Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Perfect Interlude

Until I spent a lot of time in Italy, I had always done pasta wrong. Both cooking and eating.

One of the places I’d lived in for a while in the US as a child was very Italian. Everyone had better sounding mafia names than anyone on the Sopranos. Back then, pasta was just a fancy name for spaghetti and meatballs. Or maybe Lasagna, if it was Sunday. Piled HIGH. A mountain of overcooked noodles, meatballs the size of tennis balls, and lots of red sauce from a can, called marinara, for some reason, although it had nothing to do with the sea.

Naturally, my first experiences with pasta in Italy were frustrating.

But I had the good fortune to be able to develop some business contacts in Milan, and eventually lived for 10 years just 2 hours away from the border of Italy, to the north in Munich.

The real education came through the business partner. A wonderful guy with a seemingly unlimited expense account. And some kind of endurance when it came to putting a fine restaurant through its paces. An hour of wine list perusal while sipping aperitifs and munching on tidbits. Followed by an array of antipasti dishes. Wine tasting. More wine selection. A variety of pastas – small in volume, al dente, not soggy! Numerous main courses, usually served for the table and divided by the waiter amongst everyone. With more wine, and if it ran out, another session of wine list perusal. With cheese plates, some sort of dessert, and always a number of rounds of Grappa, or something similar, to finish. Three to four hours could go by, easily. But not a problem, as most of the servings were modest in size - enough for a good taste, but not enough for a meal.

To me, it was not just the dinners themselves but the opportunity to try seemingly everything on and off the menu. Everything at a leisurely pace, almost decadent. If customers were there it was a sales meeting, if not, it was a planning meeting. I’m glad I didn’t have to submit his expense reports.

Living so close to Italy, just two hours to Milan by train, maybe three or four to get to Florence, gave me a chance to deepen and really ingrain this way of dining deep into my psyche.

Unfortunately, the root of much frustration.

Because almost nowhere else in the world do people see pasta as one course of many in a meal. Pasta is almost always served in large portions, usually as the main dish, often with no other supporting dishes to go with it. Obviously most people request it that way.

So going to a restaurant, and trying to clarify the order of dishes to be served – i.e. the ½ portion of pasta, alone, served after the appetizer and before the main course – usually results in miscommunication. Maybe because the portions are too large, they doubt anyone really wants to eat things this way. Or maybe it’s just too unusual a concept., too seldom requested. Frequently, I end up with the pasta – full size – and my dining companion gets everything else, all at the same time.

So when I am home, I make it an opportunity to be a little decadent, lingering over several courses, each one not too much, but a treat in its own right.

Today, to begin, a roasted beet and orange salad, with an orange vinaigrette, and as a main course, some of the chicken left over from last night, with a few pieces of cheese (Perorino, Fontana, Goat) to finish. The wine - a Médoc from 2000. And for the perfect interlude, a rosemary-flavored ravioli pasta, stuffed with roasted sweet potato and goat cheese filling.

A bit of mid-week decadence to help make it to the weekend.

Rosemary-flavored Ravioli filled with Sweet Potatoes and Goat Cheese in Brown Butter Sauce

2 large sweet potatoes
4 oz goat cheese
salt, pepper, nutmeg
2 cups semolina flour
1 pinch of salt
3-4 tbsp minced fresh rosemary
2 eggs
1 egg mixed with 1 tbsp water for an egg wash
3 cloves garlic
4 tbsp butter
parsley, chopped fine, for garnish
Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Wash sweet potatoes and prick with a fork. Place in oven for 45-60 minutes, or until cooked through. Remove from oven and let cool.

Place flour, salt and rosemary in a mixing bowl, and stir well. Make a well in the center of the flour. Crack one egg into the flour, and begin mixing with your fingers by gently rubbing flour and egg together. When first egg is mixed in, add second egg. Continue mixing with fingers. When second egg is mixed in, add a few tablespoons of water. Continue mixing with fingers and drizzling in water until a dough forms. Knead the dough on a floured board for 5-10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Wrap in plastic wrap and let sit for one hour.

Scrape inside of sweet potatoes into a bowl. Add goat cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add a pinch of nutmeg. Mix until well combined.

Roll out portions of the dough on a floured board to an oblong shape until paper thin and translucent. Place tablespoons of the sweet potato mixture into one half of the dough about 2 inches apart. Brush the dough around each mound of filling with the egg wash. Fold the bare half of the dough carefully over the filling half, pressing around the filling mounds to remove any air and to seal the two halves of dough. Cut the dough into desired shapes, and set aside on a floured board. Continue rolling out the remaining dough in the same manner.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the raviolis. Cook at a very light boil until the raviolis float to the top of the water. Scoop them out and drain them.

In a hot sauté pan, heat the butter with the garlic for 2-3 minutes, or until it just starts to turn brown.

Place several raviolis in each serving bowl. Drizzle butter sauce over top. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve. Enjoy!

Roasted Beet and Orange Salad with Orange-Sesame Vinaigrette

3-4 medium sized red beets, washed and trimmed
Olive Oil
2 large navel oranges, peeled, and sliced
Orange-Sesame Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
4 oz goat cheese, crumbled
salad greens
salt, pepper
Sesame seeds as garnish

Preheat over to 450ºf.

Place beets in a small roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, and stir to coat well. Cover with tin foil, and place in oven. Roast for 1 to 1 ½ hours, or until tender. Allow beats to cool, uncovered, and peel. Slice beets.

Toss the salad greens with a little of the vinaigrette.

Arrange salad greens on plates. Arrange beet slices, orange slices and goat cheese on top of salad. Drizzle salads with remaining vinaigrette. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve.

Orange-Sesame Vinaigrette

2-3 tbsp fresh squeezed orange juice
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
¼ cup sesame oil
¼ cup olive oil
salt, pepper

Add orange juice and balsamic vinegar to a bowl. Add both oils in a stream while whisking. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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Blogger gattina said...

I enjoy so much reading your posts... great insight, and great sense of humor!

9:02 PM  
Blogger surfindaave said...

Gattina, thanks for the complement! I appriciate it!

11:21 PM  
Blogger ilva said...

I agree with you, there is a different way of eating here. Or should I say sharing a meal. Sometimes when we have Swedish visitors we make big lunches with Italians as well and sometimes I can see that the Swedes get impatient because they want to eat and that's it whereas Italians eat a little, talk a little, drink a little etc.. Sometimes we spend 5-6 hours at the table, on-off eating and drinking! I love it!

12:26 AM  
Blogger surfindaave said...

Me too! But it's a luxury over here to be able to linger over a meal like that!

6:22 PM  

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