By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
Ahhhh, Italia! What a wonderful assignment this week! So many wonderful culinary treats come from Italy. If you don’t believe me, just ask any of your Italian friends. I’m sure you know someone of Italian heritage. Here’s the thing…Italians are very proud of their heritage so even if they have the teeny-ninesist drop of Italian blood, they proudly declare themselves Italian. Listen, if you consider the food of Italy alone, who can blame them for having pride of heritage?
You may remember that adorable hubby was the one who first suggested that I begin this culinary trip around the world as my New Year’s resolution. I have to tell you, he is congratulating himself every week because whatever I cook for that week’s article becomes his dinner. He is especially happy this week. Who wouldn’t be?
Here’s the perfect thing about this kind of world tour. I don’t have to wait for a passport or visa, and I don’t have to save up a bunch of money and think about what I can afford. I can just go wherever I like, wherever the wind blows…and this week, it blows to Italy.
Truly, Italy is a country with a long and varied history, one that once ruled the world. Her history has shown many advances in science, fashion, medicine and so on. Never-theless, the food is one of the best and highest things about the country. Really, the Italians enjoy the absolute best in wine, espresso, cheeses, pork products, olive oil, veggies and oh-for-the-love-of-god, pasta.
When most of us think of Italian food, we think of spaghetti, pizza, and lasagna, which are, indeed, wonderful. However, it’s not the whole story. Italian cuisine is so much deeper and varied than that. These images we think of as Italian food — a plate of hot pasta with tomato or cream-based sauce — is far from the total picture of true Italian
cuisine. Not that these great rustic dishes aren’t an important part of the country’s gastronomic heritage. They are, but it’s also so much more than these few stereotypical dishes. The culinary history of Italy is deeply indebted to the cross-cultural heritage of peoples and societies that integrated into Italy throughout her rich history of over 3,000 years of exploration during her reign as a super-power of the known world.
Much of the best of Italian cuisine is adapted and influenced from Greek, Byzantine, Jewish and even New World, American, flavors.
It seems there has always been a debate about where spaghetti originally came from.
Turns out a Norman king, during the Arab invasion of the country, observed peasants in Sicily making long strings made from flour and water. This was what we think of as
spaghetti. It was called trii and still is in some southern Italian communities. Italian cuisine has been, from the very beginning, an uncommonly elegant cuisine. This partially due to the explorative nature of the beginnings of the country, as well as; the
education and detailed cookbooks left behind by royal chefs.
Also, the country is made up of 21 distinct regions, which all have their own specific style of cuisine. Until modern times most Italians didn’t travel outside their own region so what might be a traditional specialty in one region, had never even been heard of a few miles away. Also, regions were highly influenced by the countries that bordered them.
For example, the northwest of the country is bordered by Austria so visitors introduced foods like sausages that were staples in their countries. In the northeast, the cuisine is
more influenced by the French and down south, in the boot area of the country, Greek and Mediterranean influences are evident. We are all interconnected but there are so many yummy Italian things to cook, how could I choose?
This week, I really wanted to make fresh pasta. It just so happens that the mid-section of the country, in a region called Piedmont, one of the specialties is a pasta called agnolotti. That region is also famous for the quality of its carru beef, which is where the dish carpaccio comes from. (In case you aren’t familiar, carpaccio is a dish where the beef is served very cold, pounded paper thin with many accompaniments. Most importantly, it’s served raw. That sounds gross, but it’s really quite delicious). Anyway, back to the agnolotti. It looks like ravioli and is stuffed with this wonderfully tender carru beef. I just happened to have a beautiful steak in my freezer. I also had some beef bones that I was planning to make stock from and some beef short ribs which would make a fantastic ragu to go over the pasta. A plan was beginning to form.
I know that sounds like a lot of work and it is, but my friend gave me a pasta machine that he found at a garage sale and I’ve been wanting to try it out. The thing was some electric contraption that looked like something to be found on a late night, “but wait, there’s more” informercial. I didn’t even know if it worked. It didn’t. The problem was that I was too far into it now and had to figure out how to make it work, cause that’s what chefs do. The short rib ragu was made and the bones were already roasted, as I was using
the marrow and the steak to stuff the pasta. Don’t judge. I know you’re thinking bone marrow sounds disgusting but don’t think of it as bone marrow. Rather think of it as meaty butter. It is beyond delicious.
I ended up rolling the pasta by hand, which is tough to do. Pasta is not a soft dough. I really got my workout. No wonder everybody respects their Italian grandmas. Those ladies are strong enough to kick your butt across town. In case you decide to give it a try, I’ve included an easier and less time consuming option in the recipe. Instead of hand making pasta dough, you can just use wonton wrappers instead. As Julia Child
famously said, “When you’re alone in the kitchen, who’s to know?”
In the end, the pasta turned out great. The ragu was thick, meaty, hearty and rich and my husband is talking about the need to go to the gym if he keeps eating like this. As for me, I may stay in Italy for a while. As I said earlier, there are too many good things. How can I choose? The great thing is, I don’t have to. I think I’ll just travel within the country for a moment and savor the food.
Bone Marrow Ravioli with Short Rib Ragu
1.5 pounds beef short ribs
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup of any good red wine
3 cups beef stock
1 large can crushed tomatoes
3 sprigs of fresh thyme, chopped
One 12 to 18 inch beef bone (have your butcher cut it down into smaller pieces)
1 small good quality steak, thinly shaved
1 package wonton wrappers
1. Brown the short ribs on all sides in a large skillet or pot with a little olive oil, over medium-high heat. Remove the ribs from the pan and set aside.
2. In the same skillet or pot, sauté the onion until translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté another 30 seconds until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add the carrot and continue to sauté. Add the tomato paste and stir it around the pot to incorporate for 1-2 minutes. Then add the wine to deglaze the pan, making sure to scrape up and incorporate any browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Add the beef stock, thyme and tomatoes, and nestle the ribs back into the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered until the ribs are tender and falling off the bone, about 2 hours.
3. In the meantime, put the bone in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil and roast in a 400 degree oven for 20-30 minutes, until the bone is browned and the marrow is cooked through. Let cool, then use a skinny knife or long food tweezers to remove the marrow from the bone. Mix with the shaved steak and season with salt and pepper.
To build the raviolis, remove one wonton wrapper from the package (keep the rest covered with a wet paper towel while you work to keep them from drying out), put a small spoonful of the meat mixture in the center of the wrapper. Moisten your finger with water and run it around the inside edge of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper diagonally over the filling to enclose it, pressing the moistened edges together to seal.
Set aside until you have all of the raviolis made. When you are ready to serve, bring a large pot of water to a low boil. Cook the raviolis in the boiling water, a few at a time to keep them from sticking to each other. Allow them to cook until they float to the surface of the water and then 1-2 minutes longer. Remove them to a tray prepared with a little of the ragu sauce with a slotted spoon. Toss them with the sauce to keep them from sticking.
4. To plate, arrange a few raviolis on a plate and ladle ragu sauce over the top. Serve with a rib and top with grated parmesan, if desired.