The Italians have such a way with naming their dishes. I love how they seem to have a sense of humor about it. I’ve already mentioned pasta a la puttanesca, the fast and easy pasta supposedly named after, ahem, women of the street. Strozzapreti, a thick slightly coiled pasta, means “priest choker,” and was purportedly given this name because villagers in Emilia Romagna would feed it to friars who came over for dinner (in those days friars ate free) as a first course in an attempt to stuff them too full to have much room for the more expensive second course, meat.
The nickname for tortellini means “sacred navel,” and one must admit they do look a lot like navels. (Sacred because legend has it that an innkeeper created them after being so inspired by the sight of Venus lying sleeping, he wanted to come up with some tribute to her. So, he made a pasta that looked like her navel. Creative, if nothing else!) There’s even a traditional way of cutting fresh pasta haphazardly at angles that is know as maltagliati, which just means “badly cut.” Because, hey,why not just tell it like it is? As long as it tastes good.
Given all this, the Italian name of these ricotta dumplings is not that surprising. It’s gnudi. Which, as you may have guessed, means just what it sounds like: nude. The reasoning behind the name is that gnudi are basically the fillings of ravioli that have been disrobed of their pasta garments. But, when I think of it this way I conjure up the mental image of rotund ricotta balls whose clothing has been stolen away while they were taking a skinny dip in a pot of water, and now they’re standing around abashedly trying to cover themselves up with their arms or a small piece of cloth or anything they can grab at.
And then this gives me the giggles. And I don’t want to snarf cheese. So, while I’m eating, I try to just concentrate on them being dumplings. Light, fluffy, downright pillowy little ball-shaped dumplings, starring ricotta, one of my all time favorite ingredients.
Gnudi, I think, could be considered part of the same family as gnocchi, and are just as simple to throw together for a weeknight meal. But, because they have no potato (though not all gnocchi has potato),and require even less flour and no rolling them out into ropes and cutting, they’re both quicker and less prone to becoming heavy starchy weights that sink to the bottom of your stomach and sit there making you feel twice your normal size.
I had been wanting to make gnudi for a couple of years now, ever since I read about them in an article about some restaurant in Portland, OR , the name of which I have now entirely forgotten except I think maybe it had something to do with some type of evergreen tree. Anyhow, last week I had an extra container of ricotta around, and I decided it was finally time to get my gnudi on.
It is a remarkably simple process, as long as you remember to drain your ricotta beforehand. Then all that is required is to fluff up the drained ricotta, stir in an egg, a more pungent cheese for flavor, and a bit of flour to bind. I also added some beet greens I had that I wanted to use up, but any kind of cooked greens would work nicely (as would a number of other ingredients, like mashed squash – though this would increase the need for flour – or little flecks of pancetta).
Then, using well floured hands you roll them into little walnut sized balls and boil them in a pot of water. If you’d like a thin pasta-like layer around your cheesy center you can cover the gnudi with semolina flour overnight before cooking them (something they apparently do at the Spotted Pig, in New York), but this isn’t necessary by any means. Then just brown some butter or simmer up a quick tomato sauce and you have a light supper at the ready.
Beet Green and Ricotta Gnudi with Tomato Sauce (serves 2 as a supper or 4 as a first course)
- 1 lb. ricotta
- 1 bunch beet greens or chard (about a lb. of spinach would work too)
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup grated cheese of an aged pungent variety, I used a goat’s milk Gouda, but Parmesan would be a more normal thing to use
- 1/4 tsp. each salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup flour, plus a bit extra for your hands
- a couple Tbs. olive oil
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- a pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
- Line a mesh strainer or colander with some paper towels (or cheese cloth if you have it) and put it over a bowl on the counter (or in the sink). Dump in the ricotta and let it drain for 2 hours. Then transfer the ricotta to a mixing bowl and set aside until you need it. (you can save the drained whey to use in baking or smoothies, or just toss it)
- In the meantime, wash your beet greens and remove their stems. Stack them up and slice them into thin strips. Put them in the basket of a steamer and steam over simmering water for 10 minutes (or you can boil them for 5). Drain. Allow to cool, then squeeze as much water out of them as you can. Really go for it, squeezing the heck out of them.
- Using a wooden spoon, fluff the ricotta by beating it for a minute. Then, beat in the egg, grated cheese, and salt and pepper. Finally, stir in the greens and the 1/2 cup flour and mix until fully incorporated.
- Flour your hands well and shape the dough into little walnut sized balls (a bit smaller than golf balls). Place on a lightly floured tray. Once the gnudi are all rolled, you can put them in a deep pan (not touching) and pour semolina flour over them until they are covered, and let them sit in the fridge overnight. Then remove them from the flour before cooking (and sift the flour and reuse for something else). But, this isn’t necessary. You can just refrigerate until ready to use.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and gently add the gnudi. Let them cook until they rise to the surface, then let them cook 2 minutes more. Then, remove them to an oiled serving bowl using a slotted spoon.
- While the pot of water is coming to a boil, heat the couple of Tbs. olive oil with the garlic and red pepper flakes in a saucepan. Allow to cook for just one minute, then add the canned crushed tomatoes. Stir and cook for 5-10 minutes, until slightly thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve the gnudi topped with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan (or goat’s milk gouda if you’re a bit strange and that’s what you’re using!).