Lighten up filled pasta with seasonal produce and fresh sauces.
This article first appeared in the 1 June 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
House-made stuffed ravioli is the most popular dish at Santi in Geyserville, Calif., even though the fillings constantly change.
This spring, the restaurant broke with cold-weather richness by serving Ravioli con Carciofi e Gamberi, a light pasta filled with braised artichokes and sheep's-milk ricotta served with an herby rock-shrimp-and-white-wine sauce. Come summer, the kitchen turns toward local produce, including borage (a leafy, weed-like herb), zucchini, squash blossoms and tomatoes, for inspiration. The slowly simmered tomato sauce that is used in the winter is swapped for a briefly cooked tomato sauce comprising fresh tomato and olive oil or butter.
Seasonal variations are factored into the restaurant's workflow naturally. "We're making ravioli three days a week," says Chef de Cuisine Liza Hinman. "When we're running one version, we're making the next version."
Change also can be good for sales. When stuffed-pasta dishes are recreated with fresh sauces and seasonal vegetables, they can be light, refreshing and appealing to diners, even at the peak of summer swelter.
To satisfy diners during steamy Washington, D.C., summers, Matt Hill modifies his menu.
The executive chef of Charlie Palmer Steak DC served sheep's-milk ricotta agnolotti with shaved almonds and an almond froth last winter and spring. Yet he pulled the dish once summer arrived. "In August, I don't want to eat a big warm bowl of cheese," he reasons.
Instead, he reaches for olive oil rather than butter, uses pesto instead of cheese for pasta fillings, and dresses pasta with warm vinaigrettes instead of dairy-based sauces. His stuffed pasta also becomes more fluid: An open-faced shellfish ravioli with pasta draped loosely over a ragoût of lobster, scallop and shrimp is a thoughtful appetizer.
At Spezie, another D.C. restaurant, Chef Cesare Lanfranconi switches from Tortelli di Zucca, a fall
and winter dish where pasta filled with winter squash is served with sage brown butter, to a scallop tortelli served in a chive cream sauce. Lanfranconi slices large, U-10 scallops in half or in thirds to form thin medallions and then sears them briefly. Each round tortello contains a scallop medallion and a dollop of roasted porcini, leek and thyme purée.
Yet lightening up stuffed pasta is more involved than swapping out a rich filling for something more delicate. Often the density of the filling dictates the thickness of the pasta. When Hinman makes ravioli, she ensures that when the ravioli boil, the pasta and the filling finish cooking at the same time.
"You want the filling to be perfectly cooked through, but you don't want the pasta to be overcooked," she says. She makes pasta for meat-based ravioli thicker than pasta for the artichoke and ricotta ravioli.
Changing a stuffed pasta's sauce and presentation can be just as important as shifting its filling to something lighter. At Murano Restaurant & Lounge in Los Angeles, Executive Chef Kristi Ritchey composes the pasta dishes so that the pasta is never weighed down in sauce.
Murano's spring pea agnolotti are served lightly sauced with beurre monte (butter emulsified with water) to ensure that the pasta's surface stays moist. The pasta accompanies sautéed pea tendrils, pancetta and whole peas, all topped with shavings of ricotta salata. Then, explains Ritchey, pea emulsion is drizzled around the perimeter of the dish. "It's not touching the agnolotti," she says. "It gives it a slightly more sophisticated appearance."
Jason Niederkorn also serves house-made agnolotti at Cafe Del Rey in Marina Del Rey, Calif., where fillings vary from fresh pea purée in the spring to white-corn purée in the summer and maitake mushroom purée later in the year. Regardless of the filling, however, the sauce stays the same: Niederkorn coats the agnolotti lightly in a simple brown butter. When he plates the pasta, each piece stands on its own on a rectangular plate garnished with sliced chives and finely grated Parmesan.
"To me, it's about keeping it really simple, to let [the pasta] speak for itself," Niederkorn says.
For Corporate Executive Chef Bill Laychur, lightening up filled pasta is as much about minding his food budget as it is about minding diners' tastes. He acknowledges that his audience, hungry students at Pennsylvania State University in University City, Pa., loves cheese-rich baked manicotti, but rising cheese costs have made the vegetarian entrée a cost-ineffective option. So Laychur prefers to serve cheese-filled tortellini or ravioli in salads, which require far less cheese.
