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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Easy Home-Made Tomato Passata


Have you ever been tempted to make your own tomato pasta sauce, but got put off by the daunting thought that this is a complicated job, best left to the expert, wrinkled  hands of a good-old  Italian Nonna? Think again! Home-made passata is within everybody’s reach. All you need is a food miller, some empty glass jars and, naturally, the ripest, juiciest tomatoes you can fetch. For those of you frolicking in the heat of high summer, this is a reasonably easy feat. We, antipodean dwellers must be patient and wait a few more months before we can get our hands on the ruby-red jewels!

As a child growing up in Italy, I was exposed from a very early age to the delicate sweetness of my Mamma and Nonna’s passata. Every August, we children were assigned the task of washing tons of plump tomatoes, so ripe they almost burst in our tiny and clumsy hands. Mamma and Nonna would then put them all in a cauldron accompanied by other essentials herbs to stew gently, the sweet fumes impregnating the kitchen wall, our clothes, our hair. They would then mill them vigorously to obtain a thick and peel-free, crimson nectar, read to be bottled. The prospect of winter seemed to be more endurable, all of a sudden!

Ingredients (makes 3×450 gr jar)

2 kg (4 pounds) of ripe tomatoes, cut into quarters

1 stick of celery

2 spring onions, cut into chunks

1 chillie (chilli pepper),  leave out if you don’t like the heat

2-3 handfuls of fresh basil

a few sprigs of fresh oregano

salt to taste

1. Put the prepared vegetables in a large saucepan over medium heat, bring to a gentle simmer, turn the heat to low and cook for 35-40 minutes or until the vegetables have softened and the scent of Italy has invaded your home. Taste for salt and adjust to your liking,

2. Allow to cool in the spot for 10 minutes, then, working in batches, pass the vegetables through a food miller. You can choose to also pass the nectar through a sieve to get rid of seeds, but I personally like it rustic and a bit chunky.

3. Now all is left for you to do it is to put the passata back in the saucepan to heat up for a few minutes, ready to be poured hot into freshly sterilized glass jars and lids.

If you are not familiar with the process, this is how I do it:

– Always use new lids. Old lids will fail to seal the jar safely.

– To sterilize jars and lids, simply put them in the dish water and run a hot temperature cycle. Allow to dry in the machine, then fill the hot jars with hot liquid until 3/4 full. Seal with the lid securely. Turn the jars upside down to facilitate the creation of the vacuum, and allow to cool at room temperature.

– You can also sterilize them in a pot of boiling water for 20 minutes. LIft them out with tongs, allow them to dry, upside down, on a clean tea towel, then proceed as above.

Keep the jars in a dark cupboard and consume within 6 months.

Summer in a bottle!