Cooking Off the Cuff: Kale Ravioli -- Elegant, Not Faddish

In the run-up to a small dinner party, it soon became apparent that its fate was to be wrapped in pasta: It was to be ravioli of some kind.
03/12/2014 09:49am ET | Updated May 12, 2014
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Google the phrase "is the new kale" and you'll get nearly 140,000 hits, or at least I did a few days ago. The "new kale" can be anything from turmeric to steak tartare, though cauliflower comes up a lot. That reduces a whole family of stalwart leafy green vegetables to a fad, even though people have been eating them for millennia. There's something wrong about that, don't you think?

Fad or staple, I recently bought some kale, the regular curly kind, at a small farmers' market. It was the only non-root/tuber available on that bitterly cold day, and it was in excellent condition both visually and on the tongue. I stripped the leaves off the tough stems while I was sweating a big shallot in butter (yes, butter not olive oil, and shallot not garlic... this time, anyway). I washed the kale and added it, still a little wet, to the pan, turned it in the butter, salted it, covered the pan and let it steam in the water that had clung to the leaves. Then I let it cool and stowed it in the fridge to await a decision about its destiny.

In the run-up to a small dinner party, it soon became apparent that its fate was to be wrapped in pasta: It was to be ravioli of some kind. Normally, I'd combine the kale (or other greens) with a ricotta-Parmesan mixture or something like that, but I wanted a somewhat lusher filling. This took me back to a meal Jackie and I had in London a couple of months ago, at Merchants Tavern in Shoreditch; my first course was a big raviolo whose ham hock stuffing was bound with chicken mousse. This is a very French approach; I can't hold that against it, because it yields a filling that's smooth-textured and flavorful without being rich. And with a food processor it isn't even hard to make; not in the least.

I had a chicken leg in the freezer; I'd boned it before putting it there, so once it had defrosted it was an easy matter to pull off the skin (reserving it for later), trim any superfluous fat and sinews, and cut it into roughly 3/4-inch (2 cm) chunks. I put these, fridge-cold, into the food processor's workbowl along with salt, pepper and one sage leaf, then finely ground the chicken into a near-puree. When it began to look pasty, I added an egg white (saved from making the pasta, for which I'd used two yolks and a whole egg plus just over 5 ounces/150 g of flour), continued to process until it was incorporated, then finished the mousse by processing in 1/3 cup (75 ml) of heavy cream, also nice and cold. In a flash, the mixture was a smooth, coherent, somewhat glossy mass. In a fancy restaurant, this would have been scraped through a fine sieve to get rid of all remaining sinews and other fibers, but this was not a fancy restaurant. Besides, these would be undetectable when the kale was added -- I promise. I trust my chicken supplier and have a vigorous population of salubrious bacteria in my gut, so I tasted the raw mixture for seasoning and made sure it had plenty of salt and pepper. If you're leery, wait till you complete the filling, then cook a spoonful and taste it then.

I stored this in the refrigerator and turned to the cooked kale. I squeezed dry enough of it to match the chicken mousse in volume -- more or less -- then used a knife to chop it finely (but not to a mush) along with four or five more leaves of sage. To complete the stuffing, I combined the chicken mixture and the chopped kale, scooped it into a pastry bag and refrigerated it again until it was needed. If I hadn't been able to find my pastry bags (such things happen with some frequency), I'd have used a spoon to dose out the stuffing when the time came.

These mousse-bound stuffings can dry out if overcooked, and to make the ravioli I rolled the pasta to the thinnest setting on my old hand-cranked machine, so that it would cook quickly. I have no favorite way to form ravioli; this time I deposited generous blobs of stuffing near one edge of a strip of pasta, folded the pasta over, sealed it tightly with my fingers, and used a 2-inch (50-cm) fluted cookie cutter to form the ravioli. Then I repeated until both the pasta and the filling were used up, yielding two dozen plump ravioli. I could have frozen them then cooked them right from the freezer, but there was no room, so I merely refrigerated them on a paper-lined flour-dusted sheet pan.

Come dinner time I gently boiled four per person (as a first course) for three minutes. To serve, it would have been perfectly nice to dress them with butter and sage leaves, but I had some rich chicken stock, so I reduced a good cupful down to sauce consistency and swirled in a little butter (around 2 tsp/20 g for a half cup/120 ml of sauce, which was enough for four portions). I had also chopped the skin from the chicken leg into little pieces and crisped them in a moderate oven until brown; I drained these on a paper towel and salted them before sprinkling a few on each portion. You might say that last touch was unnecessary, and you'd be right. But it was nice, and pretty, and fun - and it added another element of chicken flavor to the dish.

And there was plenty of chicken flavor. But because the stuffing was only half chicken, there was plenty of kale flavor too, so good that it had me shaking my head in wonderment that anyone could ever view this excellent vegetable as passé.

Kale Ravioli: Elegant, Not Faddish