Debbie Matthews: Chef Boy Are Me

Apr. 09, 2013 @ 03:43 PM

Chef Boyardee ain’t got nothing on me.
Growing up, the only ravioli I ever ate was the stuff in the can. It’s nowhere near authentic Italian, but I can still put away an entire can of that stuff all by myself.
Even though there will always be a soft spot in my heart (and belly) for the canned, my tastes have grown up. So I now appreciate fresh, homemade pastas and sauces.
Sometimes, I even make my own.
Back in the stone age, I worked at a country club. I was a bartender, but I was fascinated by the goings on in the kitchen. Luckily for me, the chefs took me under their collective wings, and indulged me and my endless curiosity.
I would show up early for work, and they kindly gave me tutorials every day. Those funny, generous folks answered all my questions, and let me help, when the outcome of my experimentation wouldn’t hurt anyone.
One night, the club had an Italian dinner. They set up stations for various pasta dishes that they prepared and served on the spot.
At this point in my life, there were two types of sauce for Italian food – my mom’s Sunday gravy, which is red sauce and meatballs, and Alfredo sauce.
But then I spied a station that was producing ravioli. As I got closer, I could smell this bright fresh scent of garlic, olive oil and tomatoes.
I sidled over to George, one of my favorite people at the club. By this time, he knew me well enough to know I wanted in. He offered a plate without my having to beg.
It was a mushroom ravioli. Great.
But the star of that sample was the amazing sauce. It was simple—only four ingredients. But it was slam full of flavor and the texture was perfect.
The ravioli and simple dressing was the very definition of gestalt—the whole dish was greater than the sum of its parts. I was in heaven.
I didn’t even have to ask for the recipe—it was all right there on my plate.

Tomato Sugo Fresca
2 pints grape tomatoes, quartered
4-6 cloves garlic, grated or put through press
4 scallions, sliced thin
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
Heat skillet and pour in olive oil. Put garlic in pan and cook just until it picks up a little color and you can smell the aroma. Pour in tomatoes, and sauté until they just start to release their juice. Add scallions. Season with salt and lots of pepper. Serve over pasta.

Every grocery store has some kind of fresh pasta these days. You can choose any one of a hundred different raviolis for this meal.
But instead, what about making homemade ravioli? I do.
You don’t know how to make pasta, and even if you did, you don’t have a pasta machine?
Don’t worry, neither do I.
I cheat.
In the produce section of the supermarket they usually have wonton wrappers.
Guess what they make them from? Pasta. And, they’re already rolled out and cut to shape.

Rogue Ravioli
2 pounds mushrooms, finely chopped
1 shallot, diced
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese (may be omitted for vegan version)
3 cloves garlic put through press
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Wonton wrappers
Pour oil into hot skillet, add mushrooms, and cook until all the liquid is gone. Add garlic, and toss until it’s incorporated and you can smell it. Remove from heat and add cheese. Place in fridge and allow to cool.
To assemble: Lay out line of wontons. Place 2 teaspoons of filling on each. Run moistened finger completely around the edges. Place another wrapper on top. Carefully make sure there are no air bubbles and seal the two pieces together. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
To cook: Carefully lower ravioli into gently boiling water and cook for two to three minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and slide into prepared sauce.
Plate and serve.

They’re silky and delicious. And, nobody will guess you cheated a bit.
While I’d love to take credit for this, I’m afraid I can’t. Years ago, Chef Chrissie, my culinary sensai, visited. He had taught me to make duck confit, duck legs cooked very slowly in its own fat.
We had a bunch. It’s terrific eaten straight. But Chrissie decided to do ravioli with it. And because we had spent hours cooking the duck, C didn’t have the heart to put me through the work of making fresh pasta.
Thus, the wonton trick.
Honestly, I cannot tell the difference between fresh and Memorex.
And there is no reason to clue in your impressed diners, either.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is