Ricotta and Basil Gnocchi with Fresh Tomato Sauce (Gnocchi di Ricotta e Basilico al Pomodoro Fresco)

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My final days in Italy are, sadly, fast approaching. I have spent 6 weeks back home with my family in the company of my Italian folks, I’ve eaten more than I should, drank way too much Italian red wine, bundled myself and my boys in multiple layers of thermal clothing, scarves, hats and coats, played snow ball fights and I even skiied in the Dolomites for the first time in my life… And after such an intense winter time, I now feel an anchoring for summer, for peeling off a few layers of clothing, for walking barefoot and, more to the point, for vine-ripened tomatoes! The kind you ought to handle with care otherwise they burst in your hands, oozing out  their ruby, sweet liquor, their sticky seeds landing inexorably on the front of your freshly laundered white singlet… In 10 days, back in the Northern beaches of Sydney, I will be able to hit the farmers market and select, pick and eventually turn these summer jewels into Italian’s most loved pasta dressing: Passata di Pomodoro, fresh Tomato Sauce. And as I do that, I’m sure I will be missing my Italian family and the coziness of winter…Such is life!

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

For the Ricotta Gnocchi (not to be confused with Potato Gnocchi)

450 g (2 1/2 cups) full-cream ricotta (using low-fat ricotta won’t work…Live a little!)

2 egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon salt flakes

1 pinch freshly ground white pepper

100–120 (2/3 cups) g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

2/3 cup (50 g) freshly grated parmigiano

5-6 leaves of basil, finely shredded

For the sauce

850 gr (2 lb) of fresh tomatoes (or 1 tin of good quality tinned tomatoes or your own Passata)

1-2 shallots (or 1 medium brown onion), finely chopped

4 tablespoons of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

1 garlic clove, skin on, bashed with back of a knife

1 small celery stick, finely chopped

salt flakes, to taste

a few yellow celery leaves

a handful of basil leaves

HOW TO

1. Start by making the sauce. Wash the tomatoes, score the top gently with a knife and blanch them in boiling water for 1 minutes. Plunge them  into cold water to allow the skin to come off easily. Peel the tomatoes, chop them roughly and set aside.

2. Heat up the oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan. Stir fry the shallots, celery and the garlic on medium heat for 1-2 minutes or until the shallots turn translucent and slightly golden and the garlic smells fragrant. Drop in the chopped tomatoes (or tinned tomatoes, if using. Or, if you’ve been amazingly good, your own Passata…), season with salt and cook on medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the celery and basil leaves. Cover with a lid and set aside.

3. In the meantime, make the gnocchi. Discard any excess liquid from the ricotta, then put it in a large mixing bowl with the egg yolks, cheese, salt and pepper. Add the flour and work with floured hands or a wooden spoon until you have a smooth, soft dough – it should be pliable, a little sticky but not too wet. Don’t be tempted to add lots of flour to make it easier to work the dough as the resulting gnocchi will almost certainly be dense and doughy. The secret to soft and pillowy gnocchi is to go easy with flour, use just enough to make the dough come together.

4. Flour your hands and cooking bench generously and divide the dough into 6 pieces. Take 1 piece, sprinkle it with flour and roll it with your hands to form a log. Cut the log into small rectangles and set them aside on a floured wooden board. Repeat with the remaining dough.

5. Turn the heat back on under the tomato sauce frying pan (on low). Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Drop the gnocchi, in two or three batches, into the pan of boiling water and stir gently.   Cook for 1–2 minutes or until they come up to the surface, then fish them out with a slotted spoon and drop them straight into the pan with the tomato sauce. Repeat until all the gnocchi are cooked.

6. Turn off the heat. Serve as it is or with freshly torn basil leaves and a good grating of Parmigiano.

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Gnocchi all’Aglione (home-made gnocchi with Tuscan garlic tomato sauce)

The day started with a bang. And I mean a proper bang, on the head to be precise.

My darling 5 year-old had decided to prop his favourite book on the shelf right above my side of the bed the night before “for you to read it to me in the morning” he then confessed when I asked him, still holding a piece of cloth on my nose to stop it from bleeding.