"What's wrong with poaching a ravioli, chilling it down, and serving it with chilled vegetables?" he asks. What's more, tortellini salad combinations are nearly endless. Laychur likes using artichoke hearts, tomatoes and basil for one variation. He keeps sauces simple-vinaigrettes, chilled basil pesto or tomato coulis. "What we're doing on our menu, if it is a pasta dish, [is] we're trying to put more vegetables with it," Laychur says.
Serving sauce on the side makes pasta more accessible to timid diners, says Russell Bry, chief culinary officer of the 11-unit, San Francisco-based chain Go Roma. Bry says children often prefer dipping plain ravioli in a side of marinara sauce to eating ravioli coated in a sauce.
The practice extends to adults who order Go Roma's "toasted" ravioli-ricotta-filled ravioli coated with lightly seasoned breadcrumbs and then fried and served with marinara sauce on the side. Guests coming in for a sandwich or pizza often add the $2.99 toasted ravioli to their order to share at the table.
"This is a way to add more comfort and accessibility to the appetizer section," Bry says. "It's also a way to increase our check average. These small plates have become like the candy bar or gum at the checkout counter."
Yet when stuffed-pasta dishes become vegetarian entrées, they also need to be satisfying.
"We have a large vegetarian population, so we try to maintain a number of vegetarian dishes on the menu," says Chef Michael Kline of Creek Town Cafe in Walla Walla, Wash.
For potato- and mushroom-filled manicotti, he chooses to mix cream cheese into the filling instead of lighter-textured fromage blanc or ricotta. The mixture of cooked potato, egg and cream cheese puffs up in the oven like a cheesecake batter as the manicotti bake, giving the manicotti a lighter texture while helping them retain rich flavor.
"I was actually looking for something a little bit richer," he explains. "Everything else in the dish was going to be light," Kline says.
Pasta pros share these suggestions:
- Defrost ravioli for fried preparations. For Go Roma's Toasted Ravioli (pictured), ravioli are thawed before they're fried for even cooking.
- Make the dough firm and dry, says Chef Jason Niederkorn from Cafe Del Rey. He runs the pasta dough through the pasta machine on the widest setting, sprinkles the dough generously with flour and then folds the dough into thirds and runs it through the machine on the same setting. He repeats this step until the dough is dry to the touch before narrowing the machine's settings.
- Alter the dough to suit the pasta shape and filling, advises Chef Matt Hill of Charlie Palmer Steak DC. He prefers an elastic, egg-yolk-rich dough for agnolotti but uses a drier dough made with all-purpose flour and semolina for ravioli.
- Fill cannelloni in advance for a quick pickup, says Chef Kristi Ritchey of Murano Restaurant & Lounge. But first, line a hotel pan with plenty of semolina to prevent sticking.
Ravioli are formed by enclosing filling between two sheets of pasta, then cutting and sealing off the edges. Yet the same stuffed pasta can vary in shape, size and name.
Cesare Lanfranconi, executive chef of Spezie in Washington, D.C., says that the names of stuffed pasta in Italy vary from town to town, even when the shape stays the same. So one chef's ravioli very easily can be another chef's mezzelune or tortelli. Here are some basic definitions:
- Agnolotti: Classic Piemontese stuffed pasta made by folding one sheet of pasta over a filling (as opposed to ravioli, which are made with two sheets). They are shaped into squares, crescents or rectangles. "It's relatively simple and it really allows the sauce to adhere to the pasta" says Chef Matt Hill of Charlie Palmer Steak DC.
- Cannelloni: A term used interchangeably with manicotti, cannelloni are tubes of pasta filled with a stuffing and then baked in a sauce. Contemporary cannelloni often are made with fresh sheets of pasta instead of pasta tubes, as seen at Murano Restaurant & Lounge in Los Angeles with Chef Kristi Ritchey's duck confit cannelloni.
- Cappelletti: Literally "small hats," this shape is the same as tortellini (below).
Crespelle: Italian for crÁªpes, crespelle can be used like sheets of fresh pasta. Crespelle are rolled with a vegetable or meat filling and then baked.
- Mezzelune: Crescent-shaped ravioli. Santi in Geyserville, Calif., serves large mezzelune, with only two to three per order.
- Tortelli/Tortellini: Tortelli are shaped into squares, rectangles, crescents or rounds. The pieces occasionally are wrapped around the maker's finger to form a hollow, hat-like shape, though this is more common with their smaller relative, tortellini. "In some places tortelli is almost like a purse; in some towns it's like a flat square; and in other towns it may be round," Lanfranconi says.