Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Turn the humble beet into an elegant ravioli dish.
This recipe's Venetian name is quite a mouthful -- you'll be forgiven for simply calling them ravioli. Casunziei are typical of Italy's northeastern region of Veneto in the Dolomites mountain range.
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This half moon-shaped pasta is usually handmade and stuffed with a vegetable filling. Depending on the town it's made in, the filling can be comprised of beets, turnips, spinach, wild chives, or radicchio and served very simply with butter and a grating of Parmesan. Making any filled pasta by hand is always a bit of a process, but it's always a treat to eat. These ravioli were traditionally reserved for special occasions -- from Christmas to birthdays to special Sunday family meals.
Though casunziei are a treat today, their origins are quite humble. The filling was traditionally made with produce from a backyard vegetable garden or picked wild, straight out the fields -- in other words, it used up cheap and plentiful seasonal ingredients.
The most well known casunziei are the ones from the Ampezzo Valley: They're filled with lightly spiced beets in a poppy seed and butter dressing. The sweet flavor and deep red color of the beets makes these ravioli quite elegant and unique.
Traditional recipes sometimes throw in a potato or turnip with the beets. Once boiled and puréed, the mixture is cooked with garlic and spices until some of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture can stand up on its own. The fresh pasta, rolled until paper-thin and cut into rounds with a glass, is filled and sealed, and then the casunziei are gently boiled. They are served simply with melted butter, a sprinkling of poppy seeds, and grated cheese.
It's a straightforward preparation where the quality of the beets is of the utmost importance -- they are what sings. They make a mighty pretty presentation, too. Use fresh, firm beets -- don't even attempt to do this with canned, pre-cooked ones. English-language recipes always combine the stuffing with a nontraditional overload of ricotta cheese, but the authentic vegetable-only filling is quite refreshing. It's nice to have an un-cheesy, un-meaty ravioli dish for a change. Try it, and you'll see.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.