This summery Italian dish requires a bit of time, and some attention to detail, but I can promise that you will not regret the effort you have made: it is, to my mind, an almost-perfect recipe: simple, fresh-tasting, refined and - let me not forget - utterly delicious.
Gnocchi verdi con sugo di pomodoro e panna was the first recipe I made, the year I was married, from Italian food guru Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook (MacMillan, 1988). This is still among my favourite cookbooks, and I have used it over and over again. What is very special about Marcella Hazan is her skill as a recipe writer: her instructions are both detailed and exact: comprehensive on one hand, yet on the other pleasingly concise. (Note to self: must try hard to write short recipes.)
I have adapted this recipe to cater for hurried family eating: my gnocchi balls are bigger than the 12-18 mm Hazan advises; I don't add any mortadella, green bacon or pancetta, and I don't always bother to peel the tomatoes for the sauce. When I can't find fresh spinach leaves, I use Swiss chard. Also, as real Parmesan cheese is shockingly expensive in South Africa, I use a local parmesan-like cheese or a good Pecorino.
I have tried this buttery tomato sauce with both good Italian tinned tomatoes and very deep-red, fresh tomatoes, and the fresh tomato version comes out tops every time. This sauce contains a lot of butter, which you can cut back on if you like, but the sauce just won't taste as good.
Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi with a Fresh Tomato and Cream Sauce
For the tomato sauce:
1 small onion, peeled and very finely chopped
a stick of young celery, finely chopped
2 small carrots, finely chopped
1 clove fresh garlic, peeled and chopped
900 g fresh, ripe, deep-red tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped, or the equivalent weight of tinned Italian tomatoes
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) white sugar
160 g salted butter
salt and freshly milled black pepper
150 ml single cream
For the gnocchi:
700 g fresh spinach leaves or Swiss chard leaves, stripped from their stems
1 T (15 ml) olive oil and a knob of butter
1 small onion or shallot, peeled and very finely chopped
250 g fresh ricotta cheese
140 g white flour
3 egg yolks
150 g freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
1/2 t (2.5 ml) freshly grated nutmeg
freshly ground black pepper
First make the sauce. Put all the ingredients, except the cream, into a saucepan. Bring slowly to the boil, and then reduce the heat. Allow to bubble gently, uncovered, for an hour, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. If the mixture seems too thick, add a little water. Now blend the mixture to a fine puree using a stick blender, or a liquidizer. At this point, if you haven't peeled your tomatoes, you can strain the mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl. Tip into a bowl, stir in the cream and keep warm.
While the tomatoes are cooking, start making the gnocchi. Rinse the spinach or chard leaves, shake off the excess moisture, and place them in a big saucepan over a medium-to-high heat. Toss the leaves over the heat, stirring constantly, until they are wilted and reduced by about three-quarters in volume. (You can also do this in a microwave oven.) This should take about 5 minutes. Tip the spinach into a colander set over the sink, and set aside to drain, pressing down hard now and then with the back of a soup ladle to squeeze out any excess moisture. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then place on a board and chop finely.
Heat a little olive oil and the knob of butter in a frying pan and add the chopped onion and a pinch of salt. Fry the onion gently for a few minutes, or until just tender and beginning to turn golden. Allow to cool for five minutes and tip into a large mixing bowl. Add the chopped, cooked spinach, the ricotta cheese, the flour and the egg yolks. Mix together (add a little water if the mixture seems too dry), then stir in the grated Parmesan, nutmeg and pepper. Roll the mixture into small balls, wetting your hands if it sticks. Place in the fridge for 20 minutes to firm up. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Drop the balls, four or five at a time, into the boiling water. Wait two to three minutes after the water has come back to the boil (the balls will begin to float), remove with slotted spoon and place in a warmed dish. Repeat until all the gnocchi is cooked. Reheat the sauce and pour it over the gnocchi, shaking gently so that each ball is coated. Serve with more grated Parmesan.