January 26, 2011

Singled Out: Discerning Flavors

After my sophomore year in college I moved off campus and never went back to living with everyone else.  I never missed being on campus- the constant chatter and noise of living in such close proximity to other people- having never felt the sense of community that others got from living, sleeping, working, breathing and eating in the same place as so many other people.  But there was one community that I did feel a part of and that was a handful of other English majors that also lived off campus.  In fact, when we had to be on campus for lunch because of an afternoon class following a morning class, a small group of us would eat together.  That is to say we would sneak in the backdoor of the dining hall and pretend like we belonged there.  Sometimes we pulled out bag lunches and sometimes we would sneak into the actual cafeteria and get lunch. One thing that we loved to do was play a little game with the juice machines. Every time we had lunch, one person would go to the juice machines and create an original juice that was brought back to the table to be dissected by correctly identifying each juice that composed the drink. In the name of strict competition we had two rules: no premixed juices (i.e. cranberry grape) and no more than five juices per concoction.  The rest of lunch was spent picking apart the drink and whoever correctly named all (or most) of the juices contained within the drink was the winner and felt the glory of victory for the day. If there was no winner or only one juice correctly named the glory went to the mixer who won the right to mix the next drink.  Winning is always best and I particularly liked the challenged of trying to identify the flavors.

As I began a more serious interest in eating and flavors and thus cooking, I found that I would play this game with myself while out to eat at restaurants or eating something new.  I also found myself trying to recreate my old off campus lunch crew tenor by testing others when I made a dish that I thought particularly flavorful.  Most people were generally were less interested in knowing what flavors comprised the dish than in spooning out another serving.  My delight in stumping them was stymied; they simply did not care.

It wasn’t until my sister in law, Paula, suggested that we make ravioli with wonton wrappers that it occurred to me to take my indentifying game one step further. At the mention of ravioli, I immediately thought of my favorite dish- the wood fired spinach ravioli in a mushroom cream sauce topped with melted cheese at Sarducci’s in Montpelier, Vermont. It was one of those dishes that you can’t not order.  I had been trying to not order this dish for years, to no avail. My impression of myself as a cook would soar if I could figure out how to replicate this delicious meal. I felt certain that people would stand and applaud at the dinner table after I served such a dinner. Wasting no time, I quickly found a recipe for spinach ravioli stuffing and set about trying to create a creamy sauce to bake it in.  My sauce had everything that I imagined was in the Sarducci’s sauce- white wine, sautéed onions and mushrooms, maybe some parmesan cheese and was delicious, but not exact. While I knew it would never be exact I wanted it to be closer.

So I started tweaking. 

The next time, I tried for a thicker sauce, by adding a little flour. Too mushy, too pasty. Next I tried adding a little chicken broth to thin the sauce and add a little more flavor. Too salty, too watery.  I tried shallots instead of plain onions, I sprinkled with pine nuts, I added garlic (and kicked myself for forgetting garlic in an Italian recipe!), I added parmesan, I cut the parmesan. I added mozzarella to top the bake, then tried fontina. Heavy cream? Half and half? I made the dish so many times I actually got a little tired of it. Well, my version of it anyway because every time I went to Sarducci’s, I still found myself ordering it. In the spirit of my lunch crew, I tried hard to isolate the flavors and this helped me get closer to recreating. But something was still missing. And then it finally hit me one spring evening while dining on Sarducci’s porch with my husband.  The waitress set the plate down in front of me and I noticed something for the first time- the small, dark green pieces of herb that were mixed so nonchalantly in the sauce. What was it? I examined it, lifted out a mushroom covered in sauce and melted cheese and took a bite trying to focus and isolate the flavor- thyme! I marveled at my inability to identify this flavor for so long- how could I have missed it?
Thyme! I said aloud, that’s what I’ve been missing! My husband sat across the table from me, fresh bread dripping with Sarducci’s oil and garlic in hand. He smiled, supportive of the discovery but clearly not getting how exciting this was. I win the game! I identified the missing flavor! Competish was mine! And my next spinach ravioli bake would compel him to stand and applaud. The real victory in the juice game was not identifying the flavors but in using them after you identified them.

