I had a meal recently at a restaurant in a nearby town and ordered “moussaka ravioli” knowing two things: I enjoy moussaka (it contains lamb, and since Kathy won’t eat anything that was once even remotely cute, I can’t prepare moussaka at home) and, I’m a big fan of ravioli.
I figured the moussaka would be the meaty part of the recipe — as a sauce, if it didn’t function as the filling of the pasta pillow — consisting as moussaka does of ground lamb, onion, garlic, tomato, oregano, bay leaf, cinnamon, a touch of allspice, salt, pepper, whatever else the cook prefers.
The ravioli? Probably a substitute for the eggplant that is often part of the Greek classic. Maybe a ravioli filled with some kind of a feta-based blend.
Well, at least, I expected ravioli.
Life is, in one regard, a series of expectations unmet, is it not?
What I got was deconstructed ravioli — the moussaka meat mixture, sautéed spinach and mushrooms were layered between flat squares of flabby pasta, the tower topped with a blob of bland béchamel. It was a quasi-hip, unbaked lasagna.
Not awful, but certainly not what I wanted. I was zeroed in on the ravioli element in the dish just as much as I was on the moussaka meat mix, and I didn’t get ravioli.
On the drive back to Siberia With a View, I had time to review my history with ravioli and to realize I have largely omitted ravioli from my repertoire.
I first encountered authentic ravioli as a chubby, gap-toothed lad on family dining outings that took us from Denver to Louisville.
Louisville, Colorado, not Louisville, Kentucky.
Louisville is located northwest of Denver, on a line with Boulder. It is an old mining town, now a bedroom community much changed from the original. Much changed from how it was when the old man would pack the family into a snazzy Studebaker Golden Hawk and zip out the Boulder Turnpike to have dinner at one of two great Italian restaurants in the town.
Louisville was a coal mining center in the old days and, as were most of the coal mining towns in Colorado, it was home to a large Italian immigrant population. Twenty years after the mines closed, Italian restaurants remained on the somewhat shabby main street. In this case, the best of the restaurants were Collacci’s and The Blue Parrot. Both desirable destinations, with one — The Blue Parrot— possessed of a patina as it were, and owned, I believe, by older members of the same clan that operated Collacci’s just down the block.
My family patronized both establishments, but it was at The Blue Parrot that Little Karl first encountered the real-deal ravioli. True, I had sampled Chef Boyardee ravioli while in a carb frenzy, eating the doughy little globs straight from the can more times than not. But, at The Blue Parrot, the gate opened and the Realm of Real Ravioli glittered before me.
On the occasion of the loss of my ravioli virginity, I scanned the menu at The Blue Parrot and my eye hit on “Ravioli, cheese or beef, with a side of sausage or meatball.”
Spurred on by a sense of adventure and by my acquaintance with the Chef’s “ravioli” I veered from my normal meal, a full portion of spaghetti with two soft-ball-size meatballs. I put comfort on the line; I took a chance.
What I got was enlightenment. These were no tiny, slimy dough wads fished out of can in the privacy of my bedroom — no, indeed. Instead, my plate contained four huge, freshly made ravioli, two filled with a delectable, eggy ricotta and parmesan blend, two others packed with a dense, spicy meat mixture. All blanketed with a fine gravy.
The fact a six-inch-long link of homemade sausage sat on the plate next to these beauties hardly mattered. I had discovered something darned near perfect: everything precious to me, all my favorite food groups, in one carb-wrapped package. An Italian version of other conceptually similar favorites, dumplings of all kinds and, most particularly, the Cornish pasty — a dough skin encasing meats, root vegetables, fats, savory goodness.
Short of a full pan of mac and cheese, with a sour cream chocolate cake chaser, things couldn’t get any better. From that point forward, whenever we sojourned to Louisville, there was no question of what the fat kid would order.
As I grew older and began to master some kitchen techniques, I made ravioli from scratch. Even bought a pasta roller, and a ravioli mold. Of course, the machine is now in a box, stored somewhere in the garage; I haven’t used it in fifteen years.
The reason: I gave up on ravioli from scratch. The process is too labor-intensive, and I am not a semi-senile grandmother with a mustache, desperate to please the kids and pass on a tradition. I am lazy, and my increasingly rare time and energy is best spent elsewhere.
I can still enjoy ravioli at home, however.
