For some unknown reason, I've always had a rather irrational fear of making gnocchi - I had managed to convince myself that they were impossibly difficult to make, that I would end up with something that either resembled bullets or, worse yet, would fall to bits when cooked and that I would be left with some kind of raft of horrible sludge bobbing around atop a pot of boiling water.
So when making spinach gnocchi was presented as an assignment for the Cooking Italy group, I thought it was time to face my fears and give them a try. (Go and visit Angela at Spinach Tiger or view my Cooking Italy page to learn more about the group and see what some of the others have been cooking.) To cut a long story short, our mission, should we decide to accept it was to cook the Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi recipe from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, served with a creamy tomato sauce.
Well, maybe it was beginner's luck, but I found these to actually be incredibly easy to make (a little bit fiddly maybe, but certainly not difficult), and the resulting little "pillows" of spinach and ricotta were light as air and never even hinted at falling apart. Despite the fact that I left out the onion (since we don't do onion in our house), these gnocchi were certainly not short on flavour - the ricotta is light and delicate, the flavour of the spinach is earthy and mellow, and then they were spiked with the sharp, salty tang of prosciutto (you could simply omit this for a vegetarian version) and parmesan, and a bit of freshly grated nutmeg pulls it all together.
I knew the creamy tomato sauce wouldn't be that popular in our household, and as I happened to have a nice bunch of sage on hand, I opted to serve these with Marcella's Butter and Sage Sauce. This added a note of richness, and I thought made this seem rather elegant - okay, so my presentation in these pictures doesn't look particularly elegant - but I think had I served half a dozen of these in a beautiful wide bowl and drizzled the sauce over the top a little more artfully, this could have been a very stylish dish indeed.
Another thing that is particularly appealing about this dish is that every step of this can be prepared in advance, in fact the gnocchi freeze beautifully and can be cooked from frozen. Getting them to the table is then a simple matter of boiling water, literally just 3-4 minutes of cooking time, and melting butter. Perfect for making on a wet Sunday afternoon, and bringing out for a quick and easy week night dinner.
Spinach & Ricotta Gnocchi Recipe
with Butter & Sage Sauce
Adapted from Marcella Hazan's
Click here for a printable copy of this recipe
For the gnocchi:
450g spinach, fresh or frozen
2 tablespoons butter
2 slices prosciutto (optional)
3/4 cup fresh ricotta
2/3 cup plain flour
2 egg yolks
1 cup parmesan, freshly grated
nutmeg, freshly grated
extra parmesan for serving
For the sauce:
4-5 tablespoons butter
6-8 fresh sage leaves
First prepare the spinach.
If using fresh spinach (which is what I used), remove stems, then soak leaves in a sink full of cold water, and swish around gently with your hand to remove any dirt or bugs. Drain and repeat several times if necessary. Drain. Then, using no more water than what is still clinging to the leaves, put the spinach into a large pan, add 1 tablespoon of salt, cover, and set over medium heat until wilted down and tender. This will take about 4-5 minutes. Drain, and once the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze as much moisture out of it as you can, chop coarsely and set aside.
If using frozen spinach, Marcella says to "cook in a covered pan with salt for about 5 minutes". Now, I can't vouch for this because I've never used frozen spinach, but I wouldn't have thought that this step was necessary, as I would have expected it to be already cooked, but I suggest that you perhaps follow the directions on the packet. Either way, once it is cooked it needs to drained, cooled, squeezed to remove any moisture, and then chopped.
Next heat the butter in a pan over medium heat, then add the chopped prosciutto. Cook just for a few seconds - really just enough to coat the prosciutto in the butter - you are not aiming for crispy here. Then add the chopped spinach, a generous pinch of salt, and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
Empty the pan into a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, add the flour and the ricotta, mixing together well. Add the egg yolks, grated parmesan, and a "smidgeon" of freshly grated nutmeg (about 1/8th teaspoon), and mix together until everything is incorporated. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Roll small amounts of the mixture in the palm of your hand to make "small pellets", dusting your hands with a little flour if you find the mixture is sticking to your palms. Marcella says: "Ideally they should be no bigger than 1/2 inch across, but if you find it troublesome to make them that small you can try for 3/4 inch. The smaller the better, because they cook more quickly and favour a better distribution of sauce." I have to say that I didn't get my ruler out to check the size of mine, and I expect that mine were probably a little on the large side - but I'm not one to fuss, and I'm calling them "rustic". I got 40 gnocchi out of this quantity of ingredients, and froze half of them - I just popped them in the freezer in a single layer on a baking tray till frozen, then put them into a snaplock bag.
To serve - bring a large pot of water to the boil, and salt liberally. Drop the gnocchi, a few at a time, into the boiling water. They will sink to the bottom of the pot, and then when they bob back up to the surface (which will take about 4 or 5 minutes) they are ready. Using a slotted spoon, scoop the gnocchi out and place in a warm serving bowl. Spoon a little of your chosen sauce over them. Continue cooking your gnocchi a few at a time, adding each batch with a little more sauce to your serving bowl as you go. Once they are all done, pour any remaining sauce over the top, and serve with grated parmesan.
For the Butter and Sage Sauce:
Put the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted it will begin to boil and foam up quite dramatically. Be brave - the foam will begin to subside, and the colour will turn to deep gold. Then add the sage leaves, cook for just a few seconds, turning them around in the butter, then pour the butter and leaves over the gnocchi.
I know that this is a recipe I will be making again and again - those bags in the freezer are so perfect to bring out when you need a quick dinner.