Years ago a friend gave me Elizabeth David’s biography and in a week’s reading ED was transformed from trusted cooks’ companion to flesh and blood woman of adventure living in an era decidedly more romantic than our own. Aside from the voyeuristic element; the tales of her smoking while she cooked and her famous spats with lovers (she was so much cooler than Julia Childs) her writing is authoritative because she lived in all of the places she wrote about; first in France after having escaped pre-war Britain on her lover’s yacht, then in Greece, in Cairo where she worked for the war office, and later in Italy. In Rome she lived on the side of Gianicolo , or the Janiculum hill as it is called by English speakers, who prefer the latin names to their bastardized Italian equivalents.
I actually learnt this recipe from another Elizabeth, my friend Liz Paton, who as a cook and restauranteur is very much from the Elizabeth David school. I absorbed everything I saw being prepared by Liz and her chefs during my time at Winterhaven in the nineties, and Spinach and Ricotta gnocchi was always one of the sell out dishes. When I bought a 1970’s box set of Elizabeth David’s classics – with the cover to Italian Food by Renato Guttuso – I went looking for the recipe for Green Gnocchi which also get called Ravioli Verde. It is a Tuscan specialty (I’ve never seen it on a menu in Rome) and is to be found in restaurants on Thursdays which is gnocchi day in most Italian restaurants. The relatively low quantities of flour in the recipe make it a prep – cook – eat kind of recipe, which shows the genius behind the gnocchi once a week in Italian restaurants; for who wants to be stockpiling fresh gnocchi all week long?
The spinach and ricotta make these gnocchi very light and healthy compared to traditional potato gnocchi, they can be served or with a fresh tomato sauce or with melted butter and sage.
spinach and ricotta gnocchi – serves 4
My quantities – with preparation suggestions from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food
1 tablespoon oil
500 g spinach – washed
400 g good quality ricotta (sheeps or cows)
75 g plain flour
80 g grated parmigiano or grano padano
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
4 tbs extra virgin olive oil
400 g tin crushed tomatoes or half a bottle of passata
1 clove garlic, peeled and lightly squashed
1 tsp sugar
Salt and pepper
Fresh basil (optional)
1. Wilt the washed spinach by heating 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a fry pan and adding the spinach (it can be wet from washing) tossing it around the pan quickly to cook evenly. Put a lid on and lower flame for a few minutes; it is ready when it has changed colour and collapsed.
Drain the spinach really well, squeezing out any excess water with a colander and then a paper towel and chop finely. In a large bowl mix spinach, flour, ricotta, egg, parmesan and a pinch or two of salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix thoroughly. Place in the fridge for at least 1/2 hour while you make the sauce. (Elizabeth David recommends resting for several hours, or even overnight). If the mixture seems too soft add a little more flour.
2. Make a simple tomato sauce by heating some olive oil in a heavy based saucepan or even better a terra-cotta cooking pot. Add a clove of garlic, peeled and squashed with the side of a cook’s knife to let the flavors escape, then add the tomatoes and mix slowly so that the tomatoes mix with the oil to take on lovely burnished colour
Lower the flame add a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt and simmer for 1/2 an hour or so until a good colour and consistency (for a smooth sauce you can blend in the food processor or with a hand held blender). Add salt and pepper to taste, and a couple of sprigs of fresh basil.
3. The gnocchi mixture has rested and the sauce is made. It pays to be organized because the gnocchi need to be rolled and cooked close to service. Have a large pot of water ready to bring to the boil once the gnocchi rolling is underway.
Flour a work surface or prep board and use a largish tea spoon to scoop out balls of mixture to roll into neat olive shaped balls. Roll each one in flour and place on a well floured tray. Don’t be alarmed if they seem soft, the egg and the flour do keep them together in the cooking process.
Once the rolling is underway, light the flame and start bring the cooking water to the boil. Have a serving dish with melted butter or tomato sauce at the ready into which the batches of gnocchi can be placed.
Finish ruling the gnocchi and when the water comes to ball reduce to a simmer. Gently drop batches of the gnocchi into the simmering water, they will cook in about 3-5 minutes and will rise to the surface when they are ready. Don’t let them over cook or they will disintegrate. Remove cooked gnocchi with a slotted spoon and transfer straight to warmed serving dish.
Both parmigiano or grated pecorino work as accompanying cheese.