Like everyone else, I am seriously unimpressed with the weather in the UK at the moment. The previous two years we enjoyed a plethora of beautiful sunshine over the spring and summer and it seemed like we were back in the groove of having long balmy evenings and weekends full of barbecues and outdoor frolics of various kinds. Like a ‘normal’ summer should bring. Not so in 2015. The few good days we have had do not make up for the overtly depressing fact that I am watching the rain pour down the window pane in mid August. I have a cup of tea next to me and a thick pair of socks on. Balmy it truly is not.
Just as a cup of tea always brings solice, food can often be a comfort in the days when you are desperate for a ray of sunshine in your life. My obsession with Italy and Italian food is well documented and shows no sign of abating. It is a cuisine that can simply radiate sunshine. This is one of those dishes.
Most people have heard of gnocchi- those gorgeous Italian dumplings made with mashed potato. Gnudi ( pronounced nu-dee) are similar but different, not least because they are made from ricotta cheese rather than mashed potato. The literal translation is ‘nude’ – you can think of them as naked ravioli; the filling without the pasta, but I don’t think this does them justice.
You can buy fresh gnocchi in the supermarket these days, but I do think they feel more like rubber in the mouth than the proper melting unctiousness of homemade. I have never seen gnudi in the supermarket and only in a few delis in Italy. Through this, you can be assured that you will impress your guests just through their uniqueness.
Quite simply, gnudi are dumplings made from ricotta, flour and egg, with a few other additions of deliciousness. Ricotta is a soft Italian curd cheese made from whey, which is drained and then lightly ‘cooked’- hence the word ‘cotta’ meaning cooked. It is light and creamy with a slightly grainy texture and delicate flavour. It’s intense creaminess belies the fact that it’s quite low in fat. I believe ricotta to be a very underrated and versatile ingredient that can be used in dishes as diverse as cheesecake, pastries and pasta.
If you have never tried gnudi or feel daunted about making them, I can assure you that the very small effort required is well worth it. They are actually easier and quicker than gnocchi as you do not have to peel, boil and mash potatoes. I can get a plate of these on the table in under half an hour. The taste and texture is unique and incredibly moreish. They are lighter than gnocchi and as ricotta is such a fresh and clean flavour, these are a great vehicle for any sauce you want.
I have made them for a number of years and have tried a number of different recipes. The first was from the wonderful Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers from The River Cafe. The recipe is great but very time consuming as it requires the dumplings to be stored overnight covered in semolina to extract extra moisture. I’m all for extra effort if makes a real difference, but I have found this is time and effort that isn’t really necessary. I have come up an amalgamation of a few recipes, coupled with the addition of pan frying the gnudi after they have been boiled. This adds an extra texture, colour and crunch that works brilliantly with pesto. They taste great without this step, but I think it’s worth it.
Gnudi della Ricotta con Pesto
For the Gnudi
230g plain flour
2 medium eggs
2 large handfuls of grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
For the Pesto
3 big handfuls of basil
75g of pine nuts
1/2 clove of garlic
1 big handful parmesan cheese
100ml of extra virgin olive oil
First make the pesto. Gently toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan or under the grill. Watch them as they burn very quickly. Put the garlic in a pestle and mortar (if you put it in a processor the heat from the blades will blacken the pesto) with a good pinch of salt and bash until a paste. Add the basil and grind again.
Add all the toasted pine nuts except a handful and grind again into a paste. Add the parmesan and half the olive oil. Mix and season to taste. Add the rest of the olive oil a little at a time until you have a rich emulsified sauce. Add the remaining whole pine nuts.
Now set the pesto aside and make the gnudi.
Put the ricotta in a sieve to drain the excess liquid for about 5 minutes. Place in a bowl and mix with the flour, eggs, parmesan and salt and pepper until it comes together.
Tip out onto a floured worktop and work into a smooth dough. Divide into 6 sections and roll out into long sausage shapes of about a 3cm diameter.
With a knife or pastry cutter, slice the sausages into pieces of 4cm.
Carry on rolling out and cutting until you have gone through all the dough.
Place the gnudi into a large pan of simmering salted water. They will sink straight to the bottom and float to the top when they are cooked. As they float to the top, remove with a slotted spoon and pop into a large frying pan with 2 tablespoons of hot olive oil. You will need to do this in two batches, or in two frying pans. Fry until golden and crispy on all sides.
Take the frying pan off the heat and mix in the pesto to warm through. Spoon into bowls and top with grated parmesan.