So my affair with agnolotti is apparently not over. A few beets and the remainder of the zucchini from my recent co-op box left me thinking of a way to use them up and use them together, and a ravioli seemed the natural solution. A quick search on Google confirmed that, as multiple hits for beet ravioli came back. While at first I thought I would just slice the zucchini to serve with the agnolotti, I soon remembered Marc Vetri mentioning zucchini as a substitute for the corn in the crema recipe I used for my steelhead trout. It was the perfect sauce for a beet ravioli with poppy seeds that I found on the Food Republic website, a recipe that they got from the CIA’s book “Pasta.” I made a few adjustments and used my own egg pasta recipe, and things turned out pretty well. A decent 2011 Pio Cesare Arneis played nice as a companion.
This recipe calls for braising the beets instead of roasting them to get them tender enough to blend. The method is to first sauté a diced medium yellow onion with 4 chopped sage leaves in 2 ounces of unsalted butter. When the onions become tender (about 4 minutes while stirring occasionally), you add 1 1/2 pounds of peeled and diced beets along with 1/2 cup water to the sauté pan, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender. This took longer than the recipe for me, around 40 minutes. But the results were great. I let the vegetables cool a bit before blending, and to prevent having an overly wet pasta filling, I drained the blended mixture in a sieve lined with cheesecloth.
This step also kept me from having to use bread crumbs to potentially thicken the filling, as the recipe suggests. Another ingredient I left out of the filling was the egg yolks. I just went with the 3/4 cup grated Parmesan, 1/2 cup fresh ricotta, 1/2 tsp finely grated orange zest, and kosher salt and white pepper to taste. Those ingredients were added to the beet mixture and combined in a bowl with a wooden spoon.
I made egg pasta sheets, doubling my recipe. With a batch this size, I used my stand mixer with a paddle and then the dough hook before finishing the kneading by hand. Folding the agnolotti is getting a little easier with practice, but it is still a time consuming process. I set the cut agnolotti on lined baking pans, sprinkle with semolina, and put in the freezer to harden before transferring to ziplock bags to be stored in the freezer for later use.
For the sauce, I used 3 cups peeled and diced zucchini sautéed with half of a diced onion in 2 tbsp olive oil, stirring often until tender. Next, I added 1 cup water and 1 cup heavy cream to the pan, brought the mixture to a simmer, and cooked covered for 10 minutes. The mixture is blended with a tbsp olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and white pepper. I also prepared asparagus by trimming and blanching it. All of these can be made in advance, storing the sauce and asparagus in the fridge and the agnolotti in the freezer. When ready to cook, get a pot of salted boiling water going for the agnolotti, and put about 1/2 cup (or more if you like) of the sauce per serving in a sauté pan over medium-low heat with asparagus tips (again, use an amount to your liking). Cook the agnolotti until they float, drain, and then add them to the sauce and asparagus, carefully coating them. You don’t want the delicate pasta to tear. I served the agnolotti sprinkled with poppy seeds, and a little remainder of the pasta filling and freshly chopped sage in olive oil and freshly cracked black pepper as a garnish on the side of the dish with flake sea salt. The addition of the sage oil as a garnish helped to add a little more herbaceousness to this sweet-tending ravioli.
“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” That nice morsel of a statement—attributed to T.S. Eliot and continually reanimated by creative writing workshops—has all the roundness of an aphorism that makes it just sound like wisdom. It’s a piece of advice I’ve enlisted on more than one occasion when trying to impress upon my students that it’s okay to have influences; it’s okay to be inspired. And I have to admit that the rhetoric of unapologetic thievery usually has enough rebellion in it to start shifting those self-identified individual geniuses over to the position that our art doesn’t come from some pure internal wellspring. When it comes to art, you get the ideas for your ideas somewhere.
Cooking, for me, is an art like any other. It is one for which I am an amateur, although enthusiastic, practitioner. I am always looking for inspiration, searching for what flavor combination, texture, or technique I can steal. The challenge for home cooks is how to incorporate inspiration into meals that feel natural and effortless for our limitations in skill, ingredients, and equipment. I don’t need to try to recreate the dish coyly but aptly called English Peas I had at Alinea, which was an absolute orgy of textures, temperatures, and techniques. (I found some pictures of what I ate here, and here, and here; it was a three-part dish.) I only have to take what I need, which in the case of English Peas was a lesson in using an ingredient in different ways on the same plate, highlighting various pleasures in mouthfeel.
What T.S. Eliot actually said was this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” For the amateur, this is all relative. When I make a meal, my only hope is to be inspired enough to challenge myself, to make my cooking exciting to me and those I cook for, and hopefully tastier. I don’t need to take on the whole history of the art. That, unfortunately, is the kind of hubris I reserve for poetry.
This long preamble is all to say Holly and I went to Italy. We went to bike and eat and drink our way through Piedmont. The whole time, I was taking note of what I could steal for my own cooking. That contraband became this meal shown here in the spirit of Piedmont I made when we returned, a meal that was as much a celebration as it was a lament for the fact we were no longer sitting in village restaurants, drinking local Barberas and Barolos, while eating local cheeses and house-made pastas and salumi.
“Local” really was the theme of our gustatory pilgrimage. Many of the incredible wines we drank came from vines we could see out the windows of where we were imbibing them or had only recently passed on our bikes. The food was no different. When we turned down a steep road in the Langhe hills, following our guides to the beautiful and rustic restaurant, La Casa Nel Bosco, ristorante in famiglia of the gracious Gianni and Mina (Gianni serves the wine and food that Mina skillfully prepares) surrounded by gardens and tucked into a forest containing chestnuts, it was no shock to find asparagus and spinach from the garden incorporated into dishes and chestnuts poached in honey smartly garnishing a plate of beef carpaccio that opened the meal. Piedmont, after all, is the epicenter and origin of the Slow Food movement with its locavore ethos. Our guide Arien mischievously joked that to call it a “movement” there is kind of inaccurate, since local is just how things are done. I should add that Arien and our other guide Jimi were incredible, and the cycling trip the DuVine company created for Piedmont is spectacular. I can’t say enough wonderful things about DuVine. We were in excellent hands.