My strongest olfactory memory of childhood is gradually waking up on Sunday morning to the smell (perfume is a better characterization as far as I’m concerned) of garlic being sautéed in olive oil.
That was how most Sundays started.
My mother would get up early and start making her long-simmered Southern Italian Tomato Sauce (referred to as Ragu or Sugo if one’s Italian roots were close, “Gravy” if one grew up in New York or nearby, and often just “Sauce”). We unceremoniously called it “Spaghetti Sauce” though it was used on much more than spaghetti!
I think the better part of my culinary-cultural history is represented by that sauce. Every Italian family’s sauce is different, even if stylistic similarities can be identified. The sauces made by my mother and her two sisters that I knew, Aunt Margie and Aunt Mamie, were clearly related but also different. Each was good but it’s not as if they didn’t deviate from my Grandmother’s recipe. They were similar in that garlic and meat were browned in oil; tomato products, water, and seasonings were added; and the whole thing simmered for hours. The meats varied, the tomato products (tomato paste, tomato puree, whole canned tomatoes, etc.) and the proportions of them definitely varied as did the seasonings and other aromatics.
My mother’s “Spaghetti Sauce” to call it by its “historic” name, a name that I no longer use, is, without doubt, my most precious culinary treasure. I have only ever given the recipe out twice. In the 1970’s I gave it to John Bowker and his wife Margaret Roper Bowker. John was the dean of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Recently I gave it to Robert Reddington and John O’Malley in Palm Springs after Bob lamented the loss of the recipe for the long-simmered tomato sauce he learned to make while living in Chicago.
With my mother’s sauce as the near-constant backdrop to our Sunday dinners, the rest of the meal varied. The sauce could be served with spaghetti or some other cut of dry pasta, or with my mother’s home-made fettuccine, or with ravioli. Although my favorite pasta is gnocchi, we never had those on Sundays as my father didn’t like them. Gnocchi (always home-made) were reserved for a weeknight meal during the times that my father worked out of town.
The sauce has an abundant amount of meat in it, pork, always cut in big pieces, never ground or chopped. Nonetheless, the pasta was often accompanied by my mother’s slow-cooked roast pork or maybe a roast chicken.
It seems incongruous now, but in the 1960s, before the widespread use of antibiotics, chickens were expensive! (I’m not in favor of the prophylactic use of antibiotics but I’m just saying that’s why chickens are relatively inexpensive now.) I still have a handful of my mother’s “City Chicken” sticks from the 1960s. They are round, pointed sticks slimmer than a pencil but thicker than bamboo skewers. Pieces of pork and veal would be skewered in alternating fashion on the sticks, breaded, and fried like chicken drumsticks. This was less expensive than chicken!!
But back to Sundays…
Sometimes, after the sauce was bubbling away, my mother would make ravioli. Next to gnocchi, they are my favorite pasta, but manicotti and lasagna aren’t far behind.
We would eat our big meal around 1 PM on Sunday and my mother would get all of this done in time for that meal, including taking time to go to church, during which my Aunt Mamie, who lived upstairs, would be tasked with stirring the “Spaghetti Sauce.”
Making ravioli in a group is a lot more fun. I also find that making the ravioli on a different day from the day they are cooked and eaten means that I am not as tired and I enjoy them more. The pictures in this post are from a Sunday when I got together with Rich DePippo, Susan Vinci-Lucero, and my in-laws, Marisa and Frank Pieri, to make ravioli. I think we made about 30 dozen ravioli!
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The filling can be made a day in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered. Ravioli freeze well. To do so, lightly flour a sheet pan that will fit in your freezer and put the ravioli in a single layer. Freeze about 30-45 minutes, until firm. Quickly put the ravioli in a zipper-lock bag and return to the freezer. Repeat with the remaining ravioli. My mother always made her dough by hand but I use a kitchen mixer and the beater, not the dough hook. Years ago, ground meat was not labeled with the percent fat. My mother would select a cut of sirloin, have the butcher trim off all visible fat and then grind it. I find that 93% lean ground beef replicates the experience.
Put the frozen spinach in a small saucepan. Add a few tablespoons of water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is completely thawed.
