It’s Ash Wednesday today.
As you might have noticed, I completely skipped posting anything about Carnival and Mardi Gras. The reason is simple: Italian ‘Carnevale’ is all about sugary, fatty, deep-fried foods. And, since I hate anything sugary and deep-fried, I felt like I needed to stay true to myself.
On the other hand, coming from a family of Italian farmers, this period is deeply meaningful for our roots. The transition from Carnevale to Lent, which coincides with the transition from winter to spring, brings an array of traditions that – as of today, are celebrated with a stolidity that can only be akin to habit.
But let us rewind back to 70 years ago.
Back when my great grandparents were alive and lived on onions, bread and milk alone, there was just one day of the year everybody looked forward to: the day in which they would kill the pigs. Their meats would be turned to cold cuts and steaks, their interiors to cured sausages, their skin and bones to stews and their fat would be used for deep-frying. These days of joyous feasting – the few days in which they could eat with substance, were Fat Tuesday and Fat Thursday (hence the name). Having access to only sugar, flour, eggs and the fat from the pigs, my great grandmother would cut squares of pasta sheets and turn them into Chiacchiere, deep-fried and dusted with sugar. Or, making a batter with the same ingredients and adding Marsala and lemon, she would make Castagnole – again, deep-fried and dusted with sugar.
Those were days of freedom. Those were days when they could feel like they were on par with those humans that, a few terraces above them, ate in porcelain dishes and could afford tablecloths.
The day after Fat Tuesday, the church would announce the start of Lent. And, as they prepared those Carnevale treats, they felt it hanging upon them with the awkwardness of a fake smile.
The ‘Magra’ was coming. ‘Magra’, which means ‘thin’, in Italian, was the word that dominated all of their lives.
Through fasting, you would be saved – said the church. You shall not eat meat on fridays, and you shall repent for attempting to get away from poorness. You shall recognize you rags and your hunger as your own once again, as you sow the earth and bend to collect its bearings.
But every man shall find a sparkle of joy in the poorest corner of their soul. The food for ‘Magra’ needn’t be plain or tasty, for all those who have little have a chance of getting creative with what they have.
Being a vegetarian then meant having no choice. Vegetarianism and veganism today are a choice of luxury and a choice of freedom. We can freely choose what to eat, because we all know that in the needless abundance we are submerged in, we can strip ourselves of that which does not correspond to the things we feel are true to us. In an era in which we are hardly missing anything material, giving up meat does not seem like a great sacrifice at all.
This filling, that is so typical of the easter period, is probably the most known kind of filling used today for pasta – especially for ravioli. People in the country side make it with wild herbs, but you can use spinach, chard, or even kale or a mix of everything. It is super easy and doesn’t require any special skill.
It is simple. Simple as only poor people can be.
Vegetarian Ricotta and Herbs Filling for Pasta
(Makes enough for pasta for 8 people)
For the Pasta dough recipe, see here.
1 Lb Ricotta cheese
10 Oz Cooked Spinach or char
3.5 Oz Grated Parmigiano or Grana
Salt and pepper
(optional) Grated lemon zest
Olive oil and 3-4 garlic cloves, for quickly pan-frying the herbs.
- Cook your greens of choice and drain them well of as much water as you can. A good way to go about it is to cook them the day before (you can also make the pasta dough and let it rest in the fridge if you’re making your own) and put them in a colander over a bowl, with a weight on top.
- Cut the herbs and add a good glug of olive oil (but not too much) to a pan that can fit all the herbs. Crush the garlic cloves with the back of a knife, rid them of the skins and lightly fry them in the oil first. Once they’re golden, add the herbs and stir fry them quickly, about 5-6 minutes. Toss them well, and add them to a bowl, removing the garlic cloves.
- Add the ricotta, the parmesan, a good grating of Nutmeg and lemon zest. The nutmeg should make a presence, so add and taste your mix until you’re happy with it. Be careful with the lemon zest! Don’t add to much if you’re using it. Add a good pinch of salt and some pepper, and mix very well. taste, and add more salt/cheese/nutmeg until you’re happy with the taste. Use to fill your pasta of choice.
This filling keeps well in the refrigerator for a couple days.
It goes well with sage and butter sauce, with a simple tomato sauce dressed with extra virgin olive oil, or with a classic ragout (but hey, we’re keeping it veggie here).
VARIATION: Skip the herbs, and use Pecorino (or another strong seasoned cheese) as an addition to the filling. This is a classic filling for Cappellacci (pictire below), which are to be dressed in a mushroom and truffle sauce.
OTHER USES FOR THIS FILLING: Don’t restrict yourself to pasta! There are many uses for this filling. Such as:
- Use to fill a phyllo pie or triangles;
- As a filling for vegetables like mushrooms and peppers, wich are then to be sprinkled with cheese or crumbs and oven baked;
- As a filling for shells, to be smothered in tomato sauce and oven baked;
- As a savory crepe filling;
- In Cannelloni, or in layers of lasagna;
- In frittatas,
And, well…get crazy!
Still today, my mom goes to the stove in the back of the house and deep-fries Carnival foods in lard to please the elderly of the family. It produces one of the most disgusting smells in this world.
Also, still todaysome people promise to give up something for all five fridays of Lent. Do you have any customs tied to these periods? Are there any other vegetarian pasta fillings you love? Let me know!