I suppose I should encourage his love for reading, but, somehow, being reminded how important books are for one’s brain development with  Dr Seuss‘s collective work  landing on my nose at 5 am,  doesn’t seem to agree with me…

Later that day, my husband calls me from set, with the news he’s just ran into a metal slab whilst shooting a romantic encounter with a stunning looking actress, and he’s now at the hospital being stitched up. After my inevitable giggle at such cruel faith on what should have been such a happy day at work (eh, he,he !), I decided to turn the day good again.

Comfort food sprang to mind… So many choices… A cake? A risotto? Lasagne? Potato Gnocchi! The soft-as-pillow kind, coated in a robust, Tuscan tomato sauce.

My nose still hurts, Richard’s got four stitches on his forehead, but our tummies are happy indeed!

Ingredients for the gnocchi

850 gr (2 pounds) of starchy potatoes (russets or desiree)

1 egg yolk

Pinch of salt

3/4-1 cup of plain flour

Ingredients for the sauce

3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 small handful of parsley stalks, finely chopped

A couple of pinches of salt

1/4 cup of white wine

1 tin of whole tomatoes, crushed with a fork

Grated Parmigiano, freshly ground black pepper and parsley leaves to serve

How to

Put the potatoes, in their skin, in a large pot of salted, cold water. Bring to the boil over high heat and cook for 40-50 minutes or until cooked through. Drain well, then peel the potatoes, using a pairing knife if necessary as they will be very hot.

Pass the potatoes through a ricer (or use a potato masher), and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes.

Add the egg yolk and a small pinch of salt.

Start adding the flour, a little a the time. Depending on your potatoes and the type of flour you use, you may need to use a little more or a little less than indicated. You want a soft dough, that is pliable and not tacky. I normally end up using 3/4 and use the rest for dusting while I’m shaping the gnocchi.

Don’t be tempted to add to much flour though, or your gnocchi will be heavy.

Cut the dough into 4-5 pieces, roll them out onto a surface dusted with flour and shape them into logs. Cut each log into 2-3 cm pieces.

You can leave them as that or roll them onto the tines of a floured fork, gently but like you mean it. As the gnocchi curl into the fork, the tine pattern will be embossed onto to them. Later, when coated in sauce, those very ridges will trap it in, for the joy of your palate.

Once you have rolled all your gnocchi, dust them with flour and set aside.

To make the sauce, heat up the oil in a large frying pan, quickly sauté the garlic and parsley stalks for 1-2 minutes. Pour in the wine and cook over high heat for 1-2 minutes or until the alcohol has evaporated. Add the crushed tomatoes, a pinch of salt and cook, bring to a simmer and then turn the heat to medium low and cook for 15-20 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.

Boil your gnocchi in batches.

As they are cooked, they will float to the surface. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and drop them straight into the tomato sauce pot. Repeat until all your gnocchi are cooked. Saute’ the gnocchi in the sauce for 1 minute to allow the flavor to mingle.

Dust with parmigiano, top with a few parsley leaves and serve hot.

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Cannelloni with Ricotta and Spinach

Home-made pasta is the ultimate Sunday Lunch treat in Italy.

Forget about a roast beast with all the trimmings, we need our share of starchy goodness, home-made, of course.

From scratch, goes without saying!

Naturally you can use store-bough dried cannelloni, but the flavor and texture won’t be as luxurious.

And, after all, this is Sunday lunch we are talking about, it’s your declaration of love to your family and those lucky friends invited to your table.

It’s well worth a bit of effort.

Just make them do the dishes…

Ingredients and  method, serves 4

16 dried cannelloni shells or 1 quantity of fresh egg pasta dough

For the pasta dough

3 eggs

300 gr (2 -3/4 cups) of all-purpose flour

semolina for dusting

Put eggs and flour in the bowl of a food processor fitted with blades. Pulse 8/10 times or until the mixture resembles wet sand.

Take it out the bowl, press it together with your hands and knead it for 1 or 2 minutes to release the gluten and make it come together in a smooth ball. Add 1 tablespoon of water if the dough feels too dry.