Pour the spinach into a large sieve.
After the spinach has cooled enough to handle, squeeze handfuls of the spinach to remove as much liquid as possible.
Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan until shimmering. Add the beef.
Cook over high heat until the liquid has evaporated, breaking up the meat while cooking.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt, and black pepper to taste. Continue to sauté for 2-3 minutes more.
Add the spinach to the beef.
Continue to cook over medium to medium-low heat while breaking up the spinach and completely combining it with the beef.
When the beef and spinach are well combined and no obvious liquid remains in the pan, add the beaten egg. Stir well and cook two minutes more. The egg should completely incorporate into the filling and no longer be visible.
Adjust salt and pepper.
On low heat, add 1/4-1/3 cup of breadcrumbs and combine well to absorb any remaining liquid or oil. If necessary to absorb any remaining liquid, add another tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs. If you cooked off all the liquid when browning the beef, and used lean beef, 1/3 cup of breadcrumbs should be enough.
Cool the filling to room temperature before filling the ravioli.
Put the flour, egg, and egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer outfitted with a paddle.
Mix on low until combined.
Add the water, a little at a time, until the dough just comes together. The dough should not be the slightest bit tacky. You may not need all the water.
Remove the dough from the mixer and roll into a log. Cover with a kitchen towel and allow to rest for 15 to 30 minutes before rolling out.
Set up your pasta machine, either a hand crank version or an attachment for your mixer.
Cut off a small handful of dough.
Flatten the dough, dust with flour, and run it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting.
If the dough is catching on the rollers it may be too wet. Sprinkle liberally with flour.
Run the dough through the same setting one more time.
Run the dough through the pasta machine narrowing the setting by one notch each time. If the dough is getting too long to cover much more than two lengths of the ravioli mold, cut off the excess and continue.
When rolling out the dough, use slow, even motion. If the dough is not rolling out to the full width of the machine, or at least wide enough to cover the width of the ravioli mold, fold it in half crosswise and run it through the machine again on whatever the last setting was.
If the dough is not rolling out smoothly, and the issue is not that it is too damp, run the dough through the machine again on the same setting.
On most pasta machines with five settings for thickness, you will want to stop rolling out the dough on the next-to-thinnest setting.
Put the rolled out dough on a lightly floured surface and cover with a kitchen towel. Repeat with 2 or 3 more portions of dough.
Allow the remaining dough to rest, covered, while filling and cutting the first batch of ravioli.
To fill the ravioli, take the rolled out dough and lay it across the ravioli mold.
Add a slightly rounded teaspoonful of filling to each ravioli. Do not overfill or the ravioli may break when being cooked.
Fold the dough over the top.
Lightly pat the top sheet of dough.
Using a rolling pin, cut the dough along the zig-zag edges. Be careful to fully cut through the dough around the edges as well as between each raviolo.
Remove the ravioli and place on a lightly floured surface. Cover lightly with a kitchen towel.
The word sformato in Italian means deformed or shapeless. When applied to food, standard Italian-English dictionaries often translate it as pie or soufflé. It is none of the above.
A sformato is most definitely not deformed or shapeless. In fact, a food historian described a sformato as “something that was cooked in the mould [sic] and then extracted from it” (Alexandra Grigorieva, NamingAuthenticity and Regional Italian Cuisine in Authenticity in the Kitchen: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005, edited by Richard Hosking). Nor is a sformato really a pie or a soufflé as those terms are usually used. It has no crust of any sort, as would a pie. It is not puffy like a souffle. Sometimes it doesn’t even contain eggs.
A sformato is most often made of vegetables, usually bound with some combination of eggs, cream, cheese, and/or béchamel (balsamella in Italian), and cooked in a baking dish. I think the best English translation of the word is casserole.
Sformato di Spinaci, spinach sformato (or, reluctantly, spinach casserole), is one of those dishes that has iconic status in my husband’s family. Like Merluzzo in Umido, the recipe came from Italy with his grandmother whom we called Nonni. Nonni is one of those made up words that sometimes take hold in a family based on mispronunciations of little kids. The Italian word for grandmother is Nonna. However, Nonni is to Nonna as Gramma is to Grandmother.
Just as Pasta Ascuitta has only one meaning in my family, Sformato has only one meaning in my husband’s. If you simply say “sformato,” everyone knows you mean spinach sformato, and not, for example, cauliflower sformato.
I first had sformato at Christmas Dinner at my in-law’s house in 1989. Although I had been cooking northern Italian food since 1973 based largely on Marcella Hazan’s wonderful cookbooks, that Christmas was really the beginning of my learning to make some of my husband’s family’s northern Italian favorites. It’s really a whole different taste profile from the southern Italian dishes I grew up with.
I’ve actually taken a heretical twist with my interpretation of Nonni’s sformato. I’ve added a little balsamella for moisture. This was most definitely not in the original, though it is not an uncommon addition to sformato. If you want to make the original version, just leave out the balsamella. It will be a little drier. You might want to not squeeze the spinach quite as tightly if you don’t include the balsamella.
Sformato di Spinaci (Spinach Sformato or Spinach Casserole)
Nonni always made this with ground beef but Italian sausage, casing removed and crumbled, works really well (a bit of southern Italian heresy creeping in!). It can also be made without meat, but the amount of spinach should be increased by an additional 10 oz. to a total of 30 oz. I have occasionally used fresh spinach but, honestly, frozen chopped spinach works just fine. I doubt you could reliably tell the difference in a side-by-side comparison of fresh vs. frozen spinach in this dish.
Cook the frozen spinach in a heavy bottomed sauce pan tightly covered until thawed, breaking up the spinach from time to time.
As soon as the spinach is thawed, pour the contents of the pan into a fine mesh sieve and allow the spinach to drain and cool.
When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze small handfuls of the spinach to remove excess water.
Cut through the mass of squeezed spinach about eight or ten times with a knife then rub it through your fingers to loosen it. It will be pretty tightly wadded up from squeezing out the liquid.
Brown the ground beef or sausage in olive oil over medium heat. You want to get some really browned bits of meat for the flavor. Don't make the mistake of just cooking the meat until it is no longer pink.
When the meat is nicely browned, add the onion and cook until golden and soft. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
Combine the meat mixture and spinach in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper and allow to cool briefly.
Meanwhile, make the breadcrumbs by removing the crusts from a slice of two-day old home-style white bread. Tear the bread into pieces and whiz in a food processor until processed into evenly sized crumbs. Reserve.
Melt the butter and toss with the breadcrumbs. Reserve.
Make the balsamella (see directions below).
Add the balsamella to the cooled meat and spinach mixture. Stir well, loosening up the spinach. When well combined, stir in the eggs. Be certain that the mixture is not so hot that it cooks the eggs.
Reserve two tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese and mix the remainder into the spinach-meat-balsamella mixture.
Pour the spinach mixture into a buttered 9-inch round or 8-inch square baking dish. Sprinkle top with the buttered crumbs and reserved Parmesan cheese.
Bake at 350°F for approximately 60 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
For the balsamella
Heat the milk in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan until bubbles begin to form around the edges. Do not bring the milk to a boil.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour when the foam subsides. Cook for several minutes without browning.
Add the milk, approximately two tablespoonsful at a time, mixing well after each addition. Adding the milk in small amounts should allow you to stir out any lumps before adding the next bit of milk.
After all the milk has been added, bring to a boil and cook for one minute, until thickened.
Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg.
This recipe doubles well. If you want to cook a double recipe in a single pan, use a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish. Bake at 325°F rather than 350°F as it will brown too much around the outside before the inside is cooked. If necessary, raise the heat to 375°F at the very end, and put the sformato on the top shelf of the oven, to brown the top.
If you want to use fresh spinach, use 2 pounds instead of the 20 ounces of frozen spinach. Remove the stems. Wash the spinach, shaking off most of the water. Put the spinach in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven with just the liquid clinging to the leaves. Cook covered, over medium heat till fully wilted. Drain and proceed as above with the exception that you will need to do much more chopping of the cooked and squeezed spinach than the eight to ten cuts suggested above.