Venus di pastis

OK, so I struggled with the title, but bear with me; I actually want to talk about pasta. Not the dried variety that features in an easy mid-week supper but the fresh stuff that you can spend a little time and derive a little satisfaction from making on a wet weekend when outdoors looks decidedly uninviting and you want the comfort of an indoors project - one that, let’s be honest, impresses a little but even better tastes like nothing you can buy ready prepared.

Here is a picture of Venus, Roman goddess of beauty and love, with Mars at her side and Cupid at her feet tethering her leg to her lover’s in a gesture of unity (well, each to his own, I suppose).

“Mars and Venus United by Love”
~ 1570s, Paolo Veronese, on exhibit at MMOA

Beautiful as it is, I am not throwing this piece of artwork in gratuitously - let me explain further. Ravioli while a good starting point for stuffed fresh pasta (they taste great, they look pretty good, and they are easy to make) cease to be a challenge once you have made them once or twice, and with a little fresh dough available it’s particularly satisfying to shape a few tortellini. These pasta dumplings, according to one of many legends, were originally modelled by a smitten peeping tom of an innkeeper on Venus’ belly button; so beautiful did he find it that he attempted to (further) immortalise this feature of the goddess’ anatomy in the medium of pasta dough. Look more closely at that picture, and you may get a feel for what he was aiming at.

But, to be more precise, I was actually thinking of making some tortelloni, the ‘super-sized’ version that would have been inspired if Venus’ divine navel had appeared a little larger through the inkeeper’s keyhole. The distinction is not just one of size though, it is also one of suitable ingredients and serving practice; tortellini are made with a meat based filling and served in a broth while tortelloni are normally meat free and served with a sauce that is a little less liquid.

I am not going to get too bogged down with terminology, however, as there are so many names for so many types of filled pasta shapes - some shared, some differing in name but not by look, some changing by region and available ingredients - that it doesn’t do to worry too much about the intricacies of what we are going to call them or how authentic the combined ingredients used to stuff them might be.

(flour and eggs, the beginnings of pasta dough)

The dough ingredients, as you can see, are very straightforward - easy enough to gather and, if you don’t want to mix by hand, simplicity itself to transform in a food processor, but, what with it being spring and all, my next question was what to put inside my tortelloni this weekend?

My local greengrocer is once again stocking large boxes full of freshly cut herbs, notably, dill and mint. I have been using them in middle-eastern dishes where fresh, strong flavoured herbs are often welcomed, but, having seen (and bought) some fat greeny white fennel bulbs recently, complete with the feathery tops that the supermarkets often misguidedly cut off for our 'convenience’ (or more possibly their own?) and having used both dill and fennel to create the base notes for a one pot pilaf created to use up some leftover roast chicken recently, I remembered just how much I love the taste of aniseed.

(fresh dill, beloved by many cultures, and, incidentally, the most popular flavour for Swedish potato crisps)

The spectrum of plant life that encompasses this particular flavour is pretty varied and many of these are coming into their own again as the spring gets going. In my garden, the tarragon from last year has started to sprout again and I have just planted chervil too. Aniseed can also be provided, more exotically, by star anise, licorice, aniseed … - I’m sure that there’s more, but with aniseed firmly in mind by this point, I had a look to see if anyone else I knew had been thinking along similar lines.

(fennel, softening for a sauce)

After a bit of research, it appears that fennel is a vegetable that divides us - there are some who genuinely don’t seem to like it much. When eaten raw and crunchy in a salad it is certainly heavy on the aniseed and not to everyone’s taste, but, a bit like celery, once cooked the flavour is transformed into something softer and more subtle and I happen to love it. Theo Randall, it seems, shares a taste for it, and in his book Pasta I found a model for my stuffing. He combined fennel with sweet potato and encased it in some ravioli, I decided to make a few minor changes to the basic recipe and give this pairing a go in my tortelloni and I sincerely hope that Venus, if she is still out there, does not mind this further liberty on my part.

(the belly buttons - almost ready for the pot)

I will need to tweak the detail a little more before I am completely happy, but these bambini were not a bad start. Subtly flavoured, not heavy with cheese, and livened up with a sauce that ever so slightly intensified the aniseed with some slow cooked fennel, and frenchified the italian with the addition of a splash or two of pastis, finished with a hit of fresh chilli and some chopped fennel fronds to enliven both the colour and the tastebuds - I thought it worked pretty well. The aniseed does not overwhelm, it is given a little extra sweetness by the potatoes, smoothed at the edges with a delicate addition of gentle creamy cheese, and the chilli gives it a little spark.

(fennel fronds; a garnish)

So here they are, ready to serve, in need only of a sprinkle of Parmesan,

and, with some minor further adjustment anticipated, I am quite happy with my take on Theo’s recipe, not that his needed any improvement - I think he has pasta pretty well covered - but there is no harm in adding a little something to enhance so long as we remember not to try too hard or to take it too far. I will admit to reining myself in from adding dill or tarragon too and spoiling the harmony of the dish by going for aniseed overkill - not a crime of excess, I suspect, that Theo would ever commit (or even contemplate), but that is why he has written a beautiful book on the subject and I am looking to it for his counsel; I know who I trust and I imagine Theo rarely, if ever, gets it wrong.

“… the aniseed trail that draws the hounds of heaven …” ~ Tom Stoppard
Erica x