Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Other Half.

Always one for too much of a good thing, I was tempted to make another batch of gnocchi with the remaining half of my green mound. An absence of ricotta put an end to that idea. An absence of milk nearly put paid to my second spinach plan – a savory courgette and spinach cake – until I remembered the small stout carton of cream sitting, squatting really between the Campari and the Tanqueray in the door of the fridge. Surely something made with milk would be even nicer if made with cream? It is! But I will come to that presently.

The spinach and courgette cake I was plotting was to be a variation on David Tanis’s very good, very green spinach cake. Now the first time I made this spinach cake, it was rather disappointing. This had everything to do with a misreading of the recipe and my distracted, careless, scurrying execution of said cake and nothing to do with David Tanis’s recipe. Having learned my lesson, I made it a second time, reading diligently, sautéing attentively, seasoning the green batter generously, adjusting cooking times to compensate for my oven and keeping a watchful eye as my cake puffed up proudly in oven. My reward was, as promised, a quite lovely green round.

Like the song in which a love-sick teenager finds truth and solace, spinach cake was on heavy rotation for a while – I’m not sure why I didn’t tell you about it here – and I soon discovered that you can indeed have too much of a good thing. Fortunately neither of us wanted things to turn nasty, so we agreed not to see each other for a while. Then last summer when we were all gathered  in Branscombe for the week of my best friend Joanna’s wedding, Joanna’s mum Rosamund made a delicious starter one evening, a pale green, delicate bake which seemed very like a slightly softer, creamier relative of my spinach cake, but made with courgettes. Nostalgia was felt, plans hatched and notes were scribbled.

As usual, I dragged my cooking heels and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, in possession of a half mound of spinach (of which I used only half, the post about the final quarter is still to come) that I finally deciphered my notes about Ros’s dish, grabbed two courgettes, a handsome leek and half a pint of cream and set about making a spinach and courgette cake.

As with David’s Tanis’s recipe, I began by softening leek in little oil and butter over a medium flame. Once the leek was suitably soft, I added rounds of courgette, nudged them around the pan until they were nicely coated with oil and butter before adding a little water, lowering the flame and then letting the leeks and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, for about 15 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated the courgettes were tender and collapsing. Then I left the green panful to cool.

My spinach (as you know) was already cooked and well-drained (I repeat, water is the enemy) so once the courgette and leeks were cool and transferred to a bowl I added my pile of chopped spinach. Then using my trusty immersion blender, I blitzed the vegetables into a smooth green paste that begged both to be tasted and smeared upon my face. I resisted smearing and simply tasted before adding 5 eggs, cream, grated parmesan, a good grating of nutmeg, an equally good grinding of black pepper and a flick of salt. As I poured the pale creamy- green batter into my reliable non-stick pan I made a mental note  ‘This is the colour I’d like to paint the living room‘ before maneuvering the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes in which time the batter set and puffed gently into a very green cake.

I let the cake settle and cool for a while before cutting it into wedges and serving it with sliced tomatoes – the deeply ribbed ones with thick skins and sweet spicy flesh – and Roscioli bread.

I know I’m courgette biased, but they lend something lovely to this green cake, complimenting the deeply satisfying flavor of the spinach. Tanis’s recipe calls for milk! Cream, as you can probably imagine is another thing entirely, it’s a perfect foil for the green grassy vegetables. The cake is creamier obviously, deeply dairy, luscious and luxurious,. In using cream though, the nutmeg – maybe my favorite spice – becomes even more important, as not only does it perk up the greens no end, but cuts through the dairy, making it less cloying.

I think the cake really does need to rest for at least 40 minutes (and up to 5 hours) after coming out of the oven so it can firm up a little and it’s flavors settle. It is a most delicious wedge, the happy collision of a frittata (which is, as you probably know, an Italian open-faced omelette), a soufflé, a mousse and a savory custard. Lunch.

Last thing, regarding cooking times. David Tanis suggests 40 minutes at 200° for for his spinach cake. In my oven I found this too hot and too long for such a delicate egg and dairy laced thing. I find that 25 minutes or so at 170°is about right so your cake is  gently puffed up and set, but still tender and with a very slight wobble. I love a slight wobble.

Last last thing, a well buttered dish/pie plate will do but a non-stick ovenproof 12″/24cm frying pan is best (I find.)

Spinach and courgette cake

Inspired by Rosamund’s recipe and adapted liberally from David Tanis’s recipe in a Platter of figs – I can’t seem to find a site for the publisher and I am boycotting bloody monopolizing amazon, so please excuse the lack of a link.