Below find the original recipe I used to make the filling.  It is from the Whole Foods website (http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipes/248).  I decided to include it in this entry even though I only loosely followed it (for example, I dropped the nutmeg in the stuffing) because that is the way I like to cook with recipes- use them as a jumping off and then see where you land when you start tweaking it your own self. In fact, if this recipe is too much work for you, you can usually find a tasty freshly made spinach ravioli in the pasta section of the cooler at most grocery stores (I sometimes use Hannaford’s organic brand- Nature’s Place). The Whole Foods recipe directs you to prepare the ravioli by boiling them but because I was trying to recreate the Sarducci’s dish, I baked it. Thus, I made up the mushroom cream sauce with fresh spinach. It goes something like this:

Sautee some mushrooms, shallots, and garlic in olive oil. Add a pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.  Add some thyme and white wine and bring to a simmer for awhile. Until you think the flavors have meshed nicely.  Right at the very end, add the cream (heavy if you are feeling it, half and half if you are feeling a heart attack coming). Bring that to a simmer too but don’t let it get too hot and don’t add the cream too soon. I haven’t totally figured it out yet but it seems like the cream curdles under those conditions when added to cooking wine.  Then arrange the ravioli in a dish and toss with the sauce and fresh baby spinach.  Top with shredded mozzarella or a mixture of fontina and parmesan. Bake at 350(ish) until the sauce bubbles and the cheese is melted and toasty on top.

1/2 tablespoon olive oil 

1 shallot, finely chopped 

1/2 pound baby spinach
Salt and pepper to taste 

3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese 

8 tablespoons toasted pine nuts 

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese 

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 

Semolina flour for dusting 

1 (12-ounce) package won ton wrappers 

1 egg, beaten with 1/2 tablespoon cold water 

2 tablespoons butter

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook for about 1 minute, stirring so that they do not brown. Add spinach in a couple of batches and cook, stirring from time to time, until just wilted. Season with salt and pepper, mix well and transfer to a bowl. Let spinach cool to room temperature, then place in fridge to cool further, about 20 minutes. Remove spinach and squeeze into small balls with your hands to release as much liquid as possible. Discard liquid. Finely chop spinach and combine with ricotta, 6 tablespoons of the pine nuts, 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper to make the filling for the ravioli.
Dust a clean work surface with semolina flour. Place about 5 won ton wrappers on the surface, arranging them so that they don't touch. Using a spoon, place a small amount of filling in the center of each wrapper. Lightly brush the egg and water mixture on all four edges of the wrappers. Carefully place another won ton wrapper on top of the filling. To seal it shut, start at one corner and press the edges all the way around. Try not to leave any air bubbles inside of the ravioli as this may cause the ravioli to burst when cooked. Place ravioli on a rimmed baking sheet lightly dusted with semolina flour as done. Dust each layer of ravioli on the baking sheet with the semolina flour, place a piece of waxed paper over them and continue layering. Repeat until all wrappers are used. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook. (If cooking will not be done the same day, ravioli can be stored in a sealed plastic bag and frozen for up to a week. They can be cooked directly out from the freezer; thawing is not necessary.) 

Bring about 3 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add ravioli and cook, stirring gently so they do not stick to each other, for about 3 minutes or until cooked through. Reserve a few tablespoons of the pasta water. 

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large skillet over low heat until foaming. When ravioli are cooked, drain and add them to skillet. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons pine nuts and 1 tablespoon Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. (If dry, add a tablespoon or two of the reserved pasta water.) Serve immediately.


  1. That's what 'he'January 26, 2011 at 6:40 PM

    Mmmm...mmmmm, just reading the details of your journey for conquest made me hungry, I can't wait to try it, but I want it now! So hungry.... ;)

  2. In fact, I would be happy to applaud you after I taste your version of this. I would stand for at least three minutes applauding.
    Seriously, I enjoyed reading this very much. Great touches of humor.

  3. Sounds absolutely scrumptious...but how 'bout we just make a date for Sarduccis the next time I'm home?

  4. @Matt- maybe I'll make it for your birthday?
    @Rachel- thanks for reading! 3 minutes is a long time, but I think it would inspire you too clap that long!
    @Maria- most def!