Sunday lunch in Italy is always an occasion. This week, in particular, I’ve had to make the effort – otherwise people will start talking.
Last week I was in a hurry. I had a lunch date with a couple of mushroom picking buddies. We’d planned to share a platter of beef carpaccio with fresh porcini mushrooms, a simple bowl of green salad, crusty bread and lots of red wine. It was clearly a boy’s day out – raw meat, garlic, raw mushrooms, wine - not one for the kids. So in advance I made a quick dash to the local supermarket. Normally I’d drop into the local deli and buy some locally made fresh anolini – a local specialty, pasta stuffed with cheese, fatto a mano (made by hand). But I’d left it too late, the fresh pasta was sold out and I had to settle for a (well respected) supermarket brand of stuffed pasta. Forgive me!
As it turns out, there was no forgiving. Stuffed pasta in Emilia Romagna, as my dining companions went to pains to lecture to me over lunch, isn’t just about feeding the belly – it’s about feeding the soul! It’s about keeping alive a tradition and a culture. If we all begin to buy packet pasta, they said, those traditions will be lost. The genuine article has to be handmade – not by a machine, however cleverly it’s marketed - but handmade. In Emilia Romagna – the birthplace of fresh egg stuffed pasta - it’s as much about the skill of the people who make it. Stuffed pasta was originally designed as a food made for celebration – in one hand because it is time consuming and, in the other, because it requires a certain level of skill. And Sunday is, and always has been, considered a day of celebration. It’s not a day for fast food or quick fixes!
So I woke early this Sunday as a man on a mission. Having invited a couple of local gossips to Sunday lunch (I figured that would be sufficient to repair my reputation), I hit the market stalls early for fresh chard and ricotta which I’d use to stuff my pasta.
Pasta ripiena, stuffed pasta, ravioli, tortellini, tortelli, agnolini, capellini, whatever you want to call them, whatever shape they happen to be – square, rectangular, triangular, round, half-moon shaped, parcels, sweets, shaped as hats, – and whatever you happen to stuff them with – boiled or roast meats, cured meats, fresh cheese, parmesan, wild mushrooms, greens or herbs, cultivated vegetables such as potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, chard [the list, frankly, is endless] - the principle’s always the same. Stuff some freshly made pasta with whatever’s seasonal, boil it in salted water, dress with whatever sauce is deemed most fitting and enjoy!
But it’s only after you go to the trouble of making fresh stuffed pasta that you begin to appreciate the difference. It’s silky smooth, fresh tasting and utterly unctuous! And, every time you make it, you have the satisfaction of knowing you are keeping a tradition alive. That’s what it’s all about!
Chard and ricotta stuffed pasta
Tortelloni con ricotta e bietola
For the pasta
300g plain flour
3 large free-range eggs
For the filling
250g fresh ricotta
200g freshly grated parmesan cheese
500g chard leaves (alternatively, you could use spinach or wild greens)
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Make the filling first. This can be made the night before and left overnight in the fridge to allow the flavours to develop and to save time on the day. Wash the greens and place in a large pan. Place the pan over a medium heat, cover and allow the greens to wilt for 5-6 minutes. The water on the leaves should be enough. Just keep an eye and turn the greens over occasionally. When the greens are cooked, remove them from the pot and place in a sieve. With the back of a spoon, press down very firmly to remove as much water as possible. Once drained, place the greens on a chopping board and chop finely. Place the greens in a bowl, add the ricotta which has been passed through a sieve, the grated parmesan, salt (not too much as the cheese provides salt as well) freshly ground pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Mix everything together well. Set the filling aside until needed.
To make the pasta, place the flour on a large work surface, make a well in the centre and break the eggs into the middle. Starting from the centre, with the tips of your fingers, beat the eggs gradually drawing in a little of the flour. Keep adding a little more flour to the centre, until it comes together and you can knead the dough.
Knead the dough for a few minutes until smooth. Set the dough aside, cover with a tea towel and let rest for 30 minutes. If you have a pasta maker the next step will be easier, but if not just roll the dough out by hand. Make sure you have a large enough work surface. Rip off a piece of dough about the size of a clementine and pass through the widest setting on the pasta maker. Do this a few times, folding the dough over on itself until the dough is smooth and silky. Reduce the thickness on the machine and pass the pasta through. Keep reducing the thickness and passing the pasta through the machine until you reach the last setting, dusting with flour along the way so that it does not stick. If you are a new to making pasta, I suggest you roll the pasta to the second-to-last setting (it results in a slightly thicker pasta that will take longer to cook but it will be much easier to work).
Place the sheet of pasta on a work surface and place teaspoons of the filling in the centre about 4-5cm apart. Once done, place another sheet of pasta over the top and with the side of your hand gently squeeze the pasta around the filling to remove any pockets of air and stick the two sheets together. If you do not have a pasta cutter, simply use a small glass to cut round each shape. Continue rolling, filling and cutting until all the pasta and filling is used up.
To cook, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and then add the pasta. Boil for between 3-5 minutes (depending on thickness of pasta) and serve with a sauce of melted unsalted butter flavoured with a handful of sage leaves and plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese.