An amazing experience of cooking, feasting, & laughing wasn’t in a restaurant or cafe.
Our friend in Setubal, Helenice, wanted to have us over for dinner. We’d been to her place once before, just for a glass of wine. This turned into an event complete with several courses of hors d’oeuvres, multiple bottles of wine, aperitifs, and a jars of jam to take home. So, we knew we were in for an extravagant meal.
It started before lunch, when Helenice met Karen at the local market, Livramento, to get some ingredients. Mushrooms, tomatoes, butternut squash, green onions, herbs, and other provisions were obtained from Helenice’s favorite vendors.
By 2pm we were at Helenice’s apartment. She’d already made a pesto of dill and green onions for crostini to snack on. It was going to be a long day of cooking and she wanted us fed and energized.
“Would you like anything to drink?”
“Just some water for now.”
Of course, a cup of water from the tap would not do. Helenice clipped some mint and basil from the herb garden outside her kitchen window, sliced a lemon, and poured me a glass of infused water.
Helenice wrote out the menu on a piece of paper and asked me to translate. I don’t speak Portuguese, but Google Translate is my friend, so off I went.
The plan was to start with a White Tomato Soup with Tomato Tartare.
Now, as a gardener and gentleman farmer, I have grown probably 50 varieties of tomatoes in my lifetime, but I had never heard of White Tomatoes.
Helenice showed me a plastic bowl. Over the top was a cheese cloth filled with diced tomatoes. And they were decidedly red.
Helenice removed the rubber band holding the cheese cloth over the bowl and showed me the tomato water underneath.
“This will be the broth,” she explained.
Helenice dipped a spoon into the water and offered me a sample. Skeptical, I tried it. What I tasted was a concentrated tomato flavor. “This is brilliant!” I exclaimed.
Heating the tomato water with some milk, Helenice added some herbs to the broth while I finely diced some more tomatoes for the tartare. “I’m your sous chef, Helenice.”
Next up, the pasta. Now, I used to make homemade pasta all the time. Karen taught me how and we had all kinds of gadgets like a pasta machine, various noodle cutters, and a ravioli mold. But, they were all packed away when we moved to Hawaii and I hadn’t made fresh pasta in years.
Helenice had Karen measure out 200 grams of flour as she separated two eggs and added them to the flour.
I started mixing the flour and egg yolks together, at first unsure, and then gaining confidence as muscle memory took over. Soon I had a nice ball of yellow dough. We wrapped it in some plastic and let it rest,
But, for us, there was no rest; still work to do. Helenice had me peel and dice 3 apples for the strudel. Meanwhile, she got a vanilla bean, sliced it lengthwise and used the knife to scrape out the seeds. She dropped it into a saucepan with some egg yolks and milk.
I finished dicing the first apple and was ready to move on to the second when Helenice stopped me. Was I really going to throw out the core?
She took my knife and proceeded to carve every little bit of apple flesh from around the core with the precision of a surgeon performing a delicate operation. She nodded and handed me the knife. The message was clear. Nothing is to be wasted.
I peeled and diced the other two apples, terrified that I might leave too much flesh on the bone.
After 30 minutes of resting, the dough was ready and Karen and I proceeded to roll it out. I could tell that Helenice was a little wary of allowing me such an important job, especially after the apple debacle. “I’m not an amateur,” I reassured her. She wasn’t so sure.
The first batch was beautiful. Thin, but still elastic.
I carefully marked out five ravioli with the pasta stamp while Karen rolled out the second batch. I spooned out a large helping of the butternut squash mixture, but apparently it wasn’t large enough. Helenice swooped in and added a little dab to each portion. I nodded in agreement, but in my head I was worried. Too much filling and the ravioli could burst open in the boiling water.
Using an egg yolk wash, I painted the edges of the ravioli, put the second sheet on top of the first and smoothed out five ravioli hills. Then, I took the stamp and carved them out. Perfect. Karen put them on a sheet with towels and we repeated the process twice more with the virgin dough.
Then, the hard part.
You see, when you stamp out ravioli, there’s a lot of leftover dough. Since it has already been kneaded and run through the machine, it becomes difficult to work with. I took the scraps and did my best to create another ball of dough. After a few minutes, the dough started to come together.
Karen wasn’t so sure. “Do you think it will work?”
“I hope so.”
I flattened a piece of dough and ran it through. At first it wasn’t easy, the dough was providing a lot of resistance. But, after a few passes, the dough started to look right. As we adjusted the setting on the machine to make the sheet thinner and thinner, I could see Helenice was impressed. She looked at the dough and smiled. “You are not an amateur!”
By the end of the process, we had about 20 giant butternut squash ravioli.
And a little leftover dough that was too worked over to be of any use. But, I wasn’t having it. I kneaded the dough into a ball the best I could. then I pounded it out a little and created a disc to run through the machine. After a few passes it started to take shape. Not pretty and certainly not suitable to a delicate process like making ravioli.
But, I had an idea. I took a paring knife an started to cut. Helenice saw what I was doing. “Wait.” She found an attachment for the pasta maker and clipped it on. She ran the sheet of dough through the attachment and it cut a beautiful serving of fettucine.
“You can take with you.”
“Breakfast tomorrow,” I smiled.
After cooking the ravs (and no, they didn’t burst, it was the perfect amount of filling), Helenice warmed some butter in a skillet until it started foaming and then turned brown. She clipped some sage from her little herb garden and added it to the butter. Then, she dropped in the cooked ravioli.
As we plated the pasta, Helenice put the strudel in the oven.
As God is my witness, these were the best butternut squash ravioli I’d ever had. The sage, which often comes out wilted in this dish, was crispy. And, the raviolis became just the tiniest bit crispy and caramelized on the edges.
The soup? It too, was spectacular. Despite my initial doubts, the broth was some of the most flavorful I’ve ever had. And, the little sculpted cylinder of diced tomato and herbs was delightful. Karen and I agreed that we would be using tomato water as a base for soups in our cooking.
As for the strudel, let me say that Helenice lived in Germany for 40 years and I’d put her strudel up against anyone’s.
Karen and I have eaten in some of the finest restaurants in the world, both expensive award winning places and family run joints. And, we’ve had many memorable meals. But, I’m not sure there will be one to top our feast at Helenice’s.