Train ride to the South
As spring is in the air and the extra hours of daylight certainly give me more energy, I decided it was time for a long weekend off. My parents were staying in the south of Spain for a month, so I would go to visit them there. As there were no good flights available I took the train from Barcelona down the coast to Cartagena. It is quite a long train ride, around 8 hours. But not only the destination is worth the long ride, the journey itself is beautiful as well. A large part of the rails has been built alongside the sea. So on the one side of the train there is glistening blue water. On the other side there are hills, mountains, and fertile land with all types of agriculture. Especially the parts with orange and almond trees were beautiful.
After this long trip, it was great to arrive at the apartment my parents were renting. A nice place with a view both on the sea and on the hills with “pueblos blancos”, the typical villages where all houses are white. On one of the days I spent there we went to the market in Vera. The market stretched out all through the village. Although most of the market stalls sold clothes, shoes, and other non-food items, there were a few with food as well. Besides the delicious roast chicken we bought for lunch, there were some people selling local vegetables. Passing by, my eye fell immediately on all the artichokes. There were massive piles of those beautiful green, flower like vegetables (they are actually the flower buds before the flowers bloom). They look amazing at this time of year. Because even though they can be harvested all through the year, the spring and mid-autumn are their peak seasons. When I was younger I only knew the artichokes you can buy in the jars or cans. I had seen the fresh ones in Italy, but did not know what to do with them. In the end, they look barely edible and a world away from the canned artichoke hearts that I have always liked. But since I live here in Spain I cook them often. As they are very popular you can find beautiful artichokes everywhere.
Looking at those piles of artichokes I decided my next dish had to feature them. Freshly cooked they are an amazing spring time vegetable. They don´t only have a beautiful and subtle flavour themselves, but also seem to transform the flavour of other food you eat after in a good way, making it a bit sweeter. I decided to pair the artichokes with almonds, reminding me of this long and lovely train ride, and one of my other favourite vegetables, the eggplant. Together they make a light, springtime tortellini dish with the fresh but earthy and a bit smoky flavour that somehow reminds me of the south.
Tortellini with two fillings and almond crumble
This dish has two types of tortellini, one filled with artichoke and the other with eggplant, therefore it is a surprise which flavour you will get. The almond crumble gives it some crunch.
Ingredients (for two)
- 200 grams of flour, plus a bit extra for rolling out the pasta
- 3 eggs
- Almonds – the unsalted version, around 75 grams
- Parmesan cheese – around 70 grams
- Ricotta – around 4 tablespoons
- 4 artichokes
- 1 eggplant
- 2 lemons
- Garlic – two cloves
- Sprig of rosemary, plus a bit extra as garnish
- Bay leaves
- Dried chilli
- 25 grams of butter
- Olive oil
- Salt and black pepper
Start off by making the pasta dough. Place the flour on your working surface and make a well in the middle. Break two eggs in this well and add a tablespoon of olive oil and a good pinch of salt. Mix this together and knead until you have a flexible dough that doesn´t stick to your hands anymore. Add some more flour if it is too sticky or a bit of additional oil if it is too dry. Wrap the dough in some plastic wrap and place into the fridge to rest.
When the dough is in the fridge, pierce the skin of the eggplant all around with a fork. Wrap the eggplant tightly in a few layers of aluminium foil. If you have a gas stove, turn a small burner on to medium heat and place the eggplant straight over the fire. Turn it around once in a while, using tongs, to have it cooking evenly. Leave it on the fire until it is completely soft. This takes around 30 minutes for a medium sized eggplant, and a bit longer if it is a big one. If you don´t have a gas stove, you can put the eggplant in the oven at 200˚C for the same time.
Meanwhile, prep the artichokes. Peel off the outer leaves until you see the leaves on the inside that are light green and soft. Using a sharp knife, cut off the upper hard part of the leaves and peel the stem and the part just above it. You are now left with light green, tender artichoke hearts. Slice the artichokes in half and take out the hairy parts in the middle. While you are peeling and slicing the artichokes, sprinkle some juice of one of the lemons over them to prevent them from turning brown. It doesn´t really affect the flavour when it changes colour, but it doesn´t look very nice. Finally, chop the artichoke halves in quarters. Place the artichokes in a small pot with the peeled cloves of garlic, a few bay leaves, one or two small dried chillis, and a good pinch of salt. Fill the pot with cold water until the artichokes are just under. Bring it to a boil and boil for around 10 minutes, or until the artichokes are soft.
For the artichoke filling, drain the artichokes well and pat them dry. Trow the bay leaves away and put the artichokes, the garlic cloves and the chilli in a blender. Take the leaves off the rosemary and zest the other lemon. Add both the rosemary and the lemon zest to the blender as well. Blend the artichokes until they have a smooth consistency. Add around 3 tablespoons of ricotta and mix this through. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, and lemon juice. The mixture should be really smooth and soft and have a subtle but zingy flavour. Set the mixture aside.
For the eggplant filling carefully open the aluminium foil and take out the eggplant. Slice it open in the length. Scoop out the flesh and discard the skin. Whip the flesh of the eggplant with a fork until the strings of flesh fall apart. Grate the Parmesan cheese. Add around 40 grams of the Parmesan cheese to the eggplant. Also add the left over tablespoon of ricotta, a bit of a good olive oil, and salt and black pepper. Mix this well. It should be quite smooth and with a clear smoky eggplant flavour.
Now it is time to prepare the almond crumble. Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Put the almonds in a blender and blend until they resemble the consistency of bread crumbs. Don´t take it too far, as it shouldn´t become almond flour. It is alright when the crumbs aren´t all exactly the same size and there are still some larger parts, this only gives it more texture. Mix the almonds with the rest of the Parmesan cheese, around 30 grams. Add some black pepper. Melt the butter in a small pan and keep it on the heat until it starts to colour golden brown. Then take it off immediately, so that it doesn´t burn. Add a pinch of salt to the butter and mix it through the almond mixture. Place a sheet of baking paper on an oven tray and spread the almond mixture out in a thin layer. Roast the almonds in the oven for around 10 minutes. Mix it once with a spoon during the roasting time. The almond mixture should look golden brown. It will be quite soft when it is still warm, but once it cools down it becomes nice and crunchy.
Finally, assemble the tortellini. Roll the pasta dough out into very thin sheets. When you lay the sheets of dough down and blow along the sides, they should move. Cut circles out of the dough of around 5 centimeters in diameter, or a bit larger. Break the last egg in a little bowl and mix it. To make the tortellini, place a teaspoon of one of the fillings on the middle of a circle of pasta. Be careful not to use too much filling. Moisten the outside of the circle with some egg. Then fold the circle into a half moon shaped pocket. Take the two corners and press them together. Place on a wooden board dusted with flour. Repeat this until your pasta dough and the two fillings are finished.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Boil the tortellini for around 3 minutes. Do this in batches so that there are not too many in the water, otherwise they might stick. Divide the almond crumb over two plates and place the tortellini on top. Make sure that both plates get some of each type of tortellini. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the pasta and sprinkle with some really finely chopped rosemary. Enjoy!