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Issue #103: Naked in the Kitchen
Foraging for Nettles, James Beard Undressed, My Recipe for Gnudi—A Favorite Italian Dumpling
Hello! Hello! I’m about to set out on a series of work-related trips, so look forward to upcoming newsletters dispatched from abroad. But first, something very local indeed—I’ve either made or foraged for most of the ingredients in this week’s recipe. But don’t worry, you can purchase everything. You do you. In the meantime, don’t forget that our special offer continues: one year of this newsletter and all the benefits for paid subscribers for only $45, plus a free, signed copy of my cookbook, Kitchen Sense: More than 600 Recipes to Make You a Great Home Cook, delivered to your door. Details here. Thanks for your continued support. —Mitchell
Gnudi means “naked” in Italian. As a dish, it refers not to the cook, but to the dumpling, a sort of light gnoccho made not with potato but with fresh ricotta and often spinach or other cooked greens. They are considered nude, that is, undressed, because they consist of what would be ostensibly the filling of ricotta spinach ravioli, but without the pasta cover-up. Made with a little extra flour than you might put in the same mixture as a filling so that the dumplings hold together as they cook, fully exposed, gnudi are boiled and often served in brown butter with sage or else a light tomato sauce. I love them.
Contemplating what to write about cooking naked dumplings conjured images of James Beard, who unabashedly liked to cook and eat in the buff, as many people, including his biographers Evan Jones and more recently John Birdsall, have confirmed. In his own, Menus for Entertaining, Beard confessed, “I have a predilection for rising early, and when I am preparing for a dinner party, I enjoy rising at 5:00 or 5:30 and going straight from the bath to the kitchen. I call this ‘cooking in the nude.’” A friend of Beard’s recounted to Jones, “He had to emphasize that he was frying his bacon and eggs in the nude, I couldn’t resist saying, ‘Don’t let the hot fat hit the hot fat.” Birdsall found a passage in a letter Beard had written to his friend Helen Evans Brown, “It is past midnight and I should be putting the body to rest in a decent way. It’s hot and I’m sitting at my desk in the nude tearing off these little lines.”
The kitchen can be a dangerous place. Sharp knives, heavy appliances, hot liquids and searing fats that splatter and drip. However fun and freeing it might be, cooking naked is not advised.
Speaking of danger in the kitchen, I decided to make gnudi this week for two reasons. The first is that it’s the season for stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and I’ve been working with them quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. Nettles are a flowering wild plant with seemingly thousands of tiny hair-like spikes that sting (together they burn). But blanching renders them harmless and delicious. Known as ortiche in Italian, nettles are stuffed into pasta, sautéed with olive oil and garlic, and can pretty much be used as a substitute or supplement for spinach, chard, or other greens in just about anything. The season is now, before the leaves get too big and tough. Last week I added stinging nettles to saag paneer and I sautéed them with gigantes beans.
Several stalls at the Union Square Greenmarket have had nettles for sale in the last couple of weeks. Their stinging can be very painful, so you must be careful when handling them before they are cooked. To pick them up safely at the market, I push my hand into a plastic bag as though I’m picking up Milo’s poop. At home I wear rubber gloves to pluck the leaves off the stems, clean, and blanch them in salted water. A quick dip in ice water to set their beautiful green color, a good squeeze to remove any excess liquid, and you are ready to use them however you like.
When I mentioned I was cooking nettles to my friend Sophia, a naturalist who lives in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, she asked if I want to go foraging with her for them. How could I say no? Nate, Milo and I piled in our car and followed Sophia to a beautiful trail in Trumansburg, New York. We were looking for a different type of nettle than I had ever consumed, the wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), which Sophia said was more delicate and more flavorful, though still dangerous to handle before cooking. At first the wood nettles we found on the edge of the woods were all dead, having succumbed to an unexpected late frost in the area just a couple of days before. (That frost may wreak havoc on this year’s Finger Lakes grape harvest. Vintners are nervous.) But as we moved deeper in, we found plenty of vibrant wood nettles to harvest. Sophia took off her shoes to walk barefoot through the forest. We snipped and bagged enough nettles for a meal or two, leaving plenty behind to propagate.
The second reason I wanted to make gnudi this week is that lately I’ve been experimenting with making my own fresh cheeses at home, namely paneer and ricotta, and I wanted an excuse to try another ricotta technique I had stumbled across. Technically, what you make at home by adding acid to warmed milk is not ricotta at all. Real ricotta is a very specific product made from the whey leftover from cheese making. The process involves reheating the whey (hence ricotta, or “re-cooked”) until any leftover protein in it coagulates into curds, which are strained out and compressed. Just as homemade ricotta isn’t ricotta, real ricotta technically isn’t cheese at all.