Serves 4 as lunch, 8 as a starter.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium-sized leek
  • 2 medium courgettes
  • salt
  • 100ml white wine/water
  • 300 g spinach
  • 5 eggs
  • 250 ml fresh cream
  • 50 g grated parmesan
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • black pepper
Preheat the oven to 170°
 .
Trim the leek and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut the leek into small dice, fill a bowl with water and add the leeks. Agitate the leeks with your hand. Let the dirt and sand settle in the bowl and then scoop the leeks from the water and pat the dry in a clean tea towel. Warm the oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan and then sauté the leek until it is soft and translucent.
 .
Top and tail the courgettes and then slice them into 1/2cm thick rounds. Add the courgette to the leek and stir so each round is well coated with butter.
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After a few minutes, raise the heat a little and add the wine/water. Allow it to bubble enthusiastically. Now reduce the heat again and allow the onion and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, giving a stir and nudge every now and then and adding a little more water if the pan looks dry – for about 15 minutes or until the courgettes are very soft tender and collapsing and all the liquid has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.
 .
Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a low flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 2 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.
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Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl.

Add the cooled leek/ courgette mixture to the spinach and then using a hand blender blitz the mixture into a smooth green paste.

Add the cream and eggs to the bowl and blitz again before stirring in the parmesan, a grating of nutmeg, salt and black pepper.

Pour the batter into in ovenproof sauté pan, buttered baking dish or 10-12 inch deep-pie dish and then slide into the oven. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until the cake is set but still with a slight tremble/wobble at the center.

Allow the cake to sit, cool and settle for at least 40 minutes before serving in wedges.

I really should learn to not make promises I can’t keep! I apologise, It’s the optimist in me, she’s extremely unrealistic sometimes. A promise I am trying to keep though, is not inflicting too much babyboringness on you all! However as I write about what I’m cooking and eating, and now that Luca is my prefered lunch date, it feels appropriate to mention that alongside breastfeeding (we have surprised ourselves, we are total enthusiasts, quite boring proponents and in it for for the long haul) he’s started eating some proper food. Neither of us could face those purees and all that spoon-feeding and so following in the footsteps of my sister Rosie and my niece Beattie and properly inspired by this brilliant book and site we are having a lot of extremely messy fun

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Filed under antipasti, courgettes, cream, Eggs, food, picnics, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables

A bag of green.

When buying spinach‘ Jane Grigson reminds us ‘Assess its liveliness, it should have a bouncing, bright appearance‘ and ‘As you stuff it into your bag or basket it should crunch and squeak’

The spinach above, a generous kilo procured from my trusted fruttivendolo Vincenzo, would have pleased Jane Grigson I think, dark forest green, crimped of leaf, plump stemmed, bright and bouncy. Misbehaving and uncooperative, it squeaked and squealed as I squashed it into the bag, an experience not dissimilar to dressing my 7 month old.

Having picked over my green bagful, I gave it a good soak in a sinkful of cold water and then an overenthusiastic rinse before wrestling it, water still clinging to the leaves, into my biggest, heaviest pot – my orange le creuset – disciplining it with the equally heavy lid and putting it over a modest flame.

I never cease to be impressed by the way spinach, if cooked in a heavy pan over a modest flame with no more water than that which still clings to its leaves after a good wash, wilts and collapses into such a neat, obedient pile.

Having admired, washed, wilted and carefully drained your spinach (wateriness is the enemy) the possibilities for your green ball are countless. As a rule I like my spinach with extra virgin olive oil, salt and a squeeze of lemon. I’m also very fond of  wilted spinach reheated with a very very large knob of butter (spinach, like me, absorbs massive quantities of butter and becomes all the more delicious for doing so). I then eat my extremely buttery greens with grilled meat or piled on toast and topped with a poached egg and – if I’m feeling frisky – some hollandaise.

This week however, or last week by the time I post this, I cut my ball in two (later three) and made three green meals: spinach and ricotta gnocchi, a very green pie and a (splendid) tart.

I’ve decided to risk spinach saturation as I think all three green recipes: gnocchi, pie and tart, deserve their own post. I don’t intend to drag things out too much though, a spinach stampede is the plan, all three posts this week! Optimistic and unrealistic am I! We will see. First the gnocchi.

