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Cooking Off the Cuff: Re-creating an Italian Vacation From a Doggy Bag

Even if you make these with other leftover meats, you'll see how the rosemary and, especially, the juniper evoke the hunt. For Jackie and me they also evoke that long-ago dinner on a hill in northern Italy.
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Gosh, I wish I could recall when it was that Jackie and I drove down Italy's Valle d'Aosta. It was an awfully long time ago, that's for sure. I remember learning how fires would be lit in time of crisis to relay signals from one hilltop fortification to the next, and I remember where we learned it: In a hill town called Verrès. There, we stayed at an inn by the name of Da Pierre (still in business after all these years, though its website remains under construction), which had "ostriche di montagna" on the menu, using the same euphemism for testicles as we do in the US: mountain oysters.

It also offered game ravioli, and those are my clearest memory of all. At least, the seasonings have stayed with me: Lots of rosemary and - this is what made them special - juniper berries. For years after that trip I'd make variations on this intensely flavored dish, generally using leftover braised duck legs, lamb or pork. Game didn't enter into it.

A couple of weeks ago, though, we took ourselves out to dinner at New York's Jean-Georges. Having eaten amuse bouche and sea urchin and tuna tartare with truffles and squash ravioli and phenomenal lobster with crisp parsnip ribbons and different truffles, we were too full to do justice to our meat courses, one of venison the other of pigeon. So we ate the vegetable garnishes and took the flesh home. The weather, at last, had turned wintry, and it seemed an appropriate time to reactivate a hearty pasta souvenir of Italy.

I made a small batch of egg pasta with 5-plus ounces (150 g) of flour, two egg yolks and a whole egg, and put it in the fridge to rest wrapped it in plastic. For the filling, I minced a large shallot and sweated it in olive oil, then let it cool. The doggy bag contained a small medallion of venison and half a squab pigeon, both cooked medium rare; I removed the skin and bones from the pigeon and simmered them for 30 minutes in chicken stock (just enough for them to swim in) with a few crushed juniper berries and some fresh rosemary. I could have added a scrap of prosciutto or Italian speck, but it smelled nice and rich without it.

In a spice grinder (a cheap coffee grinder, actually) I made a somewhat coarse blend of juniper berries and rosemary, yielding a scant tablespoon in total: quite a lot for the small quantity of meat, but I wanted strong flavors - and ravioli fillings need to be well seasoned anyway. I added this to the bowl of a food processor along with the cut-up meat, a couple of tablespoons of grated parmesan, the cooked shallot and black pepper, and ran the machine until the mixture was very finely chopped but not quite pureed. When squeezed between my fingers, it held together enough to keep its shape when being wrapped in pasta. Before putting it into the refrigerator, I checked for seasoning; like most things, it needed salt even though the meat and shallots and parmesan already contained some.

I formed the stuffing into balls about 5/8 inch (1.6 cm) across, then used these to make ravioli (or were they agnolotti or tortelli?) using my favorite wrapping method. I stowed them in the freezer until dinner time to prevent the moisture in the filling from eroding the pasta dough. There was a little dough left over, and rather than tossing it I rolled it into a rope, cut it into small pieces and, using a ridged gnocchi board, smeared them into cavatelli, something I started doing only recently; it's fun to find them on your plate, nestled in among the ravioli.

At dinner time, I simmered the ravioli and cavatelli in salted water; from frozen, they took a little over five minutes, if you haven't frozen yours, you can lop a minute off the cooking time - in any event check them after, say, three minutes by snipping off a corner of one: the pasta should be silky and tender. (The dough had been rolled to the second-finest setting on my old hand-cranked pasta machine, not the finest.)

While they're cooking, strain the pigeon-enriched stock into a skillet and bring it to the boil; there shouldn't be too much of it, just enough to gild the ravioli, so reduce it to richness if need be. When the ravioli are very nearly done, swirl a tablespoon of butter into the sauce over medium heat, then add the ravioli and toss to coat with the buttery juices. A few days earlier I'd toasted some pine nuts for another purpose and I added a handful to the skillet. These could have been omitted, but they did add both flavor and texture, so if you feel like toasting a few you can do it in a dry skillet or in the microwave, just until they smell toasty and have begun to turn from ivory to dark tan in color.

Even if you make these with other leftover meats, you'll see how the rosemary and, especially, the juniper evoke the hunt. For Jackie and me they also evoke that long-ago dinner on a hill in northern Italy, but even without that association these ravioli would be a worthy use for any three-star doggy bag.

Re-creating an Italian Vacation from a Doggy Bag