Wonton Ravioli: A Savory Purim Surprise

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Young spinach leaves are one of the spring’s earliest gifts, which helps explain why Italian Jews eat spinach ravioli on Purim.

Charged with the task of resolving the dispute between the Women of the Wall—the women who have come once a month for the past 24 years to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall—and the ultra-Orthodox who insist that only men may do so, Natan Sharansky responded: “Is it easy? Not. But we Jews chose to be not-easy people, and to live in a not-easy place, and to do not-easy religion.”

Sharansky’s recent comment came to mind as I started writing about spinach ravioli and its relation to the Purim table. For every explanation gave birth to another one, making a simple pasta dish into a very complicated Jewish culinary holiday symbol.

So here I’ll offer some of the reasons Italian Jews eat spinach ravioli on Purim. But of course, there are always more explanations. While Jews cannot help responding to a question with another question, they also cannot refrain from giving another answer to an answer.

In areas with milder climates like the Mediterranean, Purim, not Passover, may offer the first celebration of spring. And fresh, young spinach leaves are one of spring’s earliest gifts.

Then, too, Purim is one of the three holidays when eating ravioli or kreplach, its sibling, is traditional (the others are Yom Kippur eve and Hashana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot). Remember all those sudden plot twists in the Megillah? The surprise filling in the stuffed pasta is a reminder that the hand of God was concealed. But there is more mystery buried in the tale: Esther’s disguised identity as a Jew and her later revelation to her husband, King Ahasuerus, is echoed in the filling that lies undisclosed beneath the tender dough wrapper.

And Haman too must play a part here. So just as we “beat” the evil man, we beat the ravioli stuffing until it melts in your mouth inside the delicate pasta.

Lesson over, it’s time to devise a filling. I found a few traditional Purim ravioli recipes combining the spinach with chicken and others that mixed ricotta with the spinach. But lately I’ve been especially enjoying a simple yogurt sauce to enliven foods, so I decided to make a stuffing that the topping would complement. The one I came up with tastes like a fresh and vervy spanakopita, Greek spinach pie, but without the fuss of crust.

And using a food processor to “beat” the filling and wonton wrappers for the dough practically makes the preparation of these Purim delicacies pretty easy after all.

Spinach Wonton Ravioli, with Greek Flavors

Yield: about 8 servings

For the ravioli:
2 pounds fresh spinach OR two 10-ounce packages frozen leaf spinach, thawed
1 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or a combination of parsley and mint, plus additional to garnish, if desired
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill, plus additional to garnish, if desired
1 cup small-curd cottage cheese, drained
1 cup (about 5 ounces) feta cheese, patted dry, then mashed
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Generous pinch of dried oregano (optional)
wonton wrappers
a small bowl of water for sealing the wonton wrappers

For the yogurt sauce:
2 cups Greek plain yogurt
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons best-quality extra virgin olive oil
dried mint, optional

If using fresh spinach, wash it thoroughly to remove all traces of sand. Cut off any tough stems and discard them. Place the spinach with just the water that clings to its leaves in a large saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 8 minutes.

Place the cooked fresh or the thawed frozen spinach in a colander and, with your hands or the back of a spoon, press out as much liquid as possible. It should be very dry.

Sauté the onion in the butter or oil for 5 to 7 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, to marry flavors, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool a few minutes, then transfer to a food processor. Add the parsley and dill, and pulse to chop everything fine.

In a large bowl, beat together the cottage cheese, feta, and egg until smooth. Add the spinach mixture and combine thoroughly. Season with salt, if needed, (remember that the cheeses can be rather salty), pepper, and oregano, if using. Refrigerate until cold: this will making the filling firmer and easier to use.

Meanwhile, prepare the yogurt sauce. Using a microplane, grate the garlic into the yogurt. Stir in salt to taste, the olive oil, and if using the dried mint, crumble in a generous pinch. Beat the sauce well, and set aside.

Fill the ravioli: mound a heaping teaspoon of the filling in the center of a wonton wrapper (see Cook’s Note if filling is not firm enough). Dipping your finger in water, moisten the wonton wrapper all around the filling. Fold the wonton wrapper over to make a triangle. With your fingers, press all air out around the filling then press the edges very firmly together to form a tight seal. I further tighten the seal by pressing down the edges with the tines of a fork.

Continue making ravioli until all the filling is used up, folding each one into a neat triangle.

In a large, wide pot, bring at least 5 quarts of lightly salted water to a boil. Slip in the ravioli, one by one, being careful not to overcrowd the pot (if necessary, cook them in batches, or use two pots). Lower the temperature slightly (the ravioli might explode if the water is boiling furiously) and poach until tender, 3 to 6 minutes (exact time will depend on the brand of wonton wrapper). Remove the ravioli, a few at a time, with a large skimmer, gently shaking the skimmer so the water drains back into the pot.

Serve the ravioli topped with the yogurt sauce and garnished with dill or mint.

Cook’s Note: Sometimes ravioli/kreplach fillings are still too moist after chilling (for example, in this case, the cheeses might have been moister than usual).That can be remedied here by stirring in a little grated Parmesan or other dry grating cheese as needed. But it’s best to make sure your ingredients—spinach, cheeses—are drained well, as directed in the instructions.

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