Cover in cling wrap and rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Using a pasta machine or a rolling-pin -and your biceps- roll the pasta as thinly as you can.

Cut the pasta sheet into 16 4×10 cm (1.5×4 inches) rectangles, dust them with semolina flour and set aside

For the filling

4 cups of spinach

1 garlic clove

1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil

300 gr (1- 1/2 cups) of whole milk ricotta

2 eggs

3/4 cups of pecorino cheese (or parmigiano)

1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup of chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

Sautee’ the spinach with garlic and oil, cover with a lid and cook until just wilted. Set aside to cool.

Mix the ricotta with eggs, pecorino cheese, nutmeg, lemon zest, parsley  and seasoning.

Add the cooled spinach and mix to combine.

Rest in the fridge to firm up for 30 minutes.

For the sauce

500 gr (2 cups) of tinned tomatoes

200 ml (3/4 cup) of hot water

1 brown onion, chopped

3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

salt to taste

fresh oregano leaves

For the topping

1 cup Parmigiano or pecorino and  1 cup shredded mozzarella

Sautee’ the onion in oil until soft and translucent, add the tomatoes and the water and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down, and cook gently for 15 minutes. Season with salt  and fresh oregano leaves.

Assembling the dish

Line an oven tray with baking paper. Smear a few tablespoons of tomato sauce to create a moist bed for the cannelloni to lay on.

Fill each cannelloni or pasta rectangle with 2-3 tablespoons of filling. Roll the pasta sheet to enclose it and place it, seam side down onto the tray. Repeat with remaining ingredients until you have 1 layer of cannelloni. If you have left-over pasta and filling, proceed to fill up another tray.

Cover the layer of cannelloni with the tomato sauce so that each pasta roll is nicely drowned in it. Add some water if you think you don’t have enough sauce.

Dust the top with pecorino or parmigiano,  shredded mozzarella cheese, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and bake at 200 C (390 F) for 30 minutes or until nicely browned on top.

Rest at room temperature for 20 minutes covered in foil, then serve.

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Sausage and Peas Risotto

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Combine the creaminess of Carnaroli short grain rice with the perfume of red wine and the savoury deliciuosness of pork and fennel sausages, with stewed sweet leeks and a generous amount of butter and Parmigiano and you have got yourself joy on a plate. Risotto is the ultimate comfort food and it is really quite straight forward to make. Having said that, I have to be pedantic and fastidious and insist you only make it if you have a great stock to cook in with. Cubes won’t cut it, I’m afraid…

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

2 sausages, sliced

2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

2 leeks

1 tablespoon of butter +1 extra at the end

2 cups of Carnaroli or Arborio rice

half a glass of red wine

4 cups of good stock

2/3 cup of frozen peas

salt and pepper to taste

freshly grated parmigiano

HOW TO

1. Pan fry  the sausage with oil until browned and almost cooked through. Remove and set aside.

2. Slice two leeks and wash throughly to remove any grit. Stew over a low flame in the same pan with the sausage juices adding a tablespoon and butter a Cover with a lid and stir occasionally. They should turn soft and creamy in about 20 minutes.

3. Add the rice and toast in the pan with the leaks until the grains turn translucent, pour in the wine and allow for the alcohol to evaporate. Stir a little to make sure no grains are sticking to the pan, being mindful not to distress the rice too much. You want to make sure the grains keep their shape and texture.

4. As the wine dries out, turn the flame down and start adding the stock, a few ladles at a time, stirring gently. Repeat for about 16/17 minutes,until the rice is almost cooked. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust accordingly. Add a cup of frozen peas and your slices of sausage.

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5. Turn off the flame , add a ladleful of stock, a generous grating of Parmigiano and 1 tablespoon of butter. Stir vigorously to release the starch. Cover with a lid and rest for 3 minutes. This process is called mantecatura and it is essential in order to obtain a creamy risotto with its characteristic all’onda* texture .

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Serve with lots of Barbera and enjoy!

* The way of the waves.

