The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century by Amanda Hesser includes recipes like Florida Beets; Beet Tzatziki; Malfatti; and Iraqi Grape Leaves Stuffed with Lamb, Mint, and Cinnamon.
Serves 4 to 6 as a light main course, 6 to 8 as a first course
The first time I ate malfatti at Al Di La Trattoria in Park Slope, I got very worried. The tender egg-shaped gnocchi transcended all my impressions of what a good pasta dish should be. They were robust but light, and as you ate them, you could pick out the many flavors inside: fresh ricotta, chard, grated nutmeg, nutty browned butter, and sage. I worried that I might not get back for more before the menu changed.
Others worried too, apparently, because Anna Klinger, the chef, has never been able to take them off the menu. Not a bad response to a dish whose name actually means "misshapen." (They are also sometimes called gnocchi gnudi or ravioli gnudi, "nude gnocchi" or "nude ravioli," respectively.)
While most versions call for spinach, Klinger favors Swiss chard, which yields more volume and sweetness. She blanches the chard, squeezes—really squeezes—it dry in towels, chops it—and dries it again. Wet chard makes for sodden malfatti. The other crucial element is the ricotta, and Polly-O won't cut it. (Klinger prefers A & S brand or Calabro.)
Then comes the fun part: shaping the malfatti.
You drop a spoonful of the chard mixture into a floured wine glass and swirl it like a 1982 Bordeaux. A quenelle forms before your eyes. (If you have kids around, they'll love doing this, plus you'll simultaneously be prepping them for 4-star dining.)
Klinger freezes them by the dozen, then drops them into boiling water when an order rolls in. (You can do the same when friends come to dinner.) Then she slices sage and tosses it into a pan of bubbling butter. The best non-pasta pasta you have ever tasted is only seconds away.
For an earlier malfatti, see Mrs. Sebastiani's on p. 313 of the book. Hers are heartier and are nestled in a warm tomato sauce.
1. Drain the ricotta overnight in a sieve lined with cheesecloth in the refrigerator.
2. Measure out 1-1/4 cups ricotta; reserve the rest for another use.
3. Bring a large pot of water, heavily seasoned with salt, to a boil. Trim the chard, removing all stems and large ribs. Add half the chard to the boiling water and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Fish out with tongs and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Repeat with the remaining chard.
4. Squeeze out the chard with your hands. Spread the chard in a circle the size of a pie on a dish towel. Roll up the towel and have someone help you twist the ends to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Pulse the dried chard in a food processor until finely chopped. Squeeze out in a dish towel once more, until very dry.
5. Melt half the butter. Mix the chard and ricotta in a bowl. Add the melted butter, flour, 1 heaping teaspoon salt, and the nutmeg and mix again. Drop in the egg and egg yolks; season with pepper, and stir again.
6. Sprinkle a cutting board with flour. Shape the ricotta mixture into 1-ounce balls, about 1 tablespoon each, dropping them onto the board; you should have about 24. Put a teaspoon of flour into a narrow wine glass. Drop in a ball and swirl until it forms an oval. Repeat (you may need to change the glass). You can freeze the malfatti at this point.
7· Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the malfatti and cook until they float, about 8 minutes (10 minutes if frozen).
8. Meanwhile, put the remaining butter in a small sauté pan and heat until bubbling, shaking the pan. When it smells nutty, add the sage and cook for 30 seconds. Season with salt.
9· Drain the malfatti and arrange on plates. Spoon on the butter and sage. Grate Parmesan over each plate.
Ricotta Crostini with Fresh Thyme and Dried Oregano (p. 93 of the book), Artichoke Salad with Anchovy and