“What’s your favorite cuisine?” It’s a question I’m occasionally asked in my cooking classes — and one I’m never comfortable answering. Do I have to choose? My answer at any given moment may depend on the season, a cookbook I’ve been reading, a restaurant at which I’ve recently eaten, recipes I’ve been developing, a trip recently taken, or any number of other factors. If the questioner persists, I’ll say “Mediterranean,” because it gives me wiggle room. Mediterranean, of course, isn’t really a single cuisine; it includes the foods of Spain, France, Italy, Greece, the Balkans, the Middle East, Morocco, and North Africa. I could even make a case for including Cajun/Creole food because of its Spanish, French, and African origins. That’s a lot of wiggle room.
The reason people started referring to Mediterranean as a single cuisine is the commonality of certain ingredients — most notably olive oil. Researchers linked the low incidence of heart disease in the region to limited consumption of (red) meat and the discovery that olive oil is actually beneficial. Consumption of red wine and lots of garlic appear to help, too.
I’m glad those things are good for me, but the reason I love all those Mediterranean cuisines is that they’re so flavorful. The olive oil, all that garlic, the herbs and spices, the cheeses, meats, seafood, and vegetables are combined in myriad variations by the people of each region in their own style.
When I was a child, if someone asked what my favorite food was, I never hesitated. It was ravioli. Though as adult I don’t really have a “favorite,” ravioli is still right up there at the top. Not just any ravioli, though: I’m not talking about Chef Boyardee, or the refrigerated or frozen varieties at the grocery (although some are reasonably decent). I’m not even talking about the truly outstanding stuffed pastas I’ve had in upscale Italian restaurants. The ravioli I still love best, the one I always requested for my childhood birthdays, is from a recipe that goes back in my (non-Italian) family for decades. There’s even a story behind it.
When World War II broke out, my grandfather had just opened his own office-supply company in Springfield. He’d scored a major coup, securing a contract with the state of Illinois to replace all of the wooden desks in office buildings and the Capitol building with the first metal desks. Before they could be delivered, however, war was declared and all orders for metal goods were canceled. He lost everything.
My grandfather found work at a munitions plant south of Joliet. It was a scary and difficult time for my grandparents and my then-10-year-old mother, traumatized by the war, the loss of the business, and separated from family and friends for the first time in their lives. When one of my grandfather’s co-workers asked them to dinner, it was a chance to make connections in a new place.
The co-worker Italian family’s warmth and hospitality more than made up for any difficulties in communication. When everyone sat down to eat, huge platters of ravioli were brought to the table. My mom and grandparents had never eaten ravioli. (It’s hard to imagine these days, but back then even spaghetti with tomato sauce was considered an exotic ethnic dish.) The ravioli was fantastic. Seeing how much my family enjoyed it, they were urged to take second and third helpings. Finally the table was cleared. My family leaned back in their chairs, satiated.
That’s when the second course arrived. It was the American part of the meal: a classic fried-chicken dinner complete with mashed potatoes and gravy. Because it was clear that to not eat would cause offense, my family soldiered on. The evening was a great success, though my grandparents and mom were sick when they got home. At least they weren’t too sick to ask for the ravioli recipe.
Making ravioli is time-consuming and generally reserved for special occasions in Italy. The filling is easy and a good way to stretch a little leftover chicken into a full meal. There’s nothing that can equal making your own pasta dough, but there are several other easier and very good alternatives.
The first is using purchased wonton wrappers. Available in grocery stores, they are squares of fresh pasta. To make ravioli with wonton wrappers, place a spoonful of filling in the center of a wrapper, very lightly moisten the edges with a little water or beaten egg (too much and they won’t seal), press from the center outward, then press all around to seal. Boil the ravioli until it’s al dente, which should only take a couple of minutes. Serve with tomato sauce or melted butter and chopped fresh herbs and cheese. They can also be fried to make toasted ravioli.
I’ve also used this filling to stuff mushrooms or hollowed-out zucchini for a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate dish. Place in a baking dish, sprinkle with grated cheese, cover the dish and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until the vegetables are tender. Serve with tomato sauce.
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chicken and Spinach Ravioli Filling
1 cup finely minced cooked chicken
1 cup finely chopped spinach (about 1 10-ounce package, squeezed dry)
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or aged Asiago
1/4 cup minced Italian flat-leaf parsley
Four cloves minced garlic, or to taste
1 tablespoon extravirgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Mix ingredients together. Allow mixture to stand for about 30 minutes to let the flavors blend.