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Roasted-Beetroot Risotto

My very first advise to you when making a risotto is to not even think about it unless you have a great stock to cook it with. Your risotto will only taste as good as your broth, so if you use those powdery mixes or even worse, those salty cubes full of chemicals, that is the flavour you will impart to your rice.
Since risotto is a bit labour intensive, it really not worth it unless you are going to show it a bit of love. Recently, I poached a chicken with garlic, tarragon onion and carrot with the intent of eating the meat with steamed potatoes and of using the stock for a risotto. It’s winter here in Australia and it had been raining for days in Sydney and last Sunday I felt like I needed to colour the day a vivid red.

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

3 beetroot bulbs

1 red onion , diced

3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

350 gr (2 cups) of Arborio or Carnaroli rice

1/2 cup of dry white wine

2 lt of good stock, brought tot a gentle simmer

1 tablespoon of butter

1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano

Salt and pepper to taste

goat cheese

HOW TO

1. Cover the beetroots in foil and roasted them in a hot oven for about 1 hour. Peel them and puree them in a food processor  with a little salt and extra-virgin. Set aside.

2. Stir fry gently the diced onion in olive oil until tender. Add your Carnaroli rice and toast with the onion until translucent. Be mindful to stir your rice well.

3. Add a glass of dry white wine and allow for the alcohol to evaporate, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat down and start adding the stock a ladleful at a time, while stirring gently.

4. Keep adding stock until the rice is cooked, this will take around 18 minutes.

5. Turn off the heat and add the beetroot puree, a generous dusting of parmigiano and a little butter. Stir vigorously to release the starch and create the all’onda* texture. Cover with a lid and let it rest for a few minutes to create the perfect mantecatura, creaminess.

The vibrant red put us in a festive mood and we felt urged to open a Prosecco to go with the risotto.

And after that, a long siesta

* All’onda means ” the way of the waves”

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Polpette della Nonna (the very humble meatballs)

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How many of you recall that famous scene from Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp”,when, as they fall in love by the suave notes of “Bella notte” being played on the mandolin, the dogs share a strand of spaghetto and Tramp nudges the last meatball over to Lady, as his promise of love and devotion? Everytime I cook spaghetti with meatballs I can’t stop myself from feeling utterly romantic, even if the dish itself is the most humble and unpretentious and even though Richard would rather set his own hair on fire than hand over the last meatball….Many and varied are the recipes for polpette. Pretty much every Mamma and Nonna in Italy will tell you they hold the best one, and so I have to go with my Mamma’s and Nonna’s and pay tribute to their moist mixture of mince and other loveliness.

Ingredients for 4 people

2 slices of stale bread, crust removed, cut into chunks

1 cup of milk

1 lb (450 gr) of premium beef mince

1 egg

1 handful of chopped up parsley leaves

1/4 teaspoon of grated nutmeg

1/3 cup of grated parmesan cheese

2 teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of ground white pepper

1 brown onion, chopped up

1 garlic clove bashed with the back of a knife

3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup of red wine

2 tins of tomatoes

1 cup of water

salt to taste

spaghetti  or crusty bread to serve

How to

1. Soak the bread in milk for about 10 minutes.

2. In a bowl, mix together the  beef mince with 1  egg, salt and pepper, chopped parsley, the tip of a s teaspoon of grated nutmeg and  grated Parmigiano (or Grana Padano) . Use a spoon if you feel squeamish about touching raw meat, but in my opinion hands are your best kitchen tools.

3. Squeeze the milk out of the bread ,add to the meat mix and amalgamate.

4. Using the palms of your hand, roll the polpette the size of small manadarins and set aside in the fridge to firm up for 15 minutes.

5. In the meantime, pan fry the chopped onion and garlic in a little olive oil until the onion is soft and translucent.

6. Add your meatballs and brown them on both sides, then add 1/2 cup of red wine. Let the alcohol evaporate, then add 1 bay leaf, two tins of tomatoes and water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer with the lid on for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Adjust with salt and pepper.
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Serve with crusty bread or mix through spaghetti, cooked to a perfect al dente!
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