Nevada Gray was an excellent cook, and my paternal grandmother. The most advanced countertop appliance grandma owned was an underpowered standing mixer, still her magic hands created some of the best food I can remember tasting. From cornmeal mush and handmade noodles to meringues and grandchild-pulled taffy, grandma’s house was the place to go when you were hungry. Despite that one regrettable lunch when a grilled cheese sandwich for my six-year-old self included extra sharp cheddar cheese, a disappointment I now blame on underdeveloped taste buds.
I thought of my grandma this weekend as I was harvesting my first crop of spinach. What would I make with this bounty? I remembered grandma making her own noodles on the Formica tabletop…egg yolks, olive oil and milk filling a nest of flour. I decided I would make spinach ravioli…using grandma’s recipe and pasta roller.
Though I had never made pasta before, I was confident I could do it. After all, I had watched grandma prepare and hang noodles a hundred times. Then I recollected the truth of that phrase. Grandma would do anything for you, but she seldom would do it with you. The closest I ever got to helping her make pasta was sitting on the stool watching her work.
Whenever it was time to cook and I would ask to help, grandma would fold down the retractable steps from the tall stool in her kitchen, let me climb up and then very deliberately fold the steps away, explaining that my job was to sit still and watch. There seemed no room for advancement in grandma’s kitchen, but I do remember being ecstatic when she once allowed me to tamp sugar – a very few crystals at a time – into the bowl of rising meringue.
Recipe, ingredients and pasta machine gathered, I scrubbed down the Formica countertop and began with high hopes. I measured out 1 3/4 cups of semolina flour and formed it into a bowl. I cracked one large egg and six large egg yolks into its center, then added 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon milk. I broke up the egg yolks with my fingers and started the long process of slowly drawing the flour into the mixture by turning circles in the mixture with my fingers. I used a dough scraper to keep the flour gathered in an unbroken circular dam. Once all the flour had been incorporated, I let the dough rest while I cleaned the counter and mixed spinach, basil, ricotta and just a dash of nutmeg into a scrumptious ravioli filling and tucked it into the fridge.
Then I got to work kneading the dough. After my first push, I heard grandma’s slightly raspy voice telling me never to fold the pasta dough onto itself like pasty dough. I remembered the heels of her veined, nimble hands working the dough forward while simultaneously reforming it into a tight ball. I did the same. Soon the dough became more subtle, more silky and springy. I thought I may be done. Then I remembered her turning toward me in my stool perch and instructing, “When you think it is done, you knead at least ten more minutes. You can’t overwork this dough.” So I loosened my wrists for the next onslaught of dough pushing and twenty minutes later, the dough felt supple and flawless as baby skin, I knew it was ready.
I rested the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes, cut the batch into thirds and then cut each third again to begin to crank it through the pasta machine. I placed the machine’s manual knob on the thickest setting and turned the handle to pull the dough between the rollers. I folded the pressed dough in half, turned it ninety degrees and put it through again. I did this four times total, until the dough was a lovely rectangular sheet, then ratcheted the rollers one step closer and turned the dough through again. Six times, the wheel turned higher and the rollers churned out a thinner, longer sheet of dough.
The look of the pasta was actually alarming as I had used fresh eggs from a local free-range, organic farm and the yolks were so orange-yellow that the pasta dough looked like Velveeta rolling in and out of the machine. This was especially disconcerting as Grandma wouldn’t allow processed cheese food in her home…hence the cheddar grilled cheese sandwich debacle.
I laid out the first milled pasta ribbon on the counter, scooped droplets of ricotta/spinach goodness onto its top and then folded it over, pressing together the edges and cutting the raviolis free with a pizza cutter.
Several hours, two batches of dough and two exceedingly tired wrists later, I sat down to a plate of fresh, homemade ravioli. I may need a little more practice to reach grandma’s level of mastery, but let me tell you, this first effort was incredible.
The time invested in making the ravioli was unjustifiable when weighed against the cost of even the most upscale fresh ravioli packages in the store. But I don’t think I will buy it pre-made again.
I realized by making my own pasta that I really didn’t understand what was so great about convenience? I can shovel convenience food into my mouth without any real appreciation or enjoyment. When I ate my homemade ravioli, I gratefully chewed every little bite, tasting the nuance of flavors, letting my tongue investigate the velvet of the dough, pondering future filling flavor pairings. I understood that this meal on my plate was a treat, a gift, a sacrament As I swallowed, I celebrated my awareness of the origin of each ingredient and the double pleasure that I had grown the spinach and the basil myself.
Convenience frees us from the work of meal preparation, but it also separates us from the magical alchemy that is food preparation. Divorced from understanding of what goes into our meals, each bite is more about sustenance and less celebration. Having the work done for us is tempting, but there is a connection that is lost…a connection that I am no longer willing to forego. For time sake, some meals may need to be simple like a sweet potato and beans. But having invested my time and mental energy into it, even the most simple meal will be more nurturing.
I used to wonder how grandma could spend so much time in her kitchen, seemingly lost in the revelry of cooking and cleaning. I thought she must think the work a chore on some level. But now I think I understand grandma a little better. Perhaps she didn’t love doing all those dishes by hand, but she loved making food miracles that would nourish those she loved.
Thank you, Vadie for all your lessons. And thank you for this one that I may have been slow to understand, but will always cherish.