During the early days of my life in Rome, before I had a child, when there was just my husband James and I getting to know our new home by walking all over the city, eating in little restaurants, learning to cook by shopping in our local market, among my first impressions of life in this city was the pleasure people seemed to take in the simplest of meals. The anxieties that I often felt about eating, about making healthy choices melted away in the presence of all this delight in food. Objectively, much of the food could be considered healthy—the bean soups, the bitter greens—but health wasn’t the objective. James observed that we as outsiders could never completely understand the deep joy the Italians around us experienced when presented with a plate of pasta. A good fresh plate of ravioli with sage and butter continually reminds them of their own lives, their own history; it is a part of who they are.
So when some friends suggested that we spend a Saturday cooking dinner together with our children, I felt it was a good opportunity for my son to see how this attitude toward food is passed to another generation.
Our friend Marco, who would be our chief cook, suggested we make tortellini in brodo. He pointed out that though the tortellini we would eat for the first course are time consuming to make, the second course practically makes itself. Since you make a meat broth for the tortellini, you serve the boiled meat with a flavourful sauce as the second course. If you have the energy to cook some vegetables or toss a salad, you have a very full two-course meal.
First, we started the broth: we placed a beef bone, a piece of beef that came from the upper part of the hind leg (judging by where everyone was pointing to their own bodies when I tried to discern the cut), and a chicken leg with the thigh attached into a pot along with three large, peeled potatoes, three carrots, one onion, and two stalks of celery. We filled the pot with water and set it to boil. Marco turned it to simmer and added some dried juniper berries, cloves, pepper corns, and a small spoon of salt. He said it should simmer for at least two hours.
In the meantime, we made the tortellini. The children, who I realized are used to this sort of weekend activity, ran in and out of the kitchen. There were three of them and they played happily in another room but came to check on our progress, volunteering when things looked interesting. Marco measured flour onto the counter top and we cracked eggs into the center of the mound. At first he had me mix the dough with a fork, gradually pulling the flour into the egg.
Once it started to form a dough, Marco added a little water to keep it pliable but not too sticky. We kneaded it and rolled it into balls and then he flattened the balls enough to start feeding them through the pasta machine to create long, thin sheets of pasta.
The children took turns turning the crank and watching the dough stretch ever longer. Then Marco cut the pasta into squares* and his wife Tiziana plopped little balls of meat filling into the center. (Marco had made the filling ahead of time. In fact, he had made it for Christmas Eve dinner and put the extra in the freezer. His filling was made with ground pork, prosciutto, and mortadella with chopped rosemary.) We estimated that we needed about 200 tortellini for the seven of us. The children washed their hands and started creating them. They folded the dough over the meat and into triangles, pressing the edges to stick together. Then they folded the two side corners up and pressed them together at the top. They worked diligently to create perfect little bundles (and argued about whose were more perfect).
By the time we finished making 200 tortellini the broth was ready. Tiziana strained it into another pot and started cooking the tortellini in the broth while the children set the table. Marco gave the beef bone to our dog Lilla. Then he placed the meat on a platter, along with the potatoes and the carrots. He made a pungent sauce of chopped sun dried tomatoes, green olives, and garlic to go with it—usually it’s served with a green sauce made with garlic, parsley, and anchovies. We forgot to make the salad.
Even though we did spend half a day making dinner, it felt like a fun thing to do on a winter Saturday. The children loved making the pasta and declared them to be the best tortellini they had ever eaten. I imagine that an accumulation of days like this, a childhood full of them, is part of what turns out adults who see the meal as something more than just nutrients.
1 beef bone
1 or 2 chicken legs with the thigh attached
1 ½ pounds of beef, the muscle from the upper hind leg
3 large potatoes, peeled
3 large carrots, peeled
2 stalks of celery
1 large onion, with the ends trimmed but leave whole with the skin still on
1 tsp each of black pepper corns, dried juniper berries, small dried cloves, salt
8 cups of water
Place everything into a stock pot or a very large pot with the water, cover, and turn on to boil. Reduce to a simmer and allow it to bubble for 2 or 3 hours.
Strain the broth into another pot. Remove the meat, potatoes, and carrots, and serve with a salsa verde.
1 large bunch of parsley (about 4 cups worth)
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp of capers
3 or 4 tblsp of olive oil
A pinch or two of salt (maybe—taste it first)
Place everything except the salt into a food processor and whiz it up. It might be salty enough from the anchovies and the capers, but if it needs another pinch, go ahead.
10 oz of flour (hard wheat flour, type 00)
3 eggs, plus one yolk
A little water to keep the dough pliable
Pour the flower into a mound on a clean, dry counter or smooth table top. Make a well in the flour and crack the eggs plus the one yolk into it. Mix the yolks with the white with a fork and gradually incorporate the flour into the center with the eggs. If it becomes too dry, add a little water. You want a ball of dough that is pliable but not too sticky. Knead the dough with the heel of your hand. Hold the ball with one hand and push the dough down and out with your other hand. Do this several times until the dough feels silky and smooth.
Divide the dough into five balls. Flatten one of them into a flat oval and start feeding it through the pasta machine. Start with the rollers set at the widest setting. At each pass, adjust the tension so that it squeezes the pasta a little thinner and longer each time. Do this about four or five times until it’s a little firmer than paper. Then lay it on a floured surface and cut into squares of about 2 inches. We didn’t measure, but just guessed. You need to make roughly 25 tortellini per person. Marco says if you make more, they’ll just eat more. We made more.
1 bunch of rosemary, finely chopped (about two tablespoons)
A clove of garlic, chopped
10 oz of prosciutto di Parma
10 oz of pork loin
10 oz of mortadella
½ cup of grated parmesan
1 tablespoon of butter
A few scrapings of nutmeg
Finely chop the rosemary and garlic together and add a little salt. Rub this all over the pork loin, cover it and leave it in the fridge for two days.
Brush the mixture off the pork loin. Heat the tablespoon of butter in a pan and cook the meat on medium heat. Allow it to cool.
Finely chop the prosciutto, the cooked pork loin, and the mortadella. Place it in a food processor along with the eggs, the parmesan, and the nutmeg.
When it’s well mixed, scrape it into a bowl, cover it, and put it back in the fridge for another 24 hours.
Use this mixture as the stuffing for the tortellini.
*Some say that tortellini must be cut into circles, that when they are made with a square that is then folded into a triangle they are in fact tortelloni. And when the ends are folded together and brought to the bottom to cover the point of the triangle, they are not tortelloni nor tortellini but cappelletti. You can sit down with the nearest Italian and a couple of glasses of grappa and argue those distinctions all night.
Read Jeannie Marshall's previous recipe for a winter minestra soup.
Jeannie Marshall is the author of The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, now available from Beacon Press. She has written for Canadian national newspapers and magazines such as the Globe and Mail and the Walrus. Before moving to Italy in 2002, she was a features writer at the Toronto-based National Post.