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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Spaghetti cooked Risotto-Style

A few nights ago, I had dinner at my cousin Elena’s house in Milan. She is the sweetest, most gorgeous girl, but, notoriously, she can’t cook to save her life! Lucky for all the guests, she also invited her bother Giorgio along, who was born with the cooking gene. Giorgio has always been a flamboyant wine connoisseur and a passionate amateur cook and has certain savoir-faire in the kitchen, it always is a pleasure for me to watch him at work and exchange tips and recipes. That night he made Italy’s most loved summer classic, Spaghetti con Pomodorini (with fresh cherry tomatoes), with a little twist. He cooked the pasta “risotto style”: forget about boiling, draining and then dressing the pasta with your sauce! When you do it “risotto-style”, the spaghetti cooks in a rich and velvety fresh tomato liquor, slowly absorbing all the flavors, while the starch released by the gentle and constant stirring motion creates a luscious sauce.

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

2 shallots

4 tablespoons of EVOO

1 garlic clove, skin on, bruised with the back of a knife

2 tins of tomatoes (to 2 lb of Passata)

1 punnet of cherry tomatoes, halved

basil leaves

salt, to taste

1 packet of Spaghetti

Freshly grated Parmigiano to serve

HOW TO

1. Heat up the oil in a heavy-based frying pan or large saucepan. Stir fry the shallots and garlic over medium-low heat, for 1-2 minutes or until the onion is soft and the garlic smells fragrant. Add the tinned tomatoes or passata, season with salt, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat to low.

2. Cook the sauce for 20 minutes.

3. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Cook th spaghetti in it for 1-2 minutes or until the pasta has softened. Using kitchen tongs, lift the spaghetti straight into the tomato saucepan. Cover with enough pasta cooking water so that all the pasta is submerged with liquid. Stirring gently, continue cooking until the pasta is Al Dente and the liquid has been absorbed and you are left with  thick, rich sauce. This will take 5-7 minutes, according to the size of spaghetti you use. When the pasta is al dente, add the cherry tomatoes and basil leaves. Turn the heat off. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly.

4. Serve hot, with a generous dusting of parmigiano and plenty of bread to mop up that delicious sauce.


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