As long as other people make them.
I am reminded of this as I stroll the aisles of the market with my daughter, Ivy. The market is one of my favorite places; I lose my cares as I am bombarded by bright shiny objects and garish colors. And, I meet lots of folks. Some of them I actually want to meet.
Ivy and I saunter down an aisle on the way to check out the fish and I glance at the frozen foods case. I spot packages of frozen ravioli — cheese and meat, and good looking to boot. In two sizes: mini and regular. I stop and stare.
“They’re pretty good,” says Ivy. “In fact, I think I’ll buy a pack of the minis. The cheese minis. I saw a neat penne recipe on a TV cooking show the other night. I’ll make a tomato cream sauce with clam juice, basil, parsley, shrimp and Parmesan cheese, mix it with the ravioli, instead of penne. Shouldn’t cost much more than forty dollars.”
She throws a pack of cheese minis in her basket and makes a beeline for the shellfish.
I opt for a pack of the regular-size ravioli. Cheese.
I have an idea.
Actually, I have quite a few ideas. These frozen ravioli are the perfect processed food base for what could be a huge number of dishes.
I have stumbled into a menu goldmine!
Think of it: The cheese ravioli themselves have no dominant character; there is nothing about them, tastewise, that demands a rigidly defined treatment or partner. I suppose a limit could be drawn when it comes to using the ravioli as a dessert item, but I can’t be too sure. As far as savory applications go, however, where and when does this ship dock?
The only rule here is to purchase the best possible product.
You can boil these babies and combine them with all manner of sauces — traditional Italian blends, sure, but why not range far afield, to curries, to … chiles? You can cook the ravioli to a firm al dente, and bake them with all manner of sauces, saute them in herbed and garlicky fats, add sautéed vegetables of all kinds, every type of flesh. You can cook them, cool them, dip them in egg wash and crumb, deep fry them, and put them in the company of all manner of tasty companions.
By the time I am through the U-Scan line at the market, delayed as usual by a U-Scan moron who can’t figure out how to use the computerized system, (there should be a test, really there should) I am ready for my first experiment. I tell Ivy about my plan as I give her a ride home.
“I’m gonna try these beauties with green chile. I’ll whip up a pot of chicken or pork green chile, extra thick. I’ll cook the ravioli until they are al dente, on the firm side, then I’ll assemble a casserole, of sorts. I’ll glaze the bottom of a gratin dish with a touch of olive oil and a shimmer of the chile. I’ll put down a single layer of slightly overlapping ravioli. On top of that, more green chile. I won’t drown the ravioli, but I’ll add enough of the chile to make a statement. On top of that, a snowstorm of grated cotijo or Asadero cheese.”
“Sounds great,” says The Ive as she struggles to remove her nearly full-term pregnant frame from the cab of my truck. “I’m whipping up the shrimp and cream extravaganza. Let me know how things go.” She groans and waddles to her front door.
Things go well when I prepare the meal.
And they will continue to go well now that ravioli and I have reunited.
Next up, ravioli served with a thick sauce containing pancetta, onion, garlic, chicken stock, green peas, herbs, tomatoes, salt, pepper, white wine, cheese and cream.
I’ll cook chopped pancetta (or some regular bacon, no harm done) until nearly crisp, remove the meat from the pan, pour off all but a touch of the fat, add some olive oil to the pan, turn the heat down to medium , toss in sliced onion and cook until tender. I’ll turn the heat to medium high, throw in minced garlic, deglaze the pan with a half cup or so of white wine and reduce it to nearly nothing. In will go a couple tablespoons of diced, canned tomatoes. Just a couple tablespoons — enough to color the sauce, but not enough to overwhelm it. I’ll cook the tomatoes for a bit, to soften and sweeten them, then hit them with the herbs (I’m thinking about chopped, fresh basil and a teeny bit of thyme). Whammo — a half cup or so of chicken stock and a bunch of frozen green peas hit the pan. The liquid reduces down by half and I add cream. The mix comes to a slow boil, the heat goes down just a bit, I add the pancetta and the sauce thickens. I season and, turning the heat off, I cover the mix with ravioli that I have cooked and drained (remember, always drain them well). Before I fold the ravioli into the sauce, I coat them with grated Parmesan.
Then, mix, and marvel.
I’ve cleared space in the freezer, and I am waiting for a sale.