and, completely demorallized from the homemade pasta dough fiasco, figured I really didn’t know anything about pasta, so why qestion his pasta stack judgment. I didn’t and ordered three packs because I figured I would make about 45 raviolis.

Back at home, I promptly put my son down for a nap and poured myself a glass of wine. I then began laying out the sheets and cutting little circles out of them using a wine glass and a knife. The rest of my time went swimmingly. I ended up with an amazing amount of raviolis, each one attesting to my growth as a pasta maker. There were my Frankenstein first seven with their dark wheat skin and deep tine scars from my poor use of a fork in sealing the edges. There were some middle ones who were squares and triangles from my experimentation with shapes other than a circle. An then there were the thirty or so perfect half moons, complete with tine indentations around their edges. I resolved to place these thirty in a prominent position when serving the pasta.

I then set about making a light sauce for the pasta. “It’s about the pasta, not the sauce” — so claims Babbo chef Mario Batali in Heat byBill Buford. I now firmly believe this maxim to be true. While there is something to be said about a good sauce over dried spaghetti, if you spend your entire day making pasta, they really should be the feature of the dinner. I loosely based my sauce on Deborah Madison’s “Butternut Squash Ravioli with Toasted Pecans and Sage.” The following are my tweaks:

  • 8 Tbs butter (one stick)
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 2 Tbs fresh sage, chopped
  • 2 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped

Melt butter. Add everything else. Cook over med heat until butter has a “nutty aroma” (according to Madison).

Meanwhile boil the pasta in batches (about 15 per batch) for five to six minutes. Toss the cooked ravioli in the pan with the sauce. GENTLY toss. I’ve heard that chefs can do this tossing with just flicking the pan, but I had to use a spoon.

I served these with steamed green beans and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

As my family and friends wolfed down their pasta, singing my accolades, I felt a curious mix of extreme pride and slight resentment. The former because, after all, I had just spent the day making home made ravioli that everyone loved. The latter because I had just spent the entire day making home made ravioli that everyone loved and were eating at an alarming rate. I guess a part of me wanted a few pieces to last forever as a testament to my effort.

As the evening progressed, the praises continued, and the good wine flowed, I got over it. Really, to have an evening with the people you love most is worth many days of effort.

However, I used only one stack of pasta and now have two unopened packages left. I guess I’ll save those for beet ravioli.  Laugh away, Assenti’s Pasta Man, laugh away.

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