Making filled pasta is like giving someone you love the perfect present.
Everything about a great filled pasta — whether it is a tortellini, or its larger brother tortelli, a ravioli, pansotti, mezzaluna or whatever — requires the kind of care given to a perfectly chosen and presented gift.
What sort of pasta will you make? What shape? How delicate? How large? What will fill it? Will it be coarse or smooth? Meat or cheese or veggies? And how will you serve it? In broth? Steamed? Fried? Boiled? Does it have a sauce? If so, how bold or simple or complex?
All are decisions you the cook must make, and it is the combination of those decisions that gives filled pasta the potential to make those you cook for swoon. Regular pasta just isn’t the same. Everyone loves opening presents, and taking a bite from a lovingly made tortelli, filled with All That Is Good In Life, wrapped in a perfect pasta and bathed in a demure but harmonious sauce is as close as a cook can do to giving you that longed-for gift you never received.
The best filled pastas are made by cooks who know whom they’re cooking for, cooks who know the likes and dislikes of their guests. In this case, I made these pigeon tortelli for Holly.
Filled pasta is an excellent use for any wild game, incidentally. Game meats are, in general, heavy on flavor, but tend toward toughness. Grinding them with plenty of fat and herbs and other good things won’t destroy that flavor, and it solves the toughness question.
In this case I used a couple wild pigeons I’d shot that had been pillaging the grain the farmer had intended for his cattle. I knew by looking at them they would be tough, judging by their feet and keelbones; thick, rigid keelbones meant this was an old bird. I also knew that Chef Paul Bertolli has a recipe for domestic pigeon tortelli (which are just large tortellini) in his book Cooking by Hand, and my recipe is adapted from his.
I cooked these morsels, stuffed with ground pigeon, pecorino cheese, sweet wine, butter and roasted garlic, and dressed them simply with a sage brown butter, lemon zest and a fried sage leaf from the garden.
Damn good, if I do say so myself. These tortelli had it all: meaty pigeon, aided by the roasted garlic, some sweetness from Greek Mavrodaphne wine, some heat from a touch of chile — and enough fat to make everything bind together.
Fat is critical in a good filled pasta, as too little will make the mix crumbly and dry. No amount of butter sauce will save a dry, crumbly ravioli. A touch of foie gras is ideal if you are into that much luxury, but even butter, cheese or finely ground nuts will work. I imagine you could make a good vegan filled pasta with ground Macadamia nuts.
Remember this and you will make great filled pasta: It is the filling that counts, not the sauce. Make the filling so good you want to keep eating it and eating it while you are making them, and you have succeeded in making a good ravioli, or mezzaluna or whatever.
Sauces for filled pasta by necessity need to be simple, so as to not compete with all that work you did making the filling. Basic tomato sauces, cheese sauces, good broth, or simply sage-and-butter sauce. This is what you want.
How fine a grind? The smaller the shape, the finer it must be. These pigeon tortelli are pretty small, so I ground everything to an almost paste-like consistency. A big raviolo or mezzaluna — something two or three to a serving — could be a lot coarser in texture. One of my favorites is the classic giant raviolo with a raw egg yolk inside; the yolk cooks just enough to be sunny-side up when you break the raviolo, usually over something that benefits from a yolky sauce.
What sort of pasta? Anything you’d like. The pigeon tortelli are made with spelt flour, which is an ancient form of wheat. I like adding “rougher” flours to wild game pastas because they are more rustic and marry better with game. I’ve used spelt, farro (another ancient wheat), barley, rye, chestnut and even acorn flour for this. Semolina is a good middle ground.
Keep in mind corn, acorns and chestnut flours have no gluten, so you’ll need to keep a lot of wheat in the mix in order for the dough to come together right. I generally go with no more than 25 percent of these flours — you still get a lot of flavor even with that amount.
Eggs or no? Your choice. I’ve done both with good results. Eggy pastas don’t store as long but are richer in flavor. They speak “refined” to me more, and I use them a lot with veggie fillings.
The easiest filled pasta to make is a pansotti. (Here is a recipe for a borage and ricotta cheese pansotti.) It’s just a square of pasta with some filling — usually a teaspoon — folded over into a triangle.
Here’s how I made the tortelli, which can be a little tricky to create. Cut out a three-inch circle with a cutter. If you don’t have cutters, use a wineglass. Place a teaspoon of your mixture (pigeon in this case) slightly below center on the circle.
