Story and Photos By Tara Alan
A few years ago, my husband Tyler and I were cycling through Europe. After pedaling up the Alps through expensive-but-gorgeous Switzerland, we coasted down the mountains and entered a paradise for hungry, food-loving touring cyclists like us: Italy.
Besides taking breaks each day for gelato and cappuccinos, we often stopped at the market, where we picked out groceries to cook for supper. One afternoon, during a long, gorgeous ride through the regal Italian lake district, we stopped at a discount supermarket and bought a bag of spinach and ricotta-filled pasta, a few kinds of meat and cheese we’d never heard of, and a bottle of cheap red wine.
Just a few miles down the road, we grew hungry, and were unable to resist our curiosity about the meat we’d just purchased. So, we busted into our grocery stash, pulling the brown hunk of plastic-wrapped cured meat out of our snack pannier. This was “speck,” a juniper-seasoned smoked prosciutto. We couldn’t quite figure out how to eat it, and thus ended up gnawing on it, cave-man-style. The sweet, salty, smoky meat was our instant favorite.
That night, we made camp on the crystal blue shores of Lago di Lecco. As we watched darkness fall, the water becoming glittered with rippling reflections, I set about making a quick and easy supper with our new Italian ingredients.
I cooked the pillowy ravioli in boiling water, drained them, and set them aside, moving on to the sauce: In a pool of olive oil I sautéed some minced garlic, and then added thick chunks of speck. I seasoned everything with salt and pepper, and stirred until the mixture was very fragrant. Then, I added the ravioli, tossed them gently, and dinner was served.
The resulting dish was so insanely good that we were beside ourselves, exclaiming slurred expletives of joy as we chowed down. This meal had such flavor that it was worthy of being on a menu at a very good, very expensive restaurant. We were very happy indeed, that night in Italy.
When we returned home from our journey, I tried to recreate this pasta dish, only to discover that speck is fairly elusive in my neck of the woods. Once in a while, I find the difficult-to-track-down meat sold in thin slices at high-end delis. When I can’t find it, however, I use the next best thing: a combination of salty prosciutto and the best thickly-cut smoky-sweet bacon I can find.
The recipe below is the Americanized version of my favorite Italian meal. If you can find speck (lucky you!) and want to try this dish, add a bit more olive oil than I use below. As bacon renders so much fat, extra oil isn’t needed in this version.
To make a pot of pasta big enough for two hungry travelers, you’ll need:
Water for boiling
1 10- or 12-ounce package of pre-made ravioli stuffed with spinach and cheese
5 cloves garlic
2-3 ounces thickly-sliced sweet, smoky bacon (about three slices)
2-3 ounces prosciutto (about five slices)
2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt, pepper, and garlic granules to taste
Parmesan cheese (optional)
While the water is warming up, chop the garlic into small chunks, and cut the prosciutto and bacon into postage-stamp-sized pieces.
When the water has come to a boil, add the pasta and cook until the little spinach pockets are just barely tender. Be careful not to let the pot boil over, and don’t overcook the pasta. If the ravioli are mushy, they won’t hold up to being sautéed afterwards.
Drain the pasta very well, and transfer the ravioli to a smaller pot. Drizzle one teaspoon of olive oil over the pasta and gently give it a stir. Cover with a lid to keep warm.
To your now-empty large pot, add the second teaspoon of olive oil along with the garlic, bacon, and prosciutto. With the flame at a medium level, sauté the mixture for a few minutes until the fragrance is irresistible and the garlic has turned a pale golden color. Don’t let the bacon get dark and crispy—the meat should still be chewy.
Add in the ravioli, stirring gently to coat each little pillow with a blanket of smoky, garlicky oil. Sauté for a minute or two until everything is hot and some of the ravioli are starting to turn golden in places.
Now, you’re ready to serve. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic granules to taste. If you really feel like gilding the lily, add some freshly grated parmesan cheese. With this dish and a swig of cheap red wine, you’ll feel like you’re in Italy.
But wait! What should you do with those extra bacon slices? Cook them up, and eat the crispy strips for tomorrow’s snacks!
For more of Tara’s recipes click here.