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Ravioli and tortellini // Quick and Easy

Convenience products often mean sacrificing quality for timesavings. But that's not the case with the prepared tortellini and ravioli available in supermarkets. These Italian pastas, especially the refrigerated and frozen varieties, are a tasty development in the world of fast food.

You can buy them with a variety of fillings _ beef and garlic, chicken and rosemary, mushroom, cheese and basil, to name a few. The refrigerated and frozen cost about $3.40 for a 9-ounce package (that's quite a bit more than you pay for dried pasta noddles, which run about 50 cents a pound, but they are filled, fresh and quite a bit better).

And they cook quickly _ some of the refrigerated ones in less than 10 minutes. Dried tortellini and ravioli (which is less expensive, around $2 a half-pound) can be cooked in 10 to 12 minutes.

Remember that all pasta cooks best with a lot of water: Bring 3 quarts of water to boil in a covered pot first. When ravioli float to top, test for doneness; when done, rinse with cold water.

Keep them on hand to add to soup pots or salad bowls for simple weekday meals or dress them up for entertaining. They can be used in every course, soup to dessert. And since stuffed pillows are a global favorite, from Siberian pelmeni to Latin empanadas, you can use ravioli and tortellini in ethnic dishes from Italian (of course) to Asian (they are reminiscent of dumplings).

And don't feel you have to whip up a homemade tomato sauce. There are plenty of easy dressings, like olive oil, garlic, parsley and red pepper flakes, or chopped tomatoes, basil and onions or olive oil, sage and cheese, not to mention jarred sauces and bottled dressings.

Here are some quick serving ideas and recipes.

Soups

Make canned soups heartier: Add tortellini or ravioli of your choice and boil until the pasta is al dente. If the soup seems a little thick, add some canned broth. Serve as a hearty main course with crusty bread. We particularly like minestrone and Italian vegetable soups with the added tortellini or ravioli. A sprinkling of Parmesan cheese is a good last-minute addition.

Make your own soup fast. Dice or shred fresh vegetables (onions, green peppers, carrots, cabbage, celery, tomatoes). Saute these in a little olive oil until tender. Add canned broth (chicken, beef, vegetable) and gently boil about 15 minutes. Then add the tortellini or ravioli of choice. Cook about five minutes or until pasta is al dente. If soup seems too thick or too dry to cook pasta, add a little more canned broth.

Make a "wonton soup" by cooking chopped scallions in a little olive oil with some minced ginger root and garlic. Add canned chicken broth, bring to a gentle boil and cook about 15 minutes, and add filled pasta (chicken and vegetable or mushroom tortellini, or beef and garlic ravioli work well). Boil about 5 minutes. Then add some chopped fresh spinach and a dash of Oriental sesame oil; cook about three minutes or until pasta is tender.

To give this soup a Thai accent, add a little crushed fresh lemongrass while boiling the broth.

Entrees

Make a faster lasagne by using tortellini or ravioli instead of the meat and noodles. No need to cook them before you bake the casserole.

For a casserole so simple even a youngster could assemble it, place the refrigerated ravioli or tortellini from a 9-ounce package in an 8-inch square baking pan. Top with spaghetti sauce from a 14-ounce (we liked a sauce chunky with mushrooms and vegetables) and toss to coat ravioli. Sprinkle shredded mozzarella cheese from a 4-ounce envelope over top. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes or until ravioli are hot and cheese melted. Makes about four servings.

Create a simple tomato sauce by sauteing garlic in a little olive oil. Add chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, a touch of tomato paste and fresh basil. Gently simmer about 10 minutes and serve with your choice of ravioli or tortellini for a filling meal.

Toss cooked cheese- or vegetable-stuffed pasta with a little olive oil, garlic and chopped fresh basil. Add a grind of black pepper and sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese. Serve as a side dish to grilled chicken, meat or seafood.

Make a vegetable stir-fry. After stir-frying sliced cabbage, ginger root, bell peppers, fresh spinach and any other vegetables in a little olive oil in a skillet or wok, add about { cup broth (chicken, vegetable or beef); stir in uncooked ravioli or tortellini.

Cover pan and let pasta steam. You may need to add a little more broth to help the pasta cook through. When pasta is al dente, you can thicken sauce by dissolving a bit of cornstarch in cold water or room temperature broth. Stir into a paste and then stir into the wok or skillet; cook until clear and thickened. Add a dash or two of soy sauce and Oriental sesame oil for flavor.

Use the ravioli or tortellini instead of penne or shells with your favorite pasta sauce.

Salads

Toss cold cheese tortellini with strips of chicken breast (or takeout roast chicken), ham or Italian cold cuts, roasted peppers or artichoke hearts, chopped tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, chopped green onions, olive oil and salt and pepper.

Cook pre-cut carrots with ravioli then toss with bottled Italian salad dressing and some Dijon mustard. Serve on torn lettuce or spinach leaves.

Purchase your favorite creamy or vinaigrette salad dressing. Toss it with a selection of chopped vegetables and cooked and cooled ravioli or tortellini. For example, dice red, green and yellow bell peppers, add some chopped cucumber and tomato. Toss in cooked and cooled chicken and vegetable cheese ravioli or cheese and basil tortellini; add a creamy dressing such as ranch, creamy Parmesan or peppercorn ranch. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Combine canned beans that you've rinsed and drained with cooked and cooled ravioli or tortellini of choice. Add a sprightly vinaigrette.

Another favorite salad is black beans mixed with diced red bell peppers, chopped cilantro, sliced scallions and a light vinaigrette. A sprinkling of salt and pepper will bring out the taste of the pasta.

Add cooked and cooled ravioli or tortellini to Caesar, chef or spinach salads. Here, the four cheese-, mushroom-, and garden vegetable-filled pastas work best.

