Thursday, November 28, 2013

Spinach & Ricotta Gnudi with Béchamel Sauce

One of my favourite winter dishes is Baked Spinach & Ricotta Gnudi, which are delectable little dumplings 'naked' of their pasta wrapper. A kissing cousin to gnocchi, these fluffy pillows of loveliness are made with ricotta rather than potato, which makes them lighter and more delicate in ways gnocchi rarely are. The technique for making these ethereal clouds of 'ricotta heaven' begins with a simple mixture of spinach, ricotta, eggs and parmesan cheese that's shaped into oval egg-size dumplings, and coated with a light dusting of flour. Placed in a baking dish, the gnudi are arranged in neat rows, covered with a rich and creamy béchamel sauce, a splash of sweet tomato sauce and baked in the oven for 35-45 minutes. It couldn't be easier. Four or five gnudi make an impressive starter; eight to ten, a dreamy main course that's damn close to food heaven.

Spinach & Ricotta Gnudi with Béchamel Sauce
Makes about 30 dumplings - serves 4 as an entrée or 8 as a starter

2 10oz/300g packages frozen spinach, thawed and chopped
1 10oz/300g tub fresh ricotta cheese
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Fresh basil, chopped for garnish
1 tbsp butter, for greasing the baking dish
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups homemade or quality store-bought tomato sauce

Béchamel Sauce:
4 cups whole milk
7 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Thaw the frozen spinach, then drain and squeeze dry, getting rid of as much extra water as you can. It will make the dumplings hold their shape better.

In a medium bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta cheese, eggs, half the Parmesan cheese and a generous grating of nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper, and stir with a wooden spoon until well mixed. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

While the oven is preheating, prepare the béchamel sauce by heating the milk in a saucepan. In a separate pan, melt the butter, then add the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon and cooking the roux until it becomes lightly golden, about 5-6 minutes. Add a ladleful of the warm milk at a time, stirring constantly so it doesn't form lumps. Continue until all the milk has been incorporated. Season with salt and pepper, and additional nutmeg to taste. Continue cooking and stirring on low heat for another 10 minutes. The sauce will thicken and become very smooth. Remove from the heat and cover.

Generously butter a large 9"x12" baking dish, and spoon enough béchamel sauce to cover the bottom. Pour the flour onto a flat plate. To make the dumplings, use your hands to form the spinach-ricotta mixture into the shape and size of a small egg, slightly elongated like a quenelle. Dust each dumpling very lightly in the flour and place them over the béchamel in neat rows. Continue until all the mixture is used up. Cover the dumplings with the remaining béchamel, dot the surface with tomato sauce and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese.

Bake until the top is lightly golden, about 40-50 minutes. Serve piping hot with a good sprinkling of fresh basil on each serving.

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