When Nancy and I travelled to Italy for the first time about a decade ago it was an eye-opening experience. Making central Tuscany our base of operations we pushed our flying Fiat to the outer limits of its capabilities, exploring from Florence in the North to the charming little hill town of Pitigliano in the South, with just about every major wine region in between. As beautiful as Tuscany is and as wonderful as its wines may be, it was the food that made the biggest impression. The simplicity and elegance — the clarity — of Tuscan cuisine permanently changed the way I cooked. In fact, it changed the way that I think about food.
Last year, when Nancy and I travelled to Italy for the second time it was to Piedmont for a refresher course. This time we rented a house outside of Asti, giving us access to a kitchen and an incentive to frequent the wonderful open air markets of Asti and Turin. The astonishing array of ingredients available to us – from the marvelous ridged tomatoes to the amazing veal and the indescribably luxurious truffle pastes – made even the most simple of meals a pleasure. What could be easier or more enjoyable than coming home from the market with a bag full of freshly made Agnolloti and serving them with truffle paste and some remarkable olive oil?
As decadent (and surprisingly inexpensive) as the truffle paste may have been it was really the Agnolloti that were the find of the trip. These little raviolis – filled with either meat or cheese – are ubiquitous on the Piemontese table. It was in an attempt to recapture some of those memories that I decided to make some of my own. Incidentally, I am hardly the first to use beef cheeks (my new favorite ingredient) to stuff pasta. Mario Batali’s Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles is a famous fixture on the Ristorante Babbo Enoteca menu.
But I was looking for something a little bit different. I wanted to contrast the deep flavors and warm comfort of the braised meat and pasta with the earthiness of the porcinis, on the one hand, and the ethereal qualities of the gremolata. There is absolutely nothing wrong with adapting the braising liquid from the beef cheeks to use for the sauce. That did not happen to be an option for me since I was using leftover beef cheeks from several nights before. After all, raviolis have always been delivery systems for leftovers, haven’t they? You can also use any of many methods for making or rolling out the pasta and for manufacturing the Agnolloti. While beef cheeks might seem like an exotic ingredient, they are becoming increasingly available. The last two times we bought them we found them at Walmart and Costco! If you cannot find beef cheeks, short ribs or even chuck are adequate alternatives.
Agnolloti of Beef Cheeks with Porcinis and Gremolata
For the Beef Cheeks
- 1 pound beef cheeks
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 2 stalks of celery, diced
- ½ bottle of red wine
- ½ cup of beef stock
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt and Pepper to taste
For the Pasta
- 2 cups semolina flour
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 5 eggs
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 pinch salt
For the Sauce
- 3 shallots, minced
- 3 tablespoons of dried porcini mushroom, rehydrated and chiffonaded
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ bottle of red wine
- 3 cups of beef stock
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
For the Gremolata
- 1 bunch Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, finely minced
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
- 1 lemon
- Salt and Pepper to taste
For the Garnish
- Truffle oil or very good quality extra virgin olive oil
- Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Grana Padana or Pecorino Romano) cheese for grating.
- Braise the Beef Cheeks. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a dutch oven over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. While the oil is heating, pat beef cheeks dry and season with salt and pepper. Brown cheeks, without crowding (working in batches if necessary), on all sides, about 10 minutes total, and transfer with tongs to a bowl. Pour off the fat from pot, then add remaining 2 tablespoons oil and cook onion, carrot, and celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Return the cheeks to the pot and pour in the wine, scraping up any brown bits. Add the beef stock to the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and maintain the simmer until the cheeks are very tender, about three hours.
- Make the Pasta Dough. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with its dough hook, mix the pasta ingredients and knead into a smooth, soft dough. Stretch the layer of pasta to a thickness of less then 1/16 of an inch (on a pasta machine, take it to its last notch).
- Make the Agnolloti. Lay one sheet of pasta on a floured surface, and place heaping teaspoons of the filling on the pasta at 1 1/2-inch intervals, in lines 1 1/2 inches apart, until you have covered half the sheet. Brush the edges of the dough with water, and fold over the uncovered side of the dough. Pinch edges to seal. Using a fluted pastry wheel cut down the length of the dough between the mounds of filling. Then cut each strip into individual ravioli parcels. Pinch and crimp all edges with a fork to seal, using a little water if necessary. Repeat with all dough and all filling. Arrange the ravioli in a single layer on a floured dish towel, and let them dry for about ½ an hour, turning them over after 15 minutes.
- Make the Sauce. Place the minced shallots, porcinis and bay leaf in a sauce pan with half the wine and 1 cup of the stock and reduce to barely ¼ the original volume. Strain the porcinis and shallots from the sauce reserving them for use as a garnish. Return the remaining liquid to the pan, add the tomato paste as well as the remaining wine and stock, whisk well to fully incorporate the tomato paste and reduce to desired sauce consistency.
- Cook the Agnolloti. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the agnolloti and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until tender. When ready, the pasta will rise to the surface of the water.
- Make the Gremolata. Using a lemon zester, remove about 1 teaspoon of lemon zest and finely mince. Keep in mind that the zest is the outer yellow peel of a lemon. Be careful not to include any of the white pith below the skin because it is bitter. Combine the minced lemon zest with the remaining ingredients in a bowl and season to taste with Kosher salt and black pepper.
- Assemble the Dish. Place four agnolloti across the center of each plate with a horizontal line of the gremolata “below” it on the plate as a garnish to be incorporated with each bite. Top the agnolotti with the sauce, garnish with the porcinis and drizzle with truffle oil or extremely good quality extra virgin olive oil. Grate parmagiano-regiano cheese as desired.