06/03/2015 09:30 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2016

Cooking Off the Cuff: Ricotta Ravioli With a Twist or Two

There's not a bad word that can be said about good old-fashioned ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach with a little grated Parmesan and a scraping of nutmeg. But there are lots of other ways to turn a container of ricotta into a great pasta filling.

Here are two that I've made during a post-vacation ricotta binge (Jackie and I ate super-fresh ricotta every morning in Sicily: it was on all the breakfast buffets).

The first used basil. I rarely buy basil, except when making pesto, because the bunches are too big and the leftovers soon get nasty. But this early in the season, one of our farmers' market vendors had little bunches - grown hydroponically but still delicious and fragrant. For this two-portion filling, I emptied an eight-ounce (225-gram) container of sheep's milk ricotta (from 3-Corner Field Farm) into a fine-mesh strainer, lightly weighted it with a can of tuna set onto a saucer and let it drain for a few hours in the fridge. I plucked the leaves from my small bunch of basil, blanched them in boiling water for just a few seconds, shocked them in ice water and then squeezed them dry in my fist. This yielded less than 1/4 cup (60 ml by volume) of tightly compressed basil that would keep its color and flavor and that wouldn't add much moisture to the mixture.

From this point, making the ravioli filling meant putting the ricotta and basil into the food processor, adding an egg yolk and a handful of grated pecorino (to maintain the sheep's milk theme), along with salt and pepper - taste as you go, but you may use more salt than you'd have thought, because ravioli fillings are at their best when highly seasoned. The mixture was on the moist side, so I added a small handful of bread crumbs - it would have been okay without them, but a drier filling holds up better, especially if you're not cooking the pasta immediately.

I scraped the mixture into a disposable pastry bag and formed ravioli using fresh egg pasta made with about a cup of flour (say, 125 grams), one whole egg and one egg yolk. The quantity made 18 medium ravioli, a nice dinner for the two of us served with butter and a little more pecorino. Because I'd used the food processor, the filling was nice and smooth, and the basil flavor was vivid without hitting us over the head. I may even buy one of those giant bunches of basil at the height of summer and make a big bagful of these for the freezer.

The other ricotta filling took advantage of the brief season for spring garlic (in the UK they call it "wet garlic"). This was to be a larger batch of smaller agnolotti (about six dozen of them), and I used a roughly 12-ounce (340-gram) basket of ricotta (again, sheep's milk but from Valley Shepherd Creamery). I slowly cooked the white bulbs of a small bunch of spring garlic in olive oil until tender and chilled them in the refrigerator, then pureed them in the food processor with a handful of grated pecorino, quite a few leaves of fresh sage, salt, pepper and the grated zest of a lemon. The ricotta was already well drained, so I added it to the food processor directly from the package, then processed until the mixture was smooth. Finally I added two egg yolks and a small handful of bread crumbs. I scraped the mixture into a disposable pastry bag and refrigerated it until needed.

For the pasta, I doubled the previous quantity, and formed little agnolotti (there's a link to a YouTube demo in my post about leek-and-lemon agnolotti). I froze these on a paper-lined tray then transferred them to a plastic bag to be kept frozen until dinner time 30 hours later.

Served with a very few early-season cherry tomatoes (roasted to intensify their flavor) and a grating of pecorino, these had lots of sage flavor and were gently but obviously scented with lemon and garlic: there's nothing harsh about spring garlic, especially when slowly sweated in oil or butter (or boiled in milk). The dominant flavor was ricotta and pecorino, though, which was as it should be.

Ricotta Ravioli With a Twist or Two