Regardless, homemade “ricotta” can still be delicious. It begins with whole milk that you heat and acidulate so the proteins in it form curds. This is sometimes referred to as “clabbered milk.” I’ve been experimenting with different types of acid to make different types of “cheeses.” For paneer, which needs to be firm enough to slice and fry when it is compressed, I’ve found citric acid diluted in water gives me the best, most consistent results. But for ricotta, which you want to be somewhat creamy and milky tasting, I prefer a technique that uses buttermilk for acidification. I’ll write about making these cheeses in a future issue of this newsletter.
If I haven’t scared you away already, I’ll note that making gnudi can be as easy or as complicated as you’d like. For delicious gnudi in a jiffy, buy a good (real!) ricotta and use frozen chopped spinach. Mix the ingredients together, shape, boil, and toss in sage-infused browned butter. For more complicated gnocchi that may take an entire spring weekend, forage in the woods for nettles that you carefully blanch, shock, drain, and chop. Clabber your own milk with buttermilk, heat it, strain the curd, and tie in cheesecloth to produce ersatz ricotta. Then follow the recipe as written. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
RECIPE: Gnudi in Browned Butter with Sage
(Makes 4 servings)
For the gnudi:
115 g (4 ounces) leaves of nettles, spinach, chard, turnips, or other greens, or 1/2 cup (3 ounces) cooked, drained, and chopped greens (e.g., frozen spinach)
1 1/2 cups (325 g) fresh ricotta, drained
1 large egg plus 1 egg white
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
30 g (1/3 cup) grated Parmigiano Reggiano
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
About ½ cup semolina
For the sauce:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 or 3 sprigs fresh sage
Freshly shaved Parmigiano
If using fresh nettles (wear gloves), spinach, chard, turnip tops or other greens, clean them well, soaking in cold water and lifting them out (no need to spin dry). If particularly sandy, repeat one or two more times. Bring about 4 inches of generously salted water in a large pot to a boil. Add the greens, which will shrink to almost nothing, and boil for about 2 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water. Using a spider or wire strainer, lift the cooked greens out of the boiling water. Drain and transfer to the ice water to chill quickly. (I save the cooking water to use as a sort of vegetable stock.) This cold shock helps them retain their green color. Drain well again and then squeeze out the greens in your fist until no liquid exudes. Place on a cutting board and chop finely. You should have about ½ cup. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl.
Alternately, if using frozen chopped spinach, defrost at room temperature or in the microwave. (It is already blanched.) Squeeze out as much liquid as possible, measure ½ cup, and place in a medium-sized bowl.
You’ll also want to drain the ricotta, especially if is on the wet side. If you have cheesecloth, line a sieve with it, dump in the ricotta, and let sit for any excess whey to leech out. Alternately, you can line a plate with a few sheets of paper towel and dump the ricotta onto it. As the towels absorb liquid, replace them until dry. Add the drained ricotta to the bowl with the chopped greens.
To the bowl with the ricotta and greens, add the egg and egg white, flour, grated Parmigiano, salt, and a generous amount of freshly grated nutmeg and freshly grated black pepper. Mix well, making sure the greens are evenly blended with the ricotta.
Sprinkle about half the semolina on the bottom of a small tray or baking dish. Divide the ricotta mixture in half. On a clean surface, roll out one half into a log about 1 1/2-inches in diameter and 10 inches long. Cut the log into 10 equal pieces. Roll each piece between your palms into a small egg shape and set on the semolina in the tray. Repeat until you have 20 dumplings. Sprinkle the remaining semolina over the dumplings. Cover the tray with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour and up to a day. At this point you can also freeze the gnudi. (To store long term, transfer the frozen gnudi to a plastic bag. Cook them directly from the freezer. They will take a little longer to float.)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In the meantime, heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the butter and the sage sprigs and let cook until the butter sizzles and the sage browns, about 5 minutes. Add a pinch of salt. When the water boils, shake off any excess semolina from the gnudi and add to the water. Bring back to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. The gnudi will sink and after a few minutes of cooking (longer if they are frozen) they will rise to the surface, which indicates they are done. Using a slotted spoon or spider, carefully lift them out of the water into the pan with the butter and sage. Add a spoonful or two of cooking water to the pan and swirl around to make a nice sauce as it simmers. Be careful not to break the gnudi. Baste them once or twice with the butter. Carefully lift them to warm serving plates, spoon any butter from the pan on top. Garnish with the fried sage leaves and some shaved Parmigiano and serve immediately.
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