Sunday, June 27, 2010

Spinach and ricotta gnudi with tomato-butter sauce

Gnudi is basically ravioli without its knickers on. It means ‘nude’ in Italian, and refers to the ravioli filling without the pasta — you could also think of it as ricotta gnocchi.

Spinach gnudi and buttery tomato sauce had always been favourites of mine, but I only thought to combine them a few months ago. I wish it hadn’t taken me that long, because this is one sexy dish: silky, cloud-like ricotta pillows flecked with spinach, smothered in a velvety sauce.

The butter gives a subtle richness, and I find cooking the onion halves in the sauce and then removing them adds a savoury sweetness without imparting a detectable onion flavour (I eat the cooked onions on their own with a little salt, but if you’re normal you should probably just throw them in the bin, or your compost heap).

I enjoy this dish with just a few slices of crusty bread on the side, but you can serve it as a starter on its own, or over some cooked penne as a main.

Spinach gnudi with tomato-butter sauce
Serves 2 as a main, or 4 as a starter

For the tomato-butter sauce:
1 small onion, halved
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp olive oil
1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes
100g butter

For the gnudi:
1 cup flour
60g spinach
1 egg
300g ricotta
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

1. In a small saucepan, gently fry the onion halves and garlic in the olive oil until the garlic is fragrant (don’t let it brown).
2. Add the tomatoes and simmer, covered, for about an hour.
3. In the mean time, make the gnudi: In a saucepan, fry the spinach until just-wilted and allow to cool.  Squeeze out any excess moisture and chop finely.
4. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, spinach, egg, ricotta and Parmesan. Mix vigorously until well combined.
5. Dollop a spoonful of the mixture onto a floured surface and, using your (also floured) hands, roll into a cylindrical shape about an inch in diameter. Cut into 2cm or 3cm pieces and set aside. Repeat with the rest of the mixture.
6. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, and plop in about a third of the gnudi (you don’t want them to be too crowded or they may stick together – also, too may will bring down the temperature of the water). Let them cook for an extra minute after they’ve risen to the surface (about 3-4 minutes in total), then remove with a slotted spoon, set aside and keep warm. Drizzle with a little olive oil to prevent them sticking together. Repeat with the remaining gnudi.
7. While the last batch of gnudi is cooking, remove the onions from the tomato sauce and add the butter, stirring until it is incorporated.
8. Divide the gnudi between bowls and spoon over the tomato-butter sauce. Top generously with freshly grated Parmesan and serve.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cauliflower with yoghurt, for Dan

I love Dr Phil.

There, I said it.

I don't necessarily agree with everything he says (a lot of what he says, actually), but every now and then he comes out with a corker of a one-liner. My most recent favourite is: 'You can't cure life; you can only manage it.'

My grandmother died on Wednesday, at the age of 91.

It was very peaceful — my mother was with her, holding her hand when she drew her last breath. I am going to miss her terribly.

Her name was Dora Olive Rosalind Alexandra Cullen (you’ll notice her first four names form an acronym for ‘Dora’, but her father — apparently in a fit of patriotism — actually named her after the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914). My brother and I called her Dan. As kids, we tried to pronounce ‘Gran’, but only managed ‘Dan’, and the name stuck. We called my grandfather Hiya — this was my brother’s doing, as my grandfather had a habit of greeting him with a loud ‘Hi ya!?’

Odd but true.

Hiya died just over a year ago, on 7 June 2009. I was upset at the time, but I didn't realise that I hadn’t really mourned his passing until Dan died. They were a package, you see — one just didn’t make sense without the other. And while Dan was alive, it felt like Hiya was, in a way, too.

To know them was to know a great romance. After 64 years of marriage, they were still like teenagers — they really had the hots for each other, right up to the end.

And they were wonderful grandparents: My early memories include Hiya letting me have sips of his beer, taking me on birding trips, telling me the story of the London Werewolf as many times as I’d hear it; Dan dispensing chocolate biscuits, letting me play dress-up with her not-inconsiderable stash of jewellery, and telling me about her life during the War; plus countless hugs, smiles, laughs and love.

This is just off the top of my head. There is more — much more, of course — but this is a food blog, and I don’t want to get carried away (‘Too late!’ they cried).

My gran was a competent cook, but her repertoire was largely from the post-War, meat-and-three-veg era. A pescetarian, she loved fish but would often cook meat for Hiya, though she most enjoyed nibbling on a chunk of good cheese or dark chocolate with a glass (or two) of wine.

