Ravioli is perhaps the best-known stuffed pasta, more popular even than cannelloni, manicotti or tortelloni.
It has been around for more than 600 years in Italian cuisine, although many other countries have a similar dish, including jiaozi in China, Gujiya in India and in kreplach in Jewish cuisine.
The Italians have at least 15 pasta shapes that are stuffed, but making a small envelope of pasta, the basic shape of ravioli, is perhaps the simplest.
What to stuff pasta with is a subject of some depth. Popular Italian recipes call for beef cheek, fish and shellfish, pheasant and various cheeses and vegetables.
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French recipes for ravioli include quite an assortment of meats, vegetables and cheese, with chicken liver or spinach being popular. There certainly aren't any rules here (unless you adhere to the Italian mandate of never serving fish or shellfish with cheese), so feel free to use your imagination.
Ravioli, which by the way is the plural of raviolo, is almost always served in a broth, a tomato sauce or cream sauce.
Fried ravioli is an American invention, a delightful idea that I tried recently at a local Italian restaurant on the beach in Gulfport, Miss. It makes a delightful appetizer or small plate.
The Italians pioneered ravioli in a can for their army during the First World War and it has been a popular dish in Europe and the United States ever since.
I had it in the school cafeteria in Houston (Miss.) in the early 1960s and was the only little fellow who knew what it was, (a proud day I might add) so perhaps its introduction to Mississippi was somewhat delayed.
Italians prefer fresh-made ravioli, but that is simply not available to most of us, which is a great misfortune. The packaged and refrigerated varieties that are available in your local supermarket are adequate, the pasta itself is good, but the stuffings are sometimes lacking.
A simple alternative is to use wanton wrappers that you can buy in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, or if you are a brave soul, you can make your own from scratch. It really is quite simple, but it helps a great deal if you have a pasta machine to roll out the dough. The ma
chines can be had for as little as $30, but they can go up into the hundreds as well.
Use this basic red sauce with any stuffed pasta you make.
1 chopped onion
1 small chopped bell pepper
3/4 cup chopped celery
3-6 chopped toes of garlic
1 large can chopped tomatoes, best quality
1 cup red wine
1-2 cups water
Black pepper, red pepper flakes, dried oregano to taste
Sauté the onions, bell pepper and celery in a little olive oil for about 10 minutes. Remember to season as you go. Add the garlic and sauté for 3 minutes, then add the wine and reduce by half, add the tomatoes and water and simmer for 1 hour or longer. If you want a more intense tomato flavor add 1-2 tablespoons best-quality tomato paste. A light, fresh sauce is made by short cooking time, if you want something deep and much richer cook for several hours. Much of your success with this sauce will be dependent on the quality of tomatoes you use.
RICOTTA AND BASIL STUFFED RAVIOLI IN RED SAUCE
1 cup ricotta
Small bunch fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/3 to 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Black pepper to taste
1 package wonton wrappers
Prepare the red sauce as described in the recipe above. Mix the ricotta, chopped basin, 1egg, Parmigiano Reggiano and black pepper thoroughly. Take one wrapper and place a teaspoon or less of the stuffing in the middle, whisk the other egg with a few drops of water and wet the edges of the wrapper with this egg wash. Fold the wrapper over and firmly press the edges together. The tines of a fork may be used to better seal the edges together if you have a problem with them leaking. If you like, trim the edges to a shape you desire.
Drop into gently boiling water, being careful not to crowed the pot, and simmer until they rise to the top, remove and drain.
Plate the ravioli, 4-6 per-person, top with a big spoonful of the sauce (remember it is about the pasta, not the sauce) and garnish with more Parmigiano Reggiano.
Pair the ravioli with a good Malbec from Argentina.
FOUR CHEESE RAVIOLI AND RED SAUCE
1/2 cup ricotta
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup shredded fontina
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried parsley
Black pepper as needed
1 package wonton wrappers
Mix the ricotta, mozzarella, fontina and Parmesan together thoroughly. Add about 1/2 of each of the seasonings, and taste; re-season as necessary. Find a glass jar whose width is just slightly less than the size of the wanton. Use the jar to turn the square wontons into round shapes. Place a small amount of the cheese stuffing in the middle and then add another wanton to form the top and seal as in the recipe above. Play with the amount of stuffing you use, don't use so much that they leek when cooked, but use enough to maximize the flavor of the cheese. Drop into simmering water a few at a time and remove when they float to the top. Drain, plate and top with red sauce (recipe above).
A little Parmigiano Reggiano always makes a pasta dish better. Serve with a cabernet sauvignon.
Crab-stuffed ravioli in cream sauce
10 ounces cooked crab meat
2 strips smoked bacon
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1-2 toes of chopped garlic
2 ounces Cognac
1 cup cream
Cook the bacon in a sauté pan until crispy, remove and chop; cook the shallots for 4-5 minutes in the same pan, then add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Remove to a mixing bowl, add the ricotta, bacon and crab, mix well, but do not break up the lumps of crab meat.
Add the Cognac to the sauté pan and reduce by 3/4, then add the cream and simmer until thickened, stirring to pick all the cooked bits left in the pan.
Stuff the wantons with the crab mixture, add to a large pot of simmering water and remove and drain when they float to the top.
Plate the raviolis, top with the sauce and serve immediately.
Serve with a good Pinot Grigio.
Julian Glenn Brunt, who has been a Mississippi Gulf Coast resident for more than 20 years, has a deep and abiding interest in art, culture and the culinary heritage of the South. His column runs weekly in Taste. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.