Malafatta/Strangolapreti/Gnocchi con Bietole

Ricotta and Spinach Dumplings

Three titles for the same dish from Emilia Romagna (northern Italy). ‘Malafatta’ means ‘badly made’, and refers to their inevitable home-made appearance. ‘Strangolapreti’ is my favourite, and means ‘priest strangler, apocryphally referring to a greedy prelate’s demise. (Gnocohi con Bietole’ is misleading in that these light dumplings bear little resemblance to all the other rather heavy gnocchi of Italy.

Ideally bietole or Swiss chard should be used for this dish but fresh spinach makes an acceptable substitute. (Incidentally, very well drained and squeezed frozen leaf spinach will do.)

The quality of the ricotta is important as, obviously, is that of the Parmesan. Try and seek out a better quality ricotta from your delicatessen or cheese shop, but don’t worry if you have to use supermarket brands. This recipe contains virtually no flour in the mix, which I think improves on the Italian originals, but does make the dumplings harder to form. Under no circumstances use a food processor for the chopping of the spinach or the ricotta. The dumplings will be heavy if you do.

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Ingredients

  • 600 g spinach (or Swiss chard greens)
  • 200 g ricotta cheese
  • salt and pepper possible
  • 100 g Parmesan, freshly grated
  • plain flour
  • 2 eggs
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • 200 g butter
  • 12 sage leaves

Method

To prepare and form the gnocchi

Cook the spinach by dipping it in salted boiling water for 1 minute, then draining and refreshing it in cold water. Drain again then, using your hands, squeeze as dry as possible; copious quantities of water will come out. Now squeeze again and even more will exude. When you are satisfied that it is as dry as you can get it (your arms will be aching but it does wonders for the pectoral muscles), re-fluff it up by breaking up the compacted balls. You will need to have 200 g – if you find yourself with a little less, adjust the other ingredients accordingly.

Coarsely chop the spinach and put in a large mixing bowl. Break up and add the ricotta, Parmesan, 150 g of the flour and the eggs. Mix partially then season with freshly grated nutmeg, salt and pepper. Now mix thoroughly and refrigerate for an hour.

To form the gnocchi, place 200 g flour on a tray and season it well. Lightly dust another tray with more flour, and flour your hands. Take a gobstopper sized piece of the mixture and roll in your floured hands until a smooth ball is formed, then roll in the seasoned flour until coated and transfer to the lightly floured tray. Re-flour your hands and repeat. You will have appallingly messy hands after a while. Refrigerate the formed gnocchi until needed. Clear what seems to be the entire kitchen as this is a messy job.

To cook and serve the gnocchi

Preheat the oven to 110°C/225°F/Gas ¼. Heat an attractive ovenproof dish (which is big enough to hold the gnocchi in a single layer) in the low oven. Put a wide shallow pan of water on to boil and add salt.

Put the butter to melt with the sage leaves in a small saucepan and infuse. Do not burn, just melt it and keep warm. Carefully tip the formed gnocchi into the boiling water and return to a simmer. As soon as bubbles reappear, turn down the heat to maintain a simmer. The gnocchi take 10 minutes or so to cook and they float when done. Of course if you didn’t use a wide pan and foolishly opted for a deep, narrow saucepan, many of the dumplings will be held under by their colleagues on top. They will not be able to demonstrate their buoyant personalities and will become waterlogged.

Remove the heated dish from the oven and turn the oven up to 180°C/350°/Gas 4. When the gnocchi are cooked drain with a spider very carefully (they are fragile) and place in a single layer in the heated dish. A little water will cling to them. Pour over the melted butter and sage and return to the oven for 10 minutes. Serve in the dish at the table, and pass more Parmesan if you like the idea.

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