Use the cheese-walnut ravioli with crumbled Gorgonzola and walnuts atop mixed baby greens. Add a few slices of fresh pear and dress with a balsamic vinaigrette. This is perfect for a party luncheon when served with fancy rolls or croissants.

Appetizers

Deep-fry the ravioli or tortellini in 350-degree oil until golden for a takeoff of what St. Louis calls toasted ravioli. You can fry them straight from the refrigerator or boil them first, pat them dry and then fry them. Serve with marinara sauce for dipping.

For an Oriental touch, deep-fry the ravioli or tortellini like wontons and serve with Chinese mustard, duck sauce or sweet sour sauce.

Serve boiled tortellini or ravioli with a dipping sauce (let them cool a few minutes before serving). A mixture of soy sauce and scallions with a touch of Oriental sesame oil will make you think you are eating steamed dumplings.

A touch of curry powder in mayonnaise gives a little different flavor that's great with mushroom-filled tortellini. Salsa mixes well with the light vegetarian or chicken-and-vegetable filled ones. Supply toothpicks for eating and dipping.

Desserts

Cook cheese-walnut ravioli and top with a pear sauce or sweetened apple sauce (warmed briefly on the stove top). Garnish with raspberries and toasted walnuts (spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes). It's also a good brunch dish.

Material from Times food editor Chris Sherman and Joycelyn Winnecke of Scripps Howard was used in this report.

Pear Sauce

6 slightly underripe Bosc pears, peeled and quartered

1 lemon, peeled of skin and pith, quartered and seeded

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon Frangelico liqueur

Place half the pear and half the lemon quarters in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process 30 seconds and place puree in a nonreactive saucepan. Repeat with remaining pears and lemon quarters.

Add sugar and liqueur; stir to combine. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat then reduce heat and simmer 1{ hours or until mixture is thick like applesauce. Makes about 3 cups.

Source: Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook (Workman, 1989) by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins.

Half-Time Lasagne

1 28-ounce jar prepared marinara sauce

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

1 15-ounce container fat-free ricotta cheese

1 egg, beaten

\ cup plus 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat leaf parsley (or 2 teaspoons dried)

1{ packages frozen ravioli (about 75 ravioli)

1 pound part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded or sliced thin.

In large bowl, mix together marinara sauce and tomato paste. In another bowl, beat ricotta, egg, \ cup Parmesan and parsley together, set aside.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Select a 9- by 13-inch shallow baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons of the tomato sauce to bottom of the dish. Arrange half of the ravioli, filling side up, on bottom of dish.

Dot with half the ricotta mixture, add half the remaining sauce and arrange a layer of half the mozzarella on top.

Add a second layer ravioli, dot with remaining ricotta, a layer of the remaining sauce and then the mozzarella.

Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese over the top.

Bake until cheese is melted and mixture is bubbly, about 50 minutes. Let stand at least 15 minutes before serving. Serves 6-8.

Note: This makes a good dish for Super Bowl parties. Prepare ahead of time and refrigerate it; place in oven before kickoff and it will be ready at half time).

Source: Rosetto foods.

Olive Oil, Sage and Pecorino Sauce

{ cup extra-virgin olive oil

8 leaves fresh sage

{ cup grated Pecorino cheese

Heat the sage leaves in olive oil. Drain freshly cooked pasta (1 pound) and, in a large, warmed serving bowl, sprinkle it with the grated cheese. Pour the hot sauce over the pasta and toss well. Serves 6 as a first course or side dish; 4 as a main course.

Source: Scripps Howard News Service.

Walnut Sauce

{ cup walnuts

cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 cup reserved pasta cooking water

1 cup freshly grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese

Grind walnuts in a food processor until they are fairly finely ground but not pasty. Be careful not to grind too long or the oil in the nuts will be released.

In a skillet large enough to accommodate 1 pound of cooked pasta later, heat together ground nuts, olive oil, garlic and parsley over gentle heat until the garlic is softened but not colored, about 7 minutes. Remove the skillet from heat and set aside.

When 1 pound of pasta is not quite al dente, drain it, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. While the pasta is still dripping, transfer it to the skillet with the sauce. Using two large forks and keeping the gentlest possible heat under the skillet, distribute the sauce well through the pasta. Add as much of the 1 cup reserved cooking water as you need to moisten the sauce, adding it little by little; it is not likely that you will need more than a half cup of it.

Add the cheese to the pasta, toss, then remove from heat and transfer to a warmed serving bowl. Serve immediately. Serves 6 people as a first course or side dish; 4 as a main course.

Source: Adapted from Julia Della Croce's wonderful new "The Vegetarian Table: Italy" (Chronicle Books).

Spinach Tortellini Salad

with Walnut Oil Dressing

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste

4-5 tablespoons walnut oil

8-10 ounces fresh or frozen cheese- or meat-filled spinach tortellini

1 (1- to 1\-pound) head cauliflower, separated into about 1-inch florets

\ cup chopped parsley

2 cups red and/or yellow cherry tomato halves

2-3 tablespoon chopped walnuts, optional

In a small nonreactive bowl, whisk together vinegar with salt and pepper. Whisk in walnut oil. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Cook pasta, uncovered, in large pan of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes or until tender (or cook according to package directions). Drain. Rinse gently with cold water and drain well. Transfer to large nonreactive bowl. Add vinegar mixture and toss to combine.

Place cauliflower in a large saucepan of boiling salted water over high heat for about 5 minutes or until tender crisp. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain well.

Add cauliflower, parsley and tomatoes to tortellini and toss gently. Taste and adjust seasonings. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Let salad stand a few minutes at room temperature. Place a portion on each serving plate and sprinkle with walnuts, if desired.

Makes 2-3 entree servings, 5-6 first-course servings.

Source: Faye Levy of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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