I've had quite a few moments of late where I've one way or another stumbled upon a recipe idea or concept that is either so simple or so brilliant that I find myself amazed it had never occurred to me before. Tonight I went to La Cucina, one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Oxford, and on the specials board they had stuffed sardines wrapped in pancetta. So simple, yet so delicious-sounding, and something I can't wait to try. Another such moment occurred on an episode of Raymond Blanc's latest TV series. He made a stunning pasta dish featuring ravioli filled with spinach and quail eggs; the eggs were briefly poached before being encased in the pasta, meaning that they were still liquid when cooked. I remember the camera lingering lovingly on a shot where the knife cut through the beautiful pillowy pasta to reveal flowing golden egg yolk, encased in a nest of greenery, and I wondered why on earth that had never occurred to me before. Who doesn't love slicing into the tender yolk of an egg to reveal its molten core? Surround it with a thin film of carbohydrate, and you have food heaven.
This dish had been on my mental 'to make' list for a while, and the other day I had an enormous craving for ravioli. Sometimes nothing will do, except those beautiful plump parcels piled in a steaming mountain on a plate and drizzled with a buttery, creamy sauce. I thought about making Raymond's recipe, but couldn't really be bothered to create all the different garnishes he serves with it; sauteed mushrooms, beurre noisette... Whilst the taste of ravioli served with nothing but melted butter and herbs is sublime, my waistline will unfortunately not survive such things on a regular basis. I wanted to make ravioli that could survive being served with some sort of sauce, without losing its delicate flavour; spinach and eggs are too subtle to risk overpowering with a tomato or other non-buttery sauce.
I've no idea where the idea for this recipe came from. I was on the train, and it literally popped into my head. I feel this is a good sign: J.K. Rowling said the inspiration for the Harry Potter series popped into her head in the same way, also while she was on a train, so I must be on the right track for future fame and culinary stardom. Right?
I won't claim that pairing smoked fish with eggs is a culinary revelation, because it isn't, but I am quite proud of the flavours in this ravioli. For the fish filling, I mixed flaked smoked fish (Vietnamese river cobbler, because it was on offer in the supermarket, but you could also use haddock) poached in milk with ricotta cheese, grated parmesan, salt, pepper, chives, a few fresh thyme leaves, and some grated nutmeg. The parmesan is great for accentuating the smoky, savoury richness of the fish, while the ricotta lightens it as well as binding it all together. Some lemon thyme would be excellent, but I only had normal thyme, which works too; its fragrance cuts through the richness of the filling.
The tricky part involved the quail eggs. I'm not brilliant at poaching eggs - they turn into watery ghosts more often than not - and seeing as quail eggs are so tiny I was sure I'd fail miserably. Actually, they came out perfectly, which pleased me immensely. I just added a little vinegar to simmering water, dropped them in (cracking them is not as easy as a hen's egg - you end up having to pierce the membrane under the shell with your nail), and removed them about 30 seconds later with a slotted spoon. I left them to drain on kitchen paper before placing them atop a spoonful of fish mixture on a square of pasta. It was a bit fiddly, but went much better than expected. I was worried they'd break when I tried to seal the pasta around them, but had no problems.
Unfortunately, seeing as quail eggs are so small, in order to poach them enough to be able to handle them, you have to almost cook them completely. This means that by the time the ravioli has cooked in its boiling water, the egg will be hard rather than soft boiled. I'm not sure how Raymond managed to get his to ooze luscious yolk all over the plate, and I'm a bit jealous, but to me it didn't matter that much. You still have the wow factor of cutting into each raviolo to reveal a beautiful little egg yolk, and the combination of crumbly, creamy yolk with the smoky fish filling is wonderful.
I deliberated for a while about what to serve these with, and in the end chose spinach - another classic partner for smoked fish and eggs. I found some leeks in the fridge, so decided to use those too. I just sauteed them in a little olive oil until soft and wilting, and then stirred in some seasoning, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some creme fraiche. The latter helped bring the whole mixture together to form a gorgeous, creamy green sauce. I piled it onto plates and arranged the ravioli over the top.
I am pretty proud of this recipe. The creamy greens provide just enough moisture to go with the ravioli, but aren't strong enough to overpower the subtle egg and fish mixture. It's a perfect harmony of flavours, and a very luxurious-tasting dish that still remains quite light. A bit fiddly, perhaps, but actually easier than you'd expect, given the delicious results. Thank you, Raymond, for the excellent inspiration.
Smoked fish and quail egg ravioli (serves 2):
140g plain flour
1 whole egg and 1 yolk
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
150g ricotta cheese
1 fillet (about 200-300g) smoked fish
Salt and pepper
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
3 tbsp grated parmesan
A few lemon thyme or normal thyme leaves
2 tbsp finely chopped chives
12 quail eggs
1 tsp white wine vinegar
Squeeze of lemon juice
2 leeks, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
300g spinach leaves
3 tbsp creme fraiche
First, make the pasta dough. Combine the flour, egg and egg yolk, olive oil and salt in a food processor and then knead to a firm and not sticky dough. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for up to an hour.
To make the fish filling, poach the fish in the milk until cooked. Flake into a bowl, then add the ricotta, seasoning, nutmeg, lemon, parmesan, thyme, and chives. Mix together until you have a paste.
Poach the quail eggs in simmering water to which you have added the vinegar. Cook them for just long enough that you can remove them from the water with a slotted spoon. Leave to dry on kitchen paper.
Roll out the pasta using a pasta machine, and cut into evenly sized squares. Place a teaspoon of fish mixture in the centre of each square, then place a quail egg on top. Brush around the filling with water, then place another square over it. Be careful to push out any air when sealing the ravioli together.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.
Now make the greens. Saute the leeks and spinach in the olive oil until the leeks are soft and the spinach has wilted. Stir in the creme fraiche, seasoning, and a touch of lemon juice. Keep warm while you cook the ravioli by putting them in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes.
To serve, pile the creamy greens into bowls and top with the cooked ravioli. Garnish with more grated nutmeg and parmesan, and a sprig of thyme.