Tortelli di Zucca (Pumpkin Ravioli)
Welcome to the next stop on our taste tour of Italy, the facinating region of Lombardy, a place with cuisine as rich and varied as its history.
Lombardy’s first known inhabitants were nomadic hunters who left amazing carvings on the stone walls of the Valcamonica Valley more than 10,000 years ago. These Mesolithic people were following the migration of animal herds through the southern Alps and, for 8000 years after them, different tribes and groups of people made carvings on these same walls, depicting their lives and stories and traditions. Just so, each culture that flourished here has left its mark on the cuisine of modern Lombardy.
Ancient stone carving from the Valcamonica Valley
In the area around the great Lombard Lakes near Switzerland, remnants of Etruscan settlements more than 2000 years old have been found. These people brought a wealth of pottery to the area as well as the first known texts. They also brought a culinary tradition of spelt, fennel, bay leaves, garlic and honey that remain staples in the Italian diet to this day. In the 5th century BCE, they were overpowered by invading Celts who introduced the Celtic plow as well as numerous Iron Age farming tools that allowed people to begin to cultivate the rich soil of the Po Valley. Seven hundred years later, the Celts were conquered by Rome. The Romans brought wine. :-)
The Lombards, a Germanic tribe that ruled much of Italy from 568 to 744, left the region their name, and their descendents, the Lombard nobles, continued to rule in this part of Italy until well into the 11th century when they were finally conquered by the Normans. The Lombards introduced dairy farming to the area and today, Grana Padano, Gorgonzola, Provolone, Parmigiano Reggiano and Taleggio, just a few of the famous cheeses of Lombardy, are their legacy. The Middle Ages saw many feudal struggles but also the growth of agriculture, banking and trade (think of Lombard Street in London). Rice came during this period from India as did many of the spices, such as black pepper and nutmeg, that were popular in Renaissance cooking and endure in the cuisine today. The wealth generated by foreign trade helped to fuel the intellectual and artistic achievements of the Renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci, among many others, made his home here.
Geographically, the region is divided into three areas. The northern third is Alpine, much of it rugged and unforgiving. The middle portion is made up of gentle foothills and the southern third lies in the verdant Po River Basin. As you might expect, geographical terrain this varied gives rise to cuisine and traditions that are also a study in contrasts. The food in the north is hearty and straightforward, sharing much in common with Switzerland, while the cuisine of the fertile Po Valley is a showpiece of rich cheeses, meats, produce and, of course, rice. The risotto of Milan is legendary and rice or polenta take center stage over pasta for most of this region. But not entirely.
Buckwheat, which grows well in cold climates, is used in the north of Lombardy to make Pizzoccheri, a sturdy buckwheat noodle that pairs beautifully with potatoes, cabbage and cheese to make a comforting dish by the same name. In the south, a sweet pumpkin-stuffed pasta called Tortelli di Zucca (Casconcelli by the locals) makes an appearance at nearly every festival or holiday. It is also a staple in our house at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Give these wonderful dishes a try and bring a little bit of Lombardy to your own table!
TORTELLI DI ZUCCA (aka Casoncelli)
Pumpkin Ravioli serves 4
We eat some version of these every year for Thanksgiving and or Christmas. In Italy, a beautiful red-fleshed pumpkin is used to make them. Here, butternut squash is a good substitute. Use the flesh from the neck of the butternut squash as it is firmer.
1 pound of butternut squash (from the neck)
¼ cup crushed amaretti cookies
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
Fresh pasta dough made with 2 eggs and 1 cup of unbleached flour
1 stick of unsalted butter
a few sprigs of fresh sage
Freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
Cut the squash in half lengthwise and bake it in a roasting pan with a small amount of water in the bottom until it is easily pierced with a fork.
Scoop the flesh from the skin and allow it to drain and cool for about an hour in a wire mesh colander.
While the squash is cooling, mix the dough for the pasta and let it rest.
Mash the squash and mix with the remaining ingredients for the filling.
Roll the dough out into an even sheet, a scant 1/16 of an inch thick, until the thickness of a dime.
Cut into strips about 4 inches wide and place teaspoons of filling along one side, about 1 ½ inches apart and ¾ inch from the edge.
Carefully fold the long edge of the strip over the filling, pressing gently around the filling to remove any pockets of air before sealing along the long edge.
With a pastry crimper, trim the long edge of the dough and then cut between the mounds of filling to make ravioli.
Cook them right away in plenty of liberally salted, rapidly boiling water for a minute or two OR
Freeze on a cookie tray until firm and store them up to 3 weeks in freezer bags. Cook these directly from the freezer 6 or 8 at a time (so that the water temperature doesn’t drop below a boil for more than a second or two). Frozen ravioli will take about 1 minute longer to cook.
Melt butter and sage in a large heavy bottomed frying pan until the butter turns a light, nut-brown color.
Toss the cooked ravioli gently in the brown butter sauce and serve with a sprinkling of Parmesan on top.
When I am making a large quantity, I scoop the ravioli into an ovenproof dish as they cook, pour the sauce over them, and then heat them in a hot oven for a few minutes before serving.
In many Lombard recipes for this pasta, a bit of the sweet/spicy condiment called Mostarda di Cremona, is added to the filling. This mixture of candied fruits and spicy mustard oil is another example of Renaissance flavors that still inform the food of today.
Marcella Hazan, the High Priestess of Italian Cooking, invented a more savory variation of these ravioli using sweet potatoes in place of the squash and some Mortadella and chopped parsley instead of the amaretti. This version may not be traditional in Italy, but it certainly is in our house where we also add a little roasted garlic and a bit of rosemary to the filling.
½ cup unbleached flour
½ cup buckwheat flour (always make sure your flour is fresh but this is especially important with whole grain flours which can become rancid quickly)
a tablespoon or two of water if needed to form a workable dough
(These can also be made without the eggs using just flour and warm water. Start with just under ¼ cup and add enough to make a dough that can be easily worked)
Mix, knead and rest the dough just as you would for regular egg noodles.
Roll the dough a little thicker than you would for regular egg noodles, about 2 mm (the thickness of a penny)
Allow the pasta sheet to dry slightly, flour well and cut strips of dough about 4 inches wide. Cut the strips into 4 inch lengths and stack 2 or 3 with a sprinkling of flour between them.
Cut into noodles about ¼ inch wide.
This dough has a tendency to break as it dries if it is rolled very thin or the noodles are much longer than 4 inches. These have a wonderful earthy toothsome-ness that pairs well with mushrooms, cabbage and potatoes (which is how they are often served).
To assemble the dish
1 stick of butter
2 or 3 firm, waxy potatoes, cubed
3/4 pound white Savoy cabbage, torn into pieces
1/2 pound fresh Casera or Fontina cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Salt and fresh pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic
Bring 6 quarts of water and 3 tablespoons of sea salt to boil in a large pot.
Add the potatoes and cabbage and cook until almost tender, about 5-7 minutes.
While the cabbage and potatoes are cooking, melt the butter and garlic and cook until the garlic is barely golden in color. Remove the garlic and keep the butter warm.
Add the noodles to the boiling water and continue to cook another minute or two until noodles are cooked through, but still have some tooth to them.
Drain the water and layer the noodle/potato mixture in a shallow casserole with the cheeses, making 2 or 3 layers of each and ending with the cheese.
Pour the hot butter over all and serve.
Yes, it’s rich. The one unifying thread in the cuisine of this area seems to be a love for butter and cheese. There’s a very good reason for that--it’s delicious!
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