This cauliflower with yoghurt recipe is something I think she would have liked. I got the recipe out of the Angela Day cook book she gave my mother when she got married (as you can see, my 2-year-old self decided to use the page as a drawing pad). It’s a bit like cauliflower cheese, except you add yoghurt instead of cheese. I’d never heard of adding yoghurt to béchamel before, and I was a little sceptical, but it works. The sauce doesn’t have an obviously yoghurty taste, but rather a fresh, light flavour that works beautifully with this particular vegetable. I think the bacon is optional, though, and I might even add a little Parmesan next time I make it. And there will be a next time, because it's friggin' delicious.

Cauliflower with yoghurt

1 medium sized cauliflower
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
1 cup milk
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons prepared French mustard
½ cup plain yoghurt
6 slices cooked and diced streaky bacon

1. Break the cauliflower into flowerettes and cook in boiling salted water for 15 minutes. Drain and put into a warm ovenproof dish.
2. Makes a sauce by melting the butter, stirring in the flour to form a dry roux, and finally adding the milk.
3. When thick, remove from the heat and stir in the egg yolk, mustard and yoghurt.
4. Add the chopped bacon. Pour over the cauliflower, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and paprika, and brown under the grill.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Leek bread pudding

Winter is not the best time to go on a diet. Although, as far as I’m concerned, there is no best time to go on a diet. It’s not that I disagree with the basic principals of dieting, per se — the concept of sticking to a particular combination of foods in order to lose weight — it’s just that the concept is so far outside my understanding that, in my head, it’s filed under the same category as ‘Islam sex shop’ and ‘silly string’ — i.e. utterly perplexing.

I don’t think people who diet are weird or silly — quite the opposite. I’m in awe of anyone who can exert even the smallest iota of willpower when it comes to food. That’s the part I can’t relate to. My resolve turns to (smooth, buttery) mashed potato whenever I encounter, er, temptation.

Fortunately I don’t have much of a sweet tooth (you’ll probably never find any dessert recipes in this blog), and I adore greens, fruit and the like. But I don’t go easy on the butter. I’m at my most depraved when in the grips of a butter binge.

Butter on toast. On veg. In Pastry. Things fried in butter. Roux. Pasta with butter (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). Bread and butter pudding — but not the sweet kind.

In fact, this leek bread pudding has hardly any butter in it, but don’t let that put you off (assuming you’re an addict like me). It’s creamy, saucy and cheesy — perfect comfort food on a chilly evening. It goes well with grilled fish and chicken, or add some fried bacon or prosciutto for a main in itself and serve with a salad.

A word of warning, though: forget about the diet.

Leek bread pudding
(from Epicurious)
Serves 12 as a side dish, 6 to 8 as a main course

2 cups 1/2-inch-thick slices leeks (white and light green parts only)
Kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper
12 cups 1-inch cubes crustless Brioche or Pullman sandwich loaf (I just used whole slices of sourdough)
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
1 teaspoon thyme leaves (used parsley)
3 large eggs
3 cups whole milk
3 cups heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup shredded Comté or Emmentaler (I used cheddar and Parmesan)

1. Preheat the oven to 180 C. Put the leek rounds in a large bowl of tepid water and swish so that any dirt falls to the bottom of the bowl. Set a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat, lift the leeks from the water, drain, and add them to the pan. Season with salt and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes.
2. As the leeks begin to soften, lower the heat to medium-low. The leeks will release liquid. Stir in the butter to emulsify, and season with pepper to taste. Cover the pan with a parchment lid, and cook, stirring every 10 minutes, until the leeks are very soft, 30 to 35 minutes. If at any point the butter breaks or looks oily, stir in about a tablespoon of water to re-emulsify the sauce. Remove and discard the parchment lid.
3. Meanwhile, spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 20 minutes, rotating the pan about halfway through, until dry and pale gold. Transfer to a large bowl. Leave the oven on.
4. Add the leeks to the bread and toss well, then add the chives and thyme.
5. Lightly whisk the eggs in another large bowl. Whisk in the milk, cream, a generous pinch of salt, pepper to taste, and a pinch of nutmeg.
6. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the cheese in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Spread half the leeks and croutons in the pan and sprinkle with another 1/4 cup cheese. Scatter the remaining leeks and croutons over and top with another 1/4 cup cheese. Pour in enough of the custard mixture to cover the bread and press gently on the bread so it soaks in the milk. Let soak for about 15 minutes.
7. Add the remaining custard, allowing some of the soaked cubes of bread to protrude. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup cheese on top and sprinkle with salt.
8. Bake for 1 1/2 hours, or until the pudding feels set and the top is brown and bubbling.