Wet the circumference of the circle with a little water, then fold over the circle, pushing out any trapped air in the pasta. You’ve just made a mezzaluna, or half-moon. To continue making the tortelli, fold over each side of the half-moon.
Next wet the edges you folded over with a little water and press together firmly to seal.
The finished tortelli look a little like the hats Catholic cardinals wear, or neatly folded envelopes.
I have a sanded maple board I use just for making pasta, but any clean surface will do. Once you have your pasta made, lay down some semolina or cornmeal on the surface and set your filled pasta on them; the extra grain prevents the pasta from sticking to the board.
If I am going to hold them for a few days, I then freeze the tortelli in one layer, or several layers separated by wax paper. Once they are frozen I put them in freezer bags. These pastas don’t store all that well because they can get really brittle in the freezer. Best to eat them immediately, or at least within a month.
PIGEON, SQUAB or DUCK TORTELLI
I love the richness of pigeon. Ever have really good beef, especially skirt steak? It is just so beefy. Pigeon is the same way. A wild pigeon is dense and juicy and savory, and that flavor comes through in these tortelli, which are large tortellini. If you are not a hunter, use a store-bought squab (available at specialty markets or online) or duck, which is closer in flavor to squab than other store-bought birds.
Chef Paul Bertolli’s pigeon tortelli recipe is my inspiration for this, and you can find it in his excellent book Cooking by Hand.
I use spelt pasta here because I think the “dirtier,” more rustic flavor of the spelt, which is an ancient strain of wheat, works better with pigeon. If you can’t find spelt flour — it’s in most good supermarkets — use whole wheat.
Serve these simply. My two favorite choices are a) in a clean, clear game bird broth (you could use chicken broth); and b) served with sage butter and a little more pecorino, with some ground pepper on top.
Makes about 40 tortelli
Prep Time: 90 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
- 2 whole pigeons or squab (skin on)
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
- 1/4 cup sweet red wine
- 3 tablespoons finely grated pecorino cheese
- 2 minced hot chiles, such as a Tabasco or Thai
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 8 ounces all-purpose flour
- 2 ounces spelt flour
- 2 beaten eggs
- Make the pasta. Whisk the flours together in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour the beaten eggs in the center and with your finger, twirl it around in increasingly larger circles, incorporating the flours. Add a splash of cool water, maybe a tablespoon or so.
- When the dough is a shaggy mass, start pressing and kneading it in the bowl. Knead for a good 5-8 minutes, then coat the dough in a thin sheen of olive oil, wrap in plastic and set aside for at least an hour, or in the fridge up to overnight.
- While the dough is resting, make the filling. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Salt the pigeons well and set out at room temperature for 15-20 minutes.
- Get the olive oil hot in an ovenproof pan. Pat the pigeons dry with paper towels and brown on all sides over medium heat.
- Put a chile in each of the cavities of the pigeons and scatter the unpeeled garlic cloves into the pan. Put the pigeons breast side up in the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Remove and let cool. Keep the oven on.
- As soon as you can, remove the skin off the pigeons and lay flat on a cookie sheet. Return to the oven to crisp up. (Keep an eye on them, as they can burn easily.)
- Meanwhile, pick off all the meat from the pigeons and put in a bowl with the chiles and garlic.
- When the skin is crispy, add that to the bowl and then pass everything in there — pigeon meat and skin, garlic and the chiles — through a grinder set on its finest die. If you don’t have a grinder pulse it in a food processor.
- Mix the wine, pecorino and rosemary with the ground pigeon mixture. If using wild pigeons, add the tablespoon of butter and work that in, too. Taste it, and add salt if needed.
- Using a machine, roll out the pasta almost as thin as it can go. My machine’s thinnest setting is No. 9, so I go to No. 8. You want long strips a little more than 3 inches wide. Use a 3-inch cutter to cut out circles of dough. If you don’t have a set of cutters, use a glass or something.
- Get a little bowl of water ready. Put a teaspoon of filling slightly below center on the circle, then fold over to make a half-moon. Be sure no air is trapped inside.
- Fold over the ends of the moon and with a little water, seal them together to make the tortelli.
- Lay each one out on a well-floured surface. Use within 2 days or freeze; they should last a few months in the freezer before deteriorating.