Gnocchi as you know ‘Are little dumplings.” Literally translated, gnoccho means little lump – rather like the one that appears when you bash your head on the kitchen cabinet that needs fixing – so the plural, gnocchi means little lumps. Italians make the most delicious and delightful little lumps, especially from potatoes, sometimes breadcrumbs, semolina or vegetables and they often flavour them with herbs and cheese. Gnocchi are cooked like pasta, but very gently, in plenty of boiling water and then dressed with the appropriate sauce or simply lots and lots of sage infused melted butter.’

Spinach and ricotta gnocchi are, as their name suggests, little dumplings made from spinach and ricotta bound with eggs, parmesan, spiked with nutmeg and dusted with just enough flour to mould them into shape. I’ve written about spinach and ricotta gnocchi before, a recipe that I’ve known and trusted for years. But a couple of weeks ago my friend and cooking companion Alice showed me how she makes gnocchi, a version she learned from Lizzie Cinati at the Winterhaven in Falls Creek. At first glance Alice’s recipe not so very different from the recipe I have made mine! But look closely and you’ll notice very different proportions, an omission, a couple of tweaks and some sage advice about shape and cooking which produces the best spinach and ricotta gnocchi I have ever eaten. I have eaten many.

Alice’s recipe uses the same quantity of ricotta as spinach, so 500g of spinach is mixed with an impressive 500g of ricotta. There is no sautéed onion, just a whole egg, a tablespoon of flour, 100g of grated parmesan and a generous grating of nutmeg to be mixed with the speckled green cream. You let the mixture chill for a couple for hours and then as lunchtime approaches you enlist the help of a fellow gnocchi maker (and a glass of campari on ice) as it’s best if you work swiftly and cook the gnocchi as soon as you possibly can.

The mixture is extremely soft, sticky and seemingly uncontrollable! Have no fear and resist adding more flour. Well floured hands, patience and practice and you will find a way to mould and shape the mixture into imprecise lozenges roughly the size of a brazil nut. There are two ways to work. Either using two teaspoons to form the mixture into lozenges and then rolling them immediately in flour. Alternatively you can dust your work-suface with flour, scoop out a generous handful of pale green mixture and with very well- floured hands roll it into a log, flatten it slightly and then cut the log into slices before tweaking the shape of each slice into the requisite form. Sit the gnocchi on a tray dusted with flour.

To cook the gnocchi you bring a large pan of well salted water to a very gentle boil. Carefully drop 12 gnocchi at a time into the water. After a few minutes they will be puffy, proud as punch, soft and have bobbed to the surface. Using a slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process. When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sage butter, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan

I needed no convincing about spinach and ricotta gnocchi, 12 or 14 freshly poached morsels, like green speckled pillows sitting in a pool of sage butter and dusted with parmesan, were already amongst my favorite things to eat. This recipe which produces some of the lightest, plumpest, most delicate and softly textured gnocchi I have ever eaten has simply fortified that conviction and nudged spinach and ricotta gnocchi even higher up my list. The key I think is the impressive quality of ricotta, the whisper of flour, the pleasing shape and reminder about cooking as soon as you can after making your gnocchi.

One of the nicest ways to eat your greens.

Gnocchi are usually eaten as a primo piatto (first course) but they make a fine main course especially if served with a sliced tomato salad, piedmontese peppers and some nice bread to mop up the sage butter. It is worth seeking out the best ricotta – ideally Ricotta di pecora (sheeps milk ricotta).

Spinach and Ricotta gnocchi

serves 4 (6 at push but who likes to push!)

  • 5oog / 1 lb fresh spinach
  • 500g / 1 llb ricotta
  • large egg
  • 100g freshly grated parmesan
  • 1 tbsp flour and more for dusting
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • salt
For the sage butter
  • 100g best butter
  • 10 fresh sage leaves

Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a medium flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl

Add the ricotta to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add the egg, the grated parmesan,   flour and a grating of nutmeg. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste, add salt if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Dust your hands and a work surface with flour and working quickly shape the gnocchi into lozenges the size of a brazil nut and sit them on a tray dusted with flour.

Bring a large pan a well salted water to a gentle boil, not too hard or the gnocchi will disintegrate.

Put the butter in a small frying pan and turn the heat to medium. When the butter stops foaming and it starts turning tawny but not brown, add the sage leaves. Cook for a few seconds, turning the leaves once and then remove from the heat

Now begin cooking the gnocchi. Carefully drop 12 gnocchi at a time into the gently boiling water. After a few minutes they will be puffy, soft and have floated to the surface. Using a with slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process.

When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sauce, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan.

‘A bag of green – the second half’ coming soon.

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Filed under food, gnocchi, rachel eats Italy, ricotta, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables