So many wonderful, unique things in this world have been taken and murdered by mass marketing and general misuse. So much so we are in grave danger of missing out on some tremendous experiences. It has happened in every facet of life. For example Paul Simon is a wonderful songwriter who gave us a lovely song called The Boxer. Sadly it has been massacred by every dodgy pub singer and is a perennial for the drunken sing song. The mere thought of it makes me roll my eyes but then occasionally I’ll here the original played on the radio and I’m always pleasantly surprised and reminded that it is a good song. Food is no different. Wonderful ideas, recipes and creations have been taken and ruined to the point that I sometimes dismiss them without thinking.
Pasta is often on that list, particularly in restaurants. I have had so many poor, bland pools of stodgy mess masquerading as pasta dishes over the years that I’m reluctant to order it even in some proper Italian restaurants. At home pasta is seen as a quick and easy answer, but even then it is often overcooked, the flavours are not thought out properly and little regard is given to the shape of the pasta and sauce used. Shells, bows, tubes, spaghetti; whatever is to hand is fine. It’s a handy week night staple and the kids love it as long as it’s smothered in their favourite sauce.
Then just last week I had a pasta revelation; an epiphany of sorts as I ordered the ravioli in an Italian Restaurant. It was out of character and I felt it was a gamble but, boy, did my horse come in at 100 to 1! It was fantastic. Two lovely light layers of perfectly made pasta sandwiched the most delicate and flavoursome meat, mushroom and truffle mixture all topped off with luscious thyme butter. In a culinary sense I was Paul on the road to Damascus; pasta was suddenly the holy grail of food again.
Still basking in the glow of such great food a few days later at home I was faced with a dilemma. I wanted more ravioli but if I couldn’t buy the type I desired then the only answer was to make it from scratch. I live in a houseful of wonderful children and draping sheets of pasta on chairs around the kitchen, even for 10 minutes or so, is absolute folly. I could nearly guarantee that it would make a great new planet for Ben 10 or could be seen as a great surface for Lego cars or perhaps Hello Kitty my like to drape herself in it! The possibilities offered by my highly creative brood and their toys are endless, believe me.
If I’m honest making pasta is not difficult or ingredient intensive, but to get it right you have to have time and a good attitude towards the process. It is just flour and eggs with a little olive oil. Most people would bung it all into a food processor but for a really authentic feel you just put the flour directly onto the work surface (a clean one obviously!) and create a well in the centre for the eggs and the oil. Then using your fingertips draw the flour from the sides and mix well until you have a soft dough. You then knead the flour on a lightly floured surface until you have a really silky and smooth texture. This is where the hanging and drying comes in. You have to roll out the pasta until it is almost like a thin sheet of cloth and hang it to dry for about 15 minutes. Some people use a broom handle or the back of a chair is always handy. For strips of fettuccine (narrow) or tagliatelle (slightly wider) you just roll it up like a Swiss roll and then slice through at regular intervals and then unravel. Toss it in a little flour and you’re done. For lasagne or ravioli just cut it up into flat sheets. The other great thing about making the pasta from scratch is that you can add bits and pieces to create a further taste dimension. Spinach is often added which also gives colour. I know some people have those special pasta makers but unless you are planning to use it a great deal I can’t see the point in having one myself.
I was genuinely tempted to make my own pasta but time wasn’t on my side at the weekend and then, as always, necessity is the mother of invention. I bought some fresh, high end lasagne sheets which were just perfect for homemade ravioli! I also played with the shape; who said they had to be square? I made some half moon shapes and slightly bigger than you would normally expect. I used three different fillings; a traditional spinach and ricotta, a garlic mushroom and a meat (beef mince, pork mince and cheese.) The thing with ravioli is that all the work is done ahead of time. It takes very little time to cook as effectively you are just cooking the pasta and reheating the already cooked filling. I have two tips for homemade ravioli, don’t overstuff the little parcels and don’t smother them in sauce. The sauce is really only a gravy; something to boost and enhance the flavour rather than overpowering it.
My other great love at the moment is herb flavoured butters; garlic, garlic and chive butter, basil, thyme and parsley butter; all current favourites. By mixing a little of the herb butter with a little maple syrup I created a delicious light pouring sauce with a lovely sweet undertone. Despite my bought pasta the end result was really good, maybe not as good as the restaurant, but close enough for satisfaction.
I can’t urge you enough to try it. Making your own ravioli, even if you don’t actually make the pasta yourself, is fun and very therapeutic. I made generous half moon shapes and allowed about 5 per person. Oh, and don’t forget to grate some quality parmesan over the top for an extra boost. “Buon appetito” as they say in Italy. Here’s my Meaty Ravioli with Fresh Herb Butter recipe for you to enjoy.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers