Bundle Up, Butternut

For many years, my family would threaten to skip the traditional spread for Thanksgiving in favor of plain pasta, sauce on the side. Gathering a dozen or more picky eaters around one table led to inevitable conflict and strife, because most people wouldn’t touch cranberry sauce with a three-foot spatula, green vegetables are akin to the devil for some, and even the omnivores generally turned up their noses at turkey. The only thing we could all agree on was the universal charm of good old fashioned noodles. We’re not talking about fancy herb-infused, handmade coils or twirls; no elaborate gluten-free blends. Just basic, white flour, dried pasta was always the first dish to empty at my grandma’s dinner table, no matter the intended accompaniment. In hindsight, I wish someone actually called that bluff and skipped the annual feast of discontent.

Realizing this concept in much grander fashion, a supposedly “rustic” starter of crispy butternut squash ravioli knocked me off my feet this Thanksgiving. Indeed, the ingredients are as ordinary as they come, but the time, effort, and love that goes into each individual pasta pillow is not. Longtime friend and erstwhile food blogger Jenn pulled out all the stops this year, balancing tradition with innovation, lavishly accommodating all guests with more food than a small mob could possibly consume in a week. It was that first dish that struck me as the very best though, if I had to choose, for finally hitting that satisfying promise made so many years ago.

Butternut is mashed into creamy submission and bundled up in homemade sheets of delicate dough, extraordinary for their apparent austerity yet rich depth of flavor. Owing to the skill of the cook, only some inconceivably magical process could possibly explain it otherwise. That, and a whole lot of vegan butter. Infused with a handful of bright, aromatic holy basil, sage might be more expected here but any tender herbs are welcome to this party.

In the spirit of giving, Jenn had the patience to not only swaddle those tender morsels of homemade butternut delight in handmade pasta to feed a crowd, but to endure the added chore of writing out every single step in painstaking detail on my behalf. At this point, I must acknowledge that I’m a terribly demanding guest.

Plain pasta, it is not; it’s something to be much more thankful for.

Butternut Squash Ravioli
by Jenn

Here’s a quick “no measure” recipe for a rustic ravioli dish that will make any occasion seem super special. You don’t need any special equipment — just a rolling pin though I prefer to use my Kitchen Aid pasta roller attachment to save time.

Pasta:
1-2 cups of fine semolina flour
2 Tb extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
water, as needed

Filling:
1 butternut or kabocha squash, roasted and seeded
chopped fresh herbs (your choice), quantity as needed
pinch of salt
pinch of nutmeg

DIRECTIONS – FILLING:
To make the ravioli filling, Just mash the roasted butternut (or kabocha or pumpkin) and blend with the finely chopped herbs and spices. You don’t want this to be too fine a puree, you want to be able to drop it by the spoonful onto the pasta.

DIRECTIONS – PASTA:
1. Make the pasta – mix the dry ingredients and start adding the olive oil and mix well. Add cold or ice water in a thin stream, in small amounts, until the semolina starts getting a sandy texture. Check it periodically to see if you can clump it by smashing some inside the palm of your hand with your fist. If it is too tacky and wet — add more semolina (easy, right?). I prefer to use my stand mixer but you can do this by hand.

2. Use a flexible spatula to scrape out of the bowl onto a work surface. Work it with your hands to press, squeeze and smush it together into a ball that starts to really stick together. You want to develop the gluten. Get out the rolling pin and work it flat, fold it and repeat.

You can continue to work it with the rolling pin or you can get it thin enough (about 1/4″ for the widest setting on your pasta roller) to start putting through the pasta roller. I start out at “0” on my KA attachment and after a couple passes, narrow it a few more times until I get to 4 or 5.

Get the pasta sheets as thin as you can without them being transparent, developing holes or tears when you try to stretch a bit (since you’ll be doing that to make the ravioli) but not so thick that you just have a super squishy dumpling.

To shape the ravioli – you can do this with a water glass or biscuit cutter, a fancy ravioli cutter (I have individual cutters as well as a metal mold that is about as wide as the sheet of pasta.

Get a small bowl of water and maybe a brush to keep at hand. Once you roll out your sheet of pasta — put it on the form or lightly mark it with your cutter, then use a measuring spoon to scoop a small ball of your cool filling onto the center of that mark.

Dab a bit of water all around where the edge of the ravioli will be using the brush or your finger tips. Lay another sheet over top (or just fold a very long sheet) and then use your cutter (or rolling pin) to score the raviolis. Check to make sure the edges are sealed the first few times and then lay them out in a single layer on cutting board or cookie sheet to rest.

Freezing the ravioli before you cook them yields better results. You can drop them into boiling water and then scoop them out and cover them with sauce, but for this thanksgiving treat — we browned some of Miyoko’s vegan butter and crisped up the ravioli on both sides with some holy basil out of the garden, and then sprinkled with vegan parm.

You can’t eat just one!

Oh yeah – and – if you have more pasta than energy to make ravioli — you can slice the sheets up into linguine or fettuccine, or make farfalle (butterfly or bowtie pasta) just by cutting squares and pinch in the middle. In all cases — leave pasta on a cookie sheet to rest and freeze or dry. You can also tightly wrap leftover pasta ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate to roll out later.

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Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peas

Some may find it crude. Some may be downright offended. I’ve simply decided to fully embrace all the pea-ness that this fleeting spring harvest has to offer. Really, there’s no way of going back at this point. I’ve already pea’d on my pizza. I even pea’d on my toast– At work, no less! Dining alfreso has been a true joy as the weather continues to improve, allowing me to pea outside with Luka, too. It’s safe to say that I’m going to keep on pea-ing everywhere until this stream of inspiration runs dry.

Did you really think I could resist sharing another pea-s of my mind before the short growing season passed us by? Girl, peas.

Hungry but tired after a full day of work, I seriously had to pea by the time dinner rolled around. Riffling through the fridge and pantry yielded a few delectable treasures to create an instant, effortless peas de résistance. Spinach and ricotta ravioli, quickly sauteed in garlic and butter, needs no further culinary intervention to shine, but a light sprinkle of coarse black pepper and crunchy veggie bacon certainly didn’t hurt.

Still, for all that fancy frippery, the real focal point of this meal was still those glorious green orbs; the overall combination easily a-peas’d my appetite.

Pumped for Pumpkin Season

Throughout all of the seasonal upheaval, one thing that cooks and connoisseur both look forward to with a certain child-like glee is the return of the pumpkin. Like clockwork, the blogosphere will be inundated with pumpkin soups, pumpkin cakes, and pumpkin smoothies and in no time at all, the sting of losing summer will begin to fade. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. For the past couple of years though, mother nature has thwarted this comfortable transition, finding new ways to wipe out the current crop of pumpkins and create mass panic amongst foodies everywhere. This year it’s the devastation of hurricane Irene that’s driving shoppers to wipe grocery store shelves of canned pumpkin clean, stock piling for the inevitable shortage – Mostly caused by other people stuffing their pantries as well, rather than any actual scarcity.

Very reluctantly using one of my last remaining and so very precious cans of the orange squash puree, I set out to ease the pain of entering into full fledged autumn and create something special. Pumpkin ravioli, each delicate envelope of thin pasta packed with savory, slightly cheesy pumpkin goodness, sounded like the perfect option. The good news and bad news is that the pumpkin element ended up being pushed out of the spotlight, upstaged by the unassuming supporting actor; the sauce. Yes, it was all about the sauce.

A simple “cream” sauce enriched with chopped mushrooms for that extra umami umph, it’s a versatile accompaniment that wears many hats. Pairing beautifully with all sorts of autumnal dishes, you could also pour a generous dollop over fluffy, homemade biscuits and call it gravy, and it takes on that extra role without missing a beat. It may not be particularly innovative, but with so much seasonal upheaval, sometimes classic comfort food really is best.

So the ravioli were a bit disappointing, but by no means bad. The good news in this situation is that since the pumpkin didn’t stand out, you could seamlessly substitute pureed butternut squash, sweet potato, parsnips, or pretty much any slightly sweet winter squash or root vegetable. Just mix 1 cup of puree with 1/4 cup of vegan parmesan, plus a pinch of salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and stuff about 1 – 2 teaspoons between two wonton wrappers, dabbing the edges with water to seal. Simmer the ravioli very gently for just 2 – 3 minutes, until the wontons are al dente. Toss with mushroom creme sauce, and forget all about that awful pumpkin shortage.

Mushroom Creme Sauce/Gravy

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Chopped
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
16 Ounces Cremini or Button Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
2 Cups Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1/4 Cup Vegan Parmesan
2 Tablespoons Chickpea Flour
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Set a large skillet with high sides or a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Allow the oil to get nice and hot before adding in the onion, and sauteeing it for 8 – 10 minutes so that it softens and begins to barely take on color. Add in the minced garlic along with the chopped mushrooms, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 5 – 6 minutes. The mushrooms should reduce significantly in size.

Separately, whisk together the “milk” of your choosing, thyme, “parmesan,” and chickpea flour until smooth. Pour this mixture into the skillet or saucepan, and stir well. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan frequently to ensure that nothing burns. Cook for another 6 – 8 minutes, or until the liquid thickens and bubbles begin to break on the surface. Turn off the heat, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve while hot!

Makes Enough for 3 – 4 Servings of Ravioli

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