Summer Doldrums: The Ravioli Cure
A Diversion from Greenmarket Cooking
It's been a big week for donuts. Krispy Kreme's once-largest franchisee filed for chapter 11 and Dunkin' Donuts declared its donuts are soon to be trans fat-free. Still, I'm no snob when it comes to donuts and having grown up in New England, those pink Dunkin' Donuts signs are nostalgic to me. They also make good coffee, although maybe saying you go to Dunkin' Donuts for the coffee is like saying you read Playboy for the articles.
So what do donuts have to do with being a city cook? Probably nothing, although whenever a food issue becomes a major news story it makes me think about the choices and power we have as consumers and home cooks. We can move markets when we choose between organic or conventional produce. We can demand that trans fats be either removed or at least disclosed so we know what we're eating -- or not eating. We can insist upon better product labeling or simply buy fewer processed foods to avoid the problem completely. We can buy our seafood from a market like Wild Edibles that now labels every fish they sell with independent data on sustainability. And we can choose to cook.
What we choose to cook is another matter. I've written before about how easy it is to have our own cooking conventions, making the same things over and over again. This happens because of convenience, or because we just like certain flavors and dishes better than others, or because the markets make the choices for us.
It's the same for me. I've recently begun writing down to whom I've served Fresh Tuna Salade Nicoise because I've made it so often. I tell myself the repeats are okay because this summer's local produce is so perfect and before we know it, the season will fade and we'll be back to having out-of-state romaine lettuce as our daily salad. But the truth is that my Greenmarket cooking had become a cover for laziness and I needed to do something about it. I decided to make something for the first time. Something that required new technique and would have unexpected results.
I recently learned of a wonderful pasta producer in Astoria, Queens called Cassinelli Food Products. They have a storefront counter in front of their small factory on 23rd Avenue where they make flavorful and tender fresh pasta (they sell direct to consumers, in food shops in Queens under their own label, and as a private label source to many better Manhattan markets and top Italian restaurants). In addition to the expected shapes and sizes, they sell large sheets of plain pasta that are kept separated not by corn meal but by plastic wrap, making it easy for a home cook to make their own ravioli.
So that's what I did. Or rather, that's what "we" did because I took on this virgin cooking experience with my dear friend and fellow city cook (and ravioli novice), Arthur.
Arthur and his companion, Carolyn, have a place in northern New Jersey with a large kitchen and an herb garden (Note: you need neither the large kitchen nor the garden to make your own ravioli) and we headed there armed with sheets of Cassinelli's egg pasta, a tub of whole milk ricotta cheese, a block of parmesan and a $10 ravioli cutter equipped with two blades. By the end of Saturday afternoon we had made a sheet pan full of large, beautifully imperfect and plump pillows of pale yellow dough filled with a mixture of creamy cheese and parsley picked from Arthur's garden. We dressed them with a garden basil pesto, added some squab and whole fish we had grilled -- grilling being my favorite treat of a non-city kitchen -- and toasted ourselves for taking on a new cooking challenge. The pleasure was certainly in the eating, but it also was in having done something for the first time.
When I'm told something unfamiliar is "easy," my usual response is -- well, if you know how to do something, of course it's easy. It's one of the reasons we need to periodically step out of our ruts and make something new. The worst that can happen is that we'll fail. Then the next time it will be easy because we'll know better. And knowing better -- like making your first ravioli -- can cure any doldrums.