PS: Check out my guest blog post on The Moomie Blog: Chickpeas and spinach with poached egg.

PPS: A Knead store has opened in Newlands, a few blocks from where I live, in Dean Street. I am excited about this in a way that makes sweat break out on the Guinea Pig's brow...

PPPS: Have any of you seen the new Fair Lady How to Cook magazine? What do you think?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Pappa al pomodoro (I wish someone had told me about this sooner...)

I've always hated tomato soup. The ‘cream of tomato’ sort, that is. Actually, I hate any kind of homogeneous soup — butternut in particular. Just the thought of it makes me want to gag. I realise I’m in the vast, vast minority here — most people adore butternut soup — but I’ve always thought of it as a bland, partially digested kind of baby food. Same with cream of tomato, potato and, well, any soup that has seen the inside of a liquidiser. I like soup with personality. With texture. Give me a rough and ready ribollita over the insipid Purity variety any day.

That’s why I put off trying this glorious Italian dish for so long. Whenever I saw a picture of pappa al pomodoro (bread and tomato soup), along with the recipe, I imagined the end result being something that stuck in the throat; stodgy and pasty — more like soggy marshmallow than soup. I wish someone had set me straight. I wish someone had told me the texture is more silky than stodgy; gorgeously textured, rather than pasty; and with a fresh, full flavour that’s difficult to describe. You have to try it for yourself.

I’ve experimented with three pappa al pomodoro recipes — one from The River Café Cook Book and one from Jamie’s Italy — but the one I’m sharing with you now is, in my far-from-humble opinion, the best. Whereas Jamie, Rose and Ruth have stuck to the basic formula of tomatoes, bread, basil, garlic and olive oil, the recipe below includes leeks as well as stock, which add an extra dimension of flavour without detracting from the essential nature of the dish.

The recipe is from Beaneaters & Bread Soup: Portraits and Recipes from Tuscany. The authors, a husband (photos) and wife (words) ‘tell the story of Tuscan cooking through 25 visual and written portraits of some of Tuscany’s most extraordinary gastronomic and food-related artisans’. This book will make you sick with longing for the way of life they are trying to preserve in its pages.

This version of pappa al pomodoro was supplied by Gianluca Paoli, chef and proprietor of Coco Lezzone in Florence. This is a recipe by a respected Italian chef, who lives and works in Florence, so it’s little wonder it is superior to the other versions I tried (by non-natives).

I didn’t use home-made stock (I have — oh the shame! — grown accustomed to the convenience of Nomu’s range of concentrated liquid stock), but imagine home-made would bump up the flavour to a whole new level. But don’t put off making this dish if you only have powdered stock at home — the recipe will still work. Of course, you want to use good-quality crusty bread made with olive oil, not the cheap and nasty square 'government' loaves. That is essential.

Delicious, cheap and easy to prepare. I really don’t know what more you could ask of a soup.

Pappa al pomodoro
Serves 6 to 8

250ml olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 leeks, finely chopped
1 litre meat stock (made with beef and chicken)
2 litres puréed canned Italian tomatoes
500g day-old country bread (preferably unsalted), thickly sliced
Generous handful basil leaves, torn
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil to drizzle

1. Warm the olive oil and garlic in a medium cooking pot. When the garlic has coloured slightly, add the leeks. Saute over a low heat for 20 minutes, adding water as necessary to keep the vegetables from turning brown.
2. Stir in the stock and puréed tomatoes and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat and add the bread, pushing it into the liquid with a wooden spoon.
Stir in the torn basil leaves and season to taste with salt and pepper. Leave to rest for 30 minutes.
4. Now whisk the soup energetically until it has a porridge-like consistency. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
5. Ladle into bowls, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.

We had this soup for lunch, then reheated the leftovers for dinner and added chopped spinach and browned pork mince, and it was just delicious all over again.

Post script: I saw these gorgeous little Le Creuset mini cocottes over the weekend, and just had to take a picture. They are too adorable. I was informed by the shop assistant that they were only R500 for three. (Ahem.)

On the same occasion I encountered one of the Parlotones’ new wines. I couldn’t believe what they’d decided to call it — am I missing something? ‘Push Me to the Floor’ doesn’t exactly have the most desirabe connotations. What were they thinking? I understand it's probably the name of one of their songs, and I admit I didn’t read the label on the back, where there might have been a perfectly reasonable explanation for the title, but still... It doesn’t make the best first impression. Just saying.

Post, post script: check out my guest blog post on Chow and Chatter (love this blog): Chicken poached in rooibos with balsamic raisin relish