Ravioli are small squares or circles of pasta that are filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables. It's made by using flat sheets of pasta, placing a filling on top, and then covering and sealing with another sheet of pasta. They basically become little filled pillows. They are cooked in boiling water and then either served with a sauce (tomato, cream, or cheese sauces all work well), or they can be baked with sauce and topped cheese in a casserole dish.
valerie says: There is some debate about where ravioli originated from. Some say it came from Genoa, Italy where the word "rabioli" means "rubbish", "odds and ends", or "bits and pieces" (depending on the source). It was a way to use up leftover ingredients. Others debate that ravioli came from Cremona and evolved from the Latin word, "ravoglere", which means "to wrap". Agnolotti are also ravioli but they are formed in a crescent shape instead (somewhere between a ravioli and tortellini).
Regardless of its origins, it's not completely unique to Italy. Other cultures have foods similar to the ravioli. For example, in Chinese cuisine there are wontons. They are very thin sheets of pasta that are filled with meat or vegetables and then fried. Jewish cooking has "kreplach" which is a small dumpling-like noodle dough that is filled with something savory (usually served in soup) and eaten on holidays.
If you are not making the ravioli from scratch, you can purchase it pre-filled, either fresh or frozen.
Cooking Tip: When boiling the ravioli, take care when removing them from the liquid. Use a large slotted spoon to gently remove them so they don't tear.
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