As you may have noticed, for the last few months, I have been exploring the flavors and sensations of southern Italian cooking. The earthy wines, rich and heavy sauces, olive oil, tomato, capers and peppers. It has been a very enjoyable ride and is certainly not over, but there has been a dish that has been rattling around in the back of my mind since September when I was in Florence. This dish is so classically Tuscan – the antithesis of the south – gossamer bundles of ricotta, spinach, and nutmeg, the light, airy flavors of northern Italy, served in a gentle butter and sage sauce. Italy’s regional differences are truly apparent in the food. The north – a lacy cream-colored evening gown, vs. the south – a fitted, fire-engine-red Italian leather jacket with matching black leather pants.
So bear with me as we head to northern Italy for Gnudi, a dish known by many names, the most descriptive being Ricotta Gnocchi. They are little round dumplings made from the ingredients for ravioli stuffing (ricotta and spinach), but they are minus the pasta. They are sometimes called malfatti (badly made – because these are ravioli without the pasta shell). Gnudi, or naked ravioli are delicate, tender, and delicious in a butter-sage sauce.
Notes to the cook: It took me several tries to make successful Gnudi, but I persisted and now have another fabulous dish at my fingertips. I offer you several helpful hints to help you reach success sooner than I did.
First tip – It is an absolute must that you buy FIRM ricotta, not the runny stuff that comes in the tubs at the supermarket. It might cost a dollar or two more, but will make all the difference. It is imperative that you use firm ricotta; otherwise, your Gnudi will not hold together and will dissolve in the cooking water. If you can’t find firm ricotta in your market, you can drain off the liquid by putting it in a strainer and letting it drain for 5-10 minutes.
Second tip – The spinach. After you heat or cook the spinach, spend some time squeezing out as much water as possible. Again, keep the moisture low.
If the gnudi are too moist, add a bit of flour, 1 Tablespoon at a time. When you roll the gnudi into balls, they don’t have to be super firm, just firm enough to hold together and keep their shape. When they cook in the water, they firm up because the egg holds everything together.
And lastly – When you drop the Gnudi into the boiling water, be sure the water is boiling very gently. If you drop the tender Gnudi in rapidly boiling water, they might break apart.
- 1 and 1/2 cup firm ricotta (350 grams) – use cow or sheep milk ricotta (see notes above)
- 1 cup cooked, finely chopped spinach – use either fresh or frozen (see notes above)
- 2 medium eggs or 1 large egg
- a pinch of nutmeg
- salt to taste
- Leaves from one bunch of fresh sage – about 15 leaves
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- flour for dusting – about 1/2 – 1 cup
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese – grated
- In a mixing bowl, stir together ricotta, spinach, eggs, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. The mixture should be fairly solid and firm. Add flour if needed to firm up gnudi, 1 tablespoon at a time.
- Sprinkle the flour onto your cutting board or working surface. Scoop Gnudi batter out by spoonfuls and roll into balls about the size of small walnuts. Roll the balls around in the flour to coat them completely. You can also gently pick them up and roll them around in your palms to help evenly distribute the flour.
- Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a gentle boil. Using a slotted spoon, gently drop half of the Gnudi into the water and cook until they float to the surface, about 4-5 minutes. Scoop out Gnudi and put on a plate to set aside for a few minutes while you cook the second batch.
- Make the butter-sage sauce. While the Gnudi are cooking, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the sage leaves, and on very low heat, let them infuse the butter for a minute or two until fragrant. Don’t let the butter brown. Add 2 Tablespoons of the Gnudi cooking water and stir. Add the cooked Gnudi to the sauce and briefly toss the Gnudi in the sauce to coat and create a light gravy. Discard sage leaves.
- Place Gnudi on a serving platter and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Serve as a first course or main dish. Enjoy with a glass of sparkling Prosecco.
Variations: Gnudi can be served in a tomato sauce or pesto sauce.