Citrus season is an exciting time for those of us living in temperate zones. In fact, I know some who would argue that citrus is the only good thing about winter (I would retort that...
This is a good time of year.
Leaves are just starting to litter our front deck, and they scuttle and shuffle when the wind blows, dragging themselves in a whispery mêlée across the mottled boards.
The fields are textured and bright with goldenrod and ironweed, and the weeds grow tall and spindly as the days shorten.
We leave the doors open all day now, soaking in the cooler, clearer air that washes down the holler. Every once in a while, I get a chill. A lovely, bristling chill.
Autumn, more than any other season, represents change to me. It's in the sky and in the low-angled light. The days are more mercurial than the smoldering monotony of late summer--there is wind and rain, and we pull out a sweater or two.
There are a few bellwethers that signify this change, and I always look for them around early to mid-August. If you've lived out in the country long enough, you can almost read the seasons in the fields. The ironweed and Joe Pye weed start to flower. Shamelessly red cardinal flower crops up sporadically. Black walnuts start to fall from high branches. Then, we get a rainy spell. The temperature dips into the 70s, and the earth exhales.
Soon enough, the change in the fields is mirrored by a change at the markets. Where before there were baskets of tomatoes and eggplant, bunches of kale and mounds of butternut squash start to inch their way towards domination of the market table.
As much as we love our tomatoes around here, we are glad to see the season for them end, especially if we have quarts of them stacked high in our pantry. And with cooler evenings, we are all relieved to see the piquant flavors of summer fading into something more satisfying and voluptuous.
Butternut squash is just the thing. These orange-fleshed winter squashes can be cubed and roasted to caramelized perfection; they can be split down the middle, baked, and puréed for a warming soup or more flavorful substitute for mashed potatoes; they can be used instead of pumpkin to flavor breads and desserts. The Joy of Cooking has a great recipe for butternut squash filled with a sausage and apple stuffing. But one of my favorite applications for butternut squash is as a filling for ravioli.
Homemade ravioli is a weekend project for sure, but not as daunting as you might think. A simple eggy pasta dough can be mixed together in five minutes, and the butternut squash needed for this recipe can be baked and scooped out of its skin well ahead of time. Ravioli also has the benefit of being a lot easier to pull together than homemade tortellini, and it holds more filling, giving you more of that intensely delicious butternut flavor.
If you have a lot of butternut squash on your hands, I recommend making a bunch of ravioli at once and freezing what you don't eat right away. Being able to pull a warming, satisfying meal from the freezer on a cold winter's night is something of a luxury. If you do this, freeze the ravioli in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet before putting them in labeled freezer bags. This way, they don't stick together during the freezing process, and you can put enough ravioli for one meal in each bag.
You can make prep much of this recipe well ahead of time. Make the filling up to a couple days in advance, and be sure to make the paste dough an hour in advance. You can cheat using wonton wrappers, but it won't be quite as toothsome and delicious as a homemade dough. This recipe is from the Joy of Cooking.
Prepare the filling. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking pan with foil. Cut lengthwise in half:
1 medium butternut squash (1½ pounds)
Scoop out the seeds and membranes. Place the halves cut side down in the pan. Bake 1 hour, or until tender when pierced with a knife. Let cool slightly, then scoop out the squash. Pass the squash through a ricer or food mill, or puree it in a food processor until smooth. You should have about 1½ cups. Mix the squash with:
½ cup grated Parmesan (2 ounces)
⅛ teaspoon grated or ground nutmeg
Salt to taste
Prepare the dough. Mound on a clean counter:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Make a well in the center and add:
3 large eggs or 4 or 5 large egg whites (about ⅔ cup)
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, drawing in some flour as you go, until the eggs are mixed and slightly thickened. Using the fingertips of one hand, gradually incorporate the flour into the eggs and blend everything into a smooth, not too stiff dough. If the dough feels too dry and crumbly, add a little water as needed. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour. Use a dough scraper or metal spatula to lift and turn the dough if it sticks.
Knead the dough until satiny and very elastic, about 10 minutes. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and wrap the pieces loosely in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at room temperature for 60 minutes before rolling it out.
After resting, roll out the pasta dough. The key to light, resilient pasta is gently stretching and pulling the sheet of dough as you roll it thinner and thinner. Whether with a rolling pin or a hand-cranked pasta machine, work with only a quarter of the pasta dough at a time, leaving the rest loosely covered.
Lightly flour a large surface and use a rolling pin to roll out one piece of the dough at a time. Try to roll the dough into long, thin 4-inch sheets rather than a circle (although, if this fails, you can always make circular ravioli). The sheets should be as thin as paper—sheer enough to see your hand clearly through it. This will take some elbow grease, but the effort will be worth it.
Trim the edges of the dough. On the bottom half of a sheet of pasta, place ½ teaspoon mounds of the filling spaced 1 inch apart. Dip your finger in water and run it around each mound of the filling. Fold over the unfilled half of the pasta sheet, taking care to cover each mound so that no air is trapped. With the side of your hand, press firmly between the mounds of filling to seal. Use a pizza cutter or pastry wheel to cut the sheet into squares or rectangles, checking that each piece is well sealed. Place the ravioli, not touching one another, on baking sheets dusted with flour. Let stand 45 minutes to 1 hour at room temperature, turning the pieces occasionally, before cooking. Repeat with the remaining pasta and filling. To cut round ravioli, use a cookie cutter or biscuit cutter. If you want to freeze the ravioli, this is the time to do it.
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Simultaneously, heat in a medium skillet over medium heat:
2 tablespoons salted butter per serving of pasta
Brown the butter, stirring frequently to scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan, until the butter is fragrant and the milk solids have turned a deep brown (see my post on browning butter).
Boil the pasta for about 5 minutes, or until al dente. Drain and serve with the browned butter and:
(Finely chopped sage)