The irony is that I didn’t have a problem with the word gnocchi until I moved to Italy. Apart from the English accent, there will always be the English accent, I had the pronunciation down, gnocchi, the silent g, n as in new, o as in octopus, cch pronounced k as in key, i pronounced ee as in tree, nyokee, nyokee, nyokee. Gnocchi was one of the fifty-one Italian words – 36 of which were food and wine related – I actually knew when I arrived in Italy five years ago. The other 15? Well, if I remember correctly; four were Sicilian swear words, not sure where I picked those up; 7, the first line of the chorus of volare; the rest, a smattering of random musical terms – the sad legacy of a decade of piano lessons and the weekly pleas of my weary teacher Mrs Isabel Beyer, ‘pianissimo e grazioso, soft and elegant Rachel, soft and elegant’ as I thrashed and bashed out another sonata.
I’m not sure quite how it happened, but somewhere along my rather steep Italian learning curve, somewhere amongst the chi pronounced key and the che pronounced kay, the befuddling gli’s and gno‘s and the perplexing Italian grammar, I managed to mislay the pronunciation of gnocchi, rather like a sock. I think it was a case of word overboard, there was only so much room, I could cram the past tense of the verb morire into my saturated memory but there was a price and that was gnocchi pronunciation amnesia . One day it was there, gnocchi, rolling off my tongue like a Roman with a very English accent, the next I was frowning at the menu thinking knocky, G-nokey, nokay feeling confused, pink of face and pointing at the menu.
I managed to avoid actually saying the word gnocchi for about two years. I pointed, I nodded, on one occasion I managed to sustain an intense, merry and lengthy conversation about making gnocchi without actually naming it once. Vincenzo, between his taunting – which is justified retaliation, I am merciless and regularly need to lie on the floor laughing at some of his English constructions – did try to tutor me, n-y-o-k-e-e, which would help and I would say it correctly. But then a few days later, faced with a menu, it had gone again, knowkey, nochee.
Anyway, after all that, the end of the gnocchi saga is rather lame really, like finding the sock you mislaid two years ago, behind the radiator. I was in Volpetti one day for lunch and I ordered the gnocchi, I didn’t point or gesture, I didn’t say ‘questi‘ (those) I just said it, ‘gnocchi’ and that was that, I was passed the plate of steaming little dumplings with tomato sauce and lots of parmesan. I ordered it the following week just to be certain, and sure enough, there it was again, gnocchi. Vincenzo said brava and then laughed at my accent.
Gnocchi, as I’m sure you know, are little dumplings. Literally translated, gnoccho means little lump, rather like the one that appears when you bump your head on the kitchen cabinet that needs fixing, so the plural, gnocchi means little lumps. Italians make the most delicious and delightful gnocchi, 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.
We are still learning to make soft, light and fluffy ‘cloud like’ potato gnocchi (practice practice practice was my Friends advice, the friend who makes the ‘cloud like gnocchi’) and I still haven’t attempted the traditional Roman semolina gnocchi or a nice sounding Tuscan recipe for walnut gnocchi. But we can make a very nice spinach and ricotta gnocchi.
So far, I think theses are maybe my favourite and certainly the most lovely of all the gnocchi family, light and delicate but surprisingly satisfying without being dumpy heavy or stout, the curse of many- a- dumpling. They are known as ravioli verdi or ravioli nudi (nude ravioli) in Tuscany, which is the most charming name because thats exactly what they are, nude ravioli, no pasta just the loose, quite delicious filling of spinach and ricotta ravioli (which is simply spinach and ricotta bound with eggs, parmesan and spiked with nutmeg) shaped into little lumps. The gnocchi are then dusted with flour to hold them together.
They very pleasing to make and quite straightforward. You cook some spinach with no water but a little salt, drain it, press it absolutely dry, then chop it. You sauté an onion in some butter and add the spinach and cook it gently for a couple of minutes. Next you add the ricotta, parmesan, beaten egg, flour, and nutmeg, stir and let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.
Then with a teaspoon and well floured hands, working on a well floured board you form little lumps or pellets of the mixture, rolling them in the palm of your hand, dusting each one with a little more flour before spreading them out on a flour dusted baking tray.
You bring a big pan of well salted water to a gentle boil and lower in the green gnocchi a few at a time. You poach them gently for a few minutes until they come bobbing happily – all puffed up and proud – to the surface. Then you fish them out with a slotted spoon.
You serve the gnocchi immediately on a warm serving plate with lots of sage butter and more freshly grated parmesan.
I adore these little green dumplings, light and delicate but surprisingly substancial without being heavy, Like little green pillows, or clouds, floating in a pool of sage infused butter. Really nice food.
I made a plate of sliced oranges and slivers of dates for pudding.
Oh last thing, the 50g of flour in the ingredients is optional, it makes the gnocchi easier to handle and acts a little like glue keeping the gnocchi together while they cook…. but does make them slightly heavier. Once you get the hang of making these gnocchi and more confident about cooking times you can leave the flour out just rely on the little flour you use to dust them, the gnocchi will be even lighter and more lovely.
Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi with sage and butter sauce
Inspired by Elizabeth David’s recipe in Italian food but adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe in The Essentials of classic Italian cooking
For the gnocchi:
- 450g /llb very fresh, bouncy, lively spinach
- 25g butter
- 1 tablespoon very finely chopped onion
- 150g Ricotta (cows or goats milk ricotta is great but sheeps milk ricotta is perfect)
- 50g plain flour (optional, see note above)
- 2 egg yolks gently beaten
- 115g freshly grated parmesan cheese plus more for serving
- a pinch of grated nutmeg
- More plain flour for dusting
for the butter and sage sauce:
- 50g 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, add a heaped teaspoon of salt, 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 set it aside.
Warm the butter in frying pan then add the onion and sauté it over a medium flame until it is soft, transparent and golden. Add the chopped spinach to the pan with a pinch of salt and then cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often.
Tip the spinach and onion mixture into a bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Add the ricotta and the flour to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add the egg yolks, the grated parmesan and a tiny pinch 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 with flour and working quickly makes small nuggets/pellets of the mixture – about 2cm across (even smaller if you have the patience) 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.
Drop in about 15 gnocchi at a time, when the water comes back to the boil, cook them for 3 – 4 minutes.
While the gnocchi are cooking make the sage butter…..
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 back to the gnocchi, 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.