Tales of a wandering lesbian

Ravioli

A trip to see my family is a trip regulated by meals.  We’re planning lunch and dinner while eating breakfast.  My trip this Christmas was no exception.

The first meal I had with my parents was on the way back from the airport.  Dad was excited about a barbecue place, and I wasn’t so hungry, so we headed to some ranch-styled chain near the Boise mall.  I was still finding it difficult to figure out what to eat (a problem since my return to the states).  I thought a barbecue joint would probably have exactly one option for a vegetarian, which would make my choice easier, but this place had two – so I ordered both.

When we sat down at the table I laughed out loud.

BBQ roll

Along with several bottles of bbq sauce, Each table was outfitted with its own roll of paper towels – you know, just in case.  I ate about half of the salad and side of mixed veggies I ordered, and packed the leftovers home.

The next morning’s breakfast was much more exciting.  Like Portland, Ketchum has a number of really excellent restaurants.  Eating at restaurants I knew meant ordering from familiar menus.  This morning it was “Huevos Kneadery” at “The Kneadery”, a restaurant that has been around as long as I can remember.  Eggs (over-medium), black beans, cheese, salsa, avocado and sour cream in a tortilla or two occupied me as I remembered how to eat again.

Huevos Kneadery

The fresh cookies on the way out helped, too.

The following days were filled with several pizzas, frequent coffee outings (my dad likes to go every Wednesday and Friday when the local paper comes out), and fantastic home-cooked meals.  The most important of those meals was, and always is, Christmas dinner, when we have my mom’s ravioli.

There is a day sometime in November that is set aside for ravioli-making.  Mom gets out the food processor, the pasta-rolling machine, and her immense Formica cutting-board.  Dad sets aside the better part of the day to assist in the folding, cutting and crimping that will ensue.

Over the years, I’ve watched them assemble the pasta, and on occasion, have been allowed to help as well.  The making of the ravioli is serious business.  Everything from the amount of flour on the cutting board to the type of fork used to crimp the edges makes a difference in the way they turn out.  Mom, who grew up watching her grandmother hand-roll the pasta dough is a master.  Dad, the heir to a distinctly non-Italian, German tradition, has proven himself a capable helper.  I, however, have proven that I can push too hard with the fork, turning a well-crimped edge into pasta fringe.  I can whip up a darn good timbalo or saffron ricotta sauce, but the ravioli is an item I’ve yet to master.  I’m hoping to take on the challenge in the next year or so.

The ravioli come in two kinds on Christmas:  cheese and meat.  The cheese version is ricotta and spinach, and the meat is ground beef and spinach (correct me if I’m off, Mom).  Both are delicious, and until last year, Mom’s ravioli was one of the few exceptions to my vegetarianism.

In addition to the ravioli, Mom makes her sauce from scratch.  She starts with a roast – or two – tomato paste and sauce and other stuff, and lets it cook all day long.  One of the great treats of going home is walking into the house in the afternoon to the smell of the sauce simmering away.  From the time she was tall enough to lift the lid, my sister has been sneaking tastes.  First it was with string-cheese dipped into the deep red sauce.  More often now, it’s with bread – my mom’s excellent rolls if they’re available.

No, the sauce is not strictly vegetarian, but I remove as much of the meat particles as I can see, and remind myself that even the Dali Lama eats meat every other day.  I might eat only the cheese ravs, but I’m not willing to give up the sauce.

About an hour before dinner is served, the grand ravioli count begins.  A complex calculation takes place.  It includes the number of people in the room, their relative hungriness, as well as an evaluation of past performance on the part of the eaters.  Some kind of an algorithm is employed to tell my mom and dad exactly how many dozen meat and cheese ravioli should be brought from the basement freezer where they have been stored, spread in single layers, in plastic bags.

The ravs are big.  The squares measure about 3-4 inches on each side.  Cooking takes a while, and is done with extreme care and delicacy.  If one bursts, the parts are fished out to be tested, or added to the leftover bin.  Not much is ever wasted.  They are too precious.

There was one year my family didn’t spend at my parent’s house.  I had surgery, and my family came to Oregon for Christmas.  Along with presents, they packed ravioli and sauce in a cooler.  And there was a fabled year when mom sent a similar care package cross-country to her sister who was spending the holiday in Massachusetts.  Nothing interrupts the ravioli.

When it is time, the ravioli are brought to the table last, after everyone is seated, and remain in the center of the table, people passing plates to those sitting closest, and calling out orders “2 meat and 3 cheese!”

Ravioli

When the ravioli are made, they are marked.  They are pierced one way with a fork for cheese and another for meat.  Even though they are placed on separate ends of the platter, the markings can help with identification.  And Identification is something of an art at the dinner table.  “That’s a cheese.”  “No, it’s a meat.”  “Give it here and I’ll find out.”  The cheese seem to flatten out while the meat poof up ever so slightly.  It’s more of a parlor game to see who can identify them the best.  Nobody is really disappointed if they end up with the wrong kind on their plate, and I can always find someone to take a stray meat rav off my hands.

In my mind, there are three things that must accompany the ravioli – aside from cheese, I mean that’s just a given: a great crystal bowl of sauce and meat, just in case; my mom’s rolls (they are super-tasty, but super-sticky to make); and olives.  Pitted, extra-large, black olives are always passed around the table for my mom, aunt, sister and me to put on our fingers and wave around briefly before devouring them.  There are always other things on the table for Christmas.  A ham was incorporated into the meal when my brother-in-law was incorporated into the family.  A few slices are eaten, but the main attraction is the ravioli.

We each have our own ways of eating them.  I favor a quadrant approach.  I carefully cut each rav into four, square pieces.  They are perfect bite-sizes (pretty much the size of your average store-bought ravioli).  That way each bite has the same proportion of dough to filling.  It is a tradition of rituals, and the method of eating is a deeply personal one.  (I’d never think of criticizing the way someone eats their ravioli.)  There are others, however, that are distinctly communal.

As the eating begins, so does the counting.  A close accounting is kept, and regular reports made to the table, as though the number of raviolis a person eats secretly determines whether they will get into heaven.  There are great ravioli controversies surrounding the most consumed by one person at my mother’s table.  There is a legend of a guest eating 21 in a sitting.  I was there for the alleged incidentt, as was nearly everyone else in my family, but over the years the number has become so fuzzy that none of us knows  exactly what happened that night.  (It wasn’t Christmas, so I’m pretty sure the accounting wasn’t as critical.)  I know that I, personally, have maxed out at 14 ravioli, and my aunt at 12, because we were competing one year.  (I won.)  But, in a sane year like this one, I stopped at 6 and had room for pumpkin and apple pie.

Every year someone exclaims the ultimate praise, “I think these are the best you’ve ever made!”  Most years, Mom smiles kindly and goes back to eating – the ravs are always good.  But some years, she looks down at the piece on her fork, studies it carefully, and nods her head, “they really are good this year, aren’t they.”  And then one of us will pass a plate calling out “I want that meat one right there – no there.  Thanks!” as another of us waves an olive-laden finger in the air.

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1 comment

1 Big Mama { 01.07.10 at 6:34 am }

Just for the record……the cheese contain ricotta, paremsan, parsley, etc…….. the meat contain beef, spinach, etc……..
They were yummy this year!!

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