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Tortellini Express

October 06, 1994|MARIE SIMMONS

Today, most of us know there is more to pasta than boxes of spaghetti and elbow macaroni: Right in the refrigerated grocery section there is a wide assortment of fresh pasta just waiting to be explored.

One of my favorites is fresh tortellini. Tortellini are small ovals of pasta that have been pinched around a filling of cheese, or cheese and meat, or cheese and spinach. According to legend, tortellini was created by a cook who was "so enamored after catching a glimpse of the beautiful navel of Venus that he created a special pasta in tribute to the goddess." One can also find tortelloni , an oversized version of tortellini (the suffix -ini means small, and -oni means large) that is filled with a delectable mixture of chicken and prosciutto.

While we were traveling through Northern Italy, our young daughter ordered tortellini en brodo (tortellini in broth) at every meal except breakfast. It proved to be a quick and convenient way to get a warm plate of food in front of a hungry child in minutes. All you need to make this simple, satisfying dish at home is a package of refrigerated (or frozen) tortellini and a can of chicken broth. I cook the pasta right in the broth, and in less then 10 minutes dinner is ready.

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The charm and convenience of refrigerated fresh pastas is that they are hearty enough to be a meal--and a rather elegant one at that--when served with walnut and Parmesan sauce. Add a side dish of sliced fennel and a lovely dessert of pears baked in wine sauce, and you'll have a menu worthy of the most discriminating diner.

TORTELLINI IN WALNUT AND PARMESAN SAUCE

2 (9-ounce) packages spinach and 3 cheeses or chicken and vegetable tortellini

1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts

1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In pot cook tortellini in boiling water 8 minutes or according to package directions.

Meanwhile heat and stir walnuts in large skillet over low heat until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add butter and stir until melted.

Drain pasta, leaving plenty of moisture still clinging to surface. Transfer to platter. Pour walnut butter on top. Add layer of grated Parmesan cheese. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

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If the fennel you buy for this salad still has fresh, green, fern-like leaves, finely chop about 1/4 cup and reserve.

SLICED FENNEL VINAIGRETTE

1 small bulb fennel with leaves, stalks removed, bulb trimmed of blemishes and leaves reserved

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Rinse fennel bulb well in cold water. Using large, sharp knife, cut bulb into very thin crosswise slices. Separate into rings and place in large bowl. Add iced water and soak fennel about 20 minutes to crisp. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.

Return fennel to bowl. Add oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Add reserved chopped leaves. Toss. Arrange on 4 salad plates. Makes 4 servings.

PEARS BAKED IN SPICED RED WINE

1 1/2 cups dry red wine or dry Marsala

1/2 cup sugar

4 whole cloves

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

1 bay leaf

4 large firm, ripe pears, rinsed and dried

Add wine, sugar, cloves, cinnamon stick and bay leaf to 10-inch pie plate. Stir to blend.

Cut thin slice from bottom of each pear so it will stand upright. Arrange in wine mixture and spoon some wine over pears. Bake at 350 degrees 45 to 55 minutes, basting every 15 minutes, until syrup has boiled and thickened and pears are tender when pierced with wood pick. Serve at room temperature with wine syrup spooned over each serving. Makes 4 servings.

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