It was the beginning of summer 2010, I had the blog for slightly more than one year and I was stuck in a daily job where gratifications were meagre. I was still at home with my parents and my family was renting the house where I live now for the holidays. A nice American couple who was spending the week here in the countryside asked me if I could refer them to someone for a cooking class.
I’m always slow to recognize opportunities, they often pass by like high speed trains, but that day, that day I caught my train.
I offered myself as cooking class instructor, boasting an experience and a self-confidence I did not have. We agreed for a day and a menu and as soon as I got back home after work I knocked on their door, bringing a bag of ingredients and trying to hide my quivering voice. There was tiramisu on the menu, something I was pretty confident about, a family recipe which I could make with a hand tied behind my back.
The main course was instead the result of too much enthusiasm and not enough thinking. I opted for gnudi, known also as malfatti, delicate ricotta and spinach dumplings which I had probably made a couple of times in my whole life.
There’s a crucial moment when making gnudi.
You pop them into a pot of boiling water and wait faithfully for them to float to the top. A couple of minutes separates you from perfectly shaped gnudi or from a mushy mass of ricotta and spinach.
I was gazing at the pot of boiling water for any sign of failure of success: that wait had the taste of eternity. I was wondering why on earth I had chosen gnudi while I could have easily made tagliatelle when I saw the first, plump and round gnudo floating gently to the top. Soon after an army of gnudi crowded the surface of the pot. I had succeeded in preparing the first meal during a cooking class.
After dinner, I walked back home with my heart fluttering in my chest. It was the first time my work had been sincerely appreciated, I felt invincible, I had found my place in the world, my mission, the job I wanted to make.
One year and a half had to pass before I could call it my job and my life, many failures, closed doors and disillusionments. But that gnudi, gently floating to the top, the proof of my success, were a constant reminder that I could make it.
Fast forward eight years, I’m still thanking that hazardous decision that made me choose gnudi.
I want to share with you this recipe which is now part of my culinary repertoire, something which is seasonal, humble and so versatile, as instead of spinach you can also use Swiss chard, foraged herbs or the king of Tuscan winters, cavolo nero.
Gnudi di cavolo nero – Ricotta and kale gnudi
There are two crucial ingredients here which can help you ease the anxiety while waiting for your kale gnudi to float tot the top: ricotta and cavolo nero, the Tuscan kale. Use a well-drained ricotta and squeeze very well the cooked kale. Once you make this, they will be your next success in the kitchen.
Ricotta and kale gnudi
For the gnudi
- 500 g of cavolo nero, 300 g once boiled and squeezed
- 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
- 300 g of cow ricotta cheese
- 2 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1 egg
- 300 g of semolina flour
For the dressing
- 50 g of butter
- 50 g of guanciale, you can substitute guanciale with pancetta
- A handful of sage leaves
- Aged Pecorino Toscano, Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano would do as well
- Start with the ricotta: you need to remove any whey from it, so spoon the ricotta into a colander and let it drain for a few hours (if the ricotta is very liquid, you can leave it in the fridge overnight).
- Wash the cavolo nero leaves, remove any hard stalk and drain.
- Bring a large pot of water to a gentle boil, add the cavolo nero leaves, pushing them into the water, and cook on medium flame for about 15 minutes, or until tender.
- Drain the leaves well, let them cool down and squeeze them with your hands. A potato ricer works magic to squeeze the excess water out of vegetables like spinach, kale and the like.
- Once the cavolo nero is perfectly squeezed, chop it with a knife: don’t be tempted to use a blender, you don’t want a purée but some texture for the gnudi.
- Sauté the chopped cavolo nero in a pan with a tablespoon of with extra virgin olive oil and a minced clove of garlic. Scoop in a bowl and let it cool down completely.
- Collect in a bowl the well-drained ricotta, the cold cavolo nero, the Parmigiano Reggiano and a beaten egg. Add a generous pinch of grated nutmeg and mix thoroughly with a fork. Season with salt.
- Sprinkle generously a tray with semolina flour. Form the gnudi shaping with your hands balls slightly smaller than a walnut. Gently roll the gnudi in semolina flour, then leave them into the semolina. The semolina creates a film around the gnudi, thus preventing them from melting into the boiling water.
- You can cook the gnudi as soon as they are ready but if you allow them a few hours in the fridge into the semolina, the flour will absorb their moisture and you’ll have firmer gnudi. In other words, you’ll be sure that they won’t melt in the water.
- When you’re almost ready sit at the table, bring a large pot of water to the boil and prepare the dressing for the gnudi.
- Cook the guanciale cut into thin strips and set aside. Melt the butter with the sage until the leaves are crisp, then set aside.
- Cook the gnudi in batches in boiling salted water. When they float to the top – just a few minutes, sometimes it only takes one – lift them out with a slotted spoon and move them into a serving plate. Drizzle the gnudi with the brown butter and sage, add the crisp guanciale and a sprinkling of grated pecorino. Toss the gnudi with care and gentleness, otherwise you might break them. Serve immediately.
The kale gnudi in your cooking repertoire
After reading Cooking for Mr. Latte, by Amanda Hesser, I fell in love with the concept of having a cooking repertoire, and I decided to share here on the blog these recipes, staples of a Tuscan repertoire, analysing the ingredients and the process with plenty of details so that, if you want, you’ll be able to include them into your collection and make Tuscan cooking your signature style.
I chose these recipes not to impress, but to nourish, and because, using Amanda Hesser’s words, they would express my true sensibility as a cook, not my ambition.
All the recipes of my cooking repertoire
These are all the recipes I added so far into my cooking repertoire. This is an ever growing list, an always expanding collection which represents the way I live Tuscan food and cooking. Have you already tried something?
- Crespelle alla fiorentina. It is a handy recipe to learn as you can vary the filling according to the season: asparagus, artichokes and butternut squash are some of my favourites along with spinach and Swiss chard. You can mix the vegetables with fresh milky ricotta or add some béchamel into the filling. Cheese is a welcomed ingredient: Parmigiano Reggiano, Tuscan or Roman Pecorino, ricotta salata, or any other savoury aged cheese that you would happily grate over your pasta.
- Tuscan ragù. The Tuscan ragù is cooked with red wine, poured in little by little, and with tomato purée (just tomatoes that have been peeled and blended into a sauce), even better if it is your home made tomato purée, made during the heat of summer. To give more character to the ragù and have a more rustic sauce, sometimes I prefer to replace the passata with the same weight of peeled tomatoes, roughly crushed with my hands.
Main courses and side dishes
- Beef and eggplant meatballs. According to the season, you can substitute roasted eggplants with boiled potatoes, roasted butternut squash or breadcrumbs soaked in milk. I usually choose between grated Parmigiano Reggiano, aged Pecorino or Provolone to add flavour to the meat, sometimes adding brined capers, too. This time I opted for Parmigiano, along with a pinch of dry oregano to give a mediterranean touch.
- Stuffed turkey breast. One of the recipes that my mum taught me and that I immediately associate with Sunday lunches is the stuffed turkey breast, roasted on the stovetop and not in the oven. It is a humble dish, but it has an enormous potential.
- Baked eggplants. Colours and textures of that once loved recipe surfaced along with the ingredients: eggplants of course, either the round purple ones or those thin long ones, then breadcrumbs, parsley, capers, garlic and some grated Parmigiano. There it was, my forgiving recipe, thick slices of eggplants topped with boldly flavoured breadcrumbs, roasted in the oven until golden and crisp.
- Italian potato salad. So a potato salad, which I had overlooked for years, becomes a distinguishing element of a menu, especially if you dress it with an Italian twist, with wild fennel, capers and olives. You can find the same aromas in a roasted pork loin with olive oil and wine, or in the baked eggplants that you are planing to serve as an appetiser.
- Apple olive oil cake. You can dress it up for a dinner party: serve a slice of warm apple cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato, a cloud of whipped cream or a drizzle of custard. Wrap in foil a slice of cake for a school break or an office break. Bake the olive oil apple cake on a Sunday and enjoy it for breakfast on the first days of the week with a strong coffee or a cappuccino.
- Coffee and vanilla pound cake. A versatile recipe to make a pound cake with the ingredients you have at hand, with a detailed explanation of the four macro categories of ingredients you can use, plus a recipe for a vanilla pound cake marbled with coffee, designed to wake you up in the morning. Use white farro flour, white sugar and dark cane sugar, Greek yogurt and butter.
- Ricotta crumb cake. I still have to decide if I prefer the cake warm from the oven, or after a few hours of fridge. This ricotta crumb cake is an unmissable summer cake, and I’ll let you decide when to serve it, if you are in hurry or armed by adamant patience.
- There are many recipes for gnudi here on the blog: spinach gnudi, with some musing about their name, and gluten free gnudi (including a video recipe!), to name a few.
- Amy’s recipe for spinach gnudi.
- Nigel Slater’s gnudi, made just with ricotta, which sound divine.