Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ode to Tortellini

Mom was a master at creating delicious meals at the last minute. During my teenage years, she didn’t really have the luxury of the compulsive planning to which I am prone. Mom was single, working full time, going to college at night, and caring for us kids –Oh, and caring for her ailing mother too— all at once. I want to yawn or genuflect just thinking about it.

After work, Mom would often rummage through the refrigerator and simply produce dinner. (That is when she couldn’t afford to play the Amalfi’s card) On good nights, our dinner had all of the expected working parts –a meat, vegetable, and starch. “Look kids,” she would half jokingly announce. “We have three things on the plate!” However, other nights, she just didn’t have it in her. On those nights, tortellini usually played a starring role at dinner.

Before you discredit Mom’s carb-centric meal plan, remember: This was the 80s. Pasta was considered health food. Remember the Pyramid? Also, tortellini is quick, cheap, and the meat or cheese served as a protein. She initially introduced tortellini to us with red sauce, marketing it as “Mexican hats.” Lord knows where that one came from, but it worked. We were hooked. Over the years, she came up with a series of ad hoc tortellini dishes.

My favorite was Tortellini with Cabbage, a quasi-stir fry with cultural undertones that only an anthropologist could delineate. Like most of Mom’s inventions, she cooked the cabbage in olive oil and garlic, tossing in the tortellini at the last minute. The sharp flavor and crispy texture of the cabbage offsets the squashiness of the tortellini (OK, it’s not an SAT word, but doesn’t squashiness perfectly sum up tortellini?)

Only as an adult did I appreciate the brilliance of cabbage and tortellini. An average head of cabbage yields a ridiculous amount of food. No wonder peasants love it. So, chances are, Mom had some cabbage left over from Cole Slaw or God-knows-what. By adding it to her ever-faithful tortellini, Mom simultaneously got rid of that endless supply of cabbage and fed us a ton of veggies with protein. Well done, Jean.

Considering that cabbage is the veggie that keeps on giving, I decided to provide not one, but two recipes this week. In addition to Mom’s Cabbage and Tortellini, which I made tonight, I have drafted a version of my own updated “dump the cabbage recipe” –Chinese Steak Stir Fry. In the interest of my cooking schedule, I am going to make this one tomorrow, providing a bonus posting then.

As for tonight, I took a friend’s suggestion, and tossed crumbled Gorgonzola cheese into the finished pasta dish. An excellent call because the salty bitterness of the cheese somehow bound the other flavors together.

In honor of spring and the ripe strawberries I found at our neighborhood Farmer’s Market, I also experimented with a Strawberry Rhubarb Double Crisp, from baking guru Dorie Greenspan. (Can be found in her cookbook Baking: From My Home to Yours, or get it for free via NPR at It’s a bit heavy on the ginger –two teaspoons of ground and a ¼ cup of crystallized. And while the combination certainly worked, next time I want to go simple, allowing the fruit to speak for itself. Meanwhile, for the main event…

Time: 30 minutes

1 lb, tortellini
½ to 1/4 head, cabbage, red or green (I used red because it’s so darn pretty)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tablespoon, olive oil
½ cup, chicken stock
1 large scallion, sliced with whites and greens separated (Optional: I happened to find some enormous scallions at Farmer’s Market; thought I would throw in for a touch of color)
1/8 cup, parsley, finely chopped (Optional: Same as note from above)
4 oz of Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

Boil tortellini as directed on package, drain and set aside
While tortellini cooks, chop cabbage into thin slices, about 2 inches long, be sure to remove the heart (Can also use food processor, but I don’t think it’s worth the clean up)
Heat oil over medium high heat until glistening
Add garlic and scallion whites, cook until softened
Add half of cabbage and let cook for a few minutes
Pour in chicken stock, and allow to boil gently. Cover, lower heat slightly and let cook until volume of cabbage reduces.
Add second half of cabbage, and turn up heat again, letting cook for about 10 to 15 minutes
Mix in green scallions
Remove from heat and pour cabbage mixture into large serving bowl.
Add cooked tortellini, sprinkle on salt, pepper, parsley and Gorgonzola cheese. Toss well.
Serve immediately.

END NOTE: We invited some close friends over for an impromptu dinner, people with whom I feel safe testing out this rather unorthodox meal. As it turned out, half the cabbage mixture and the whole package of tortellini fed four people. A second package of tortellini would have easily been enough for eight. Half a cabbage is still a whole lot! We all loved it. Everyone had seconds, and it felt great to set down a big ol’ steaming bowl of colorful pasta on the table. Apparently, those Italian-Poles-Asian cooks really know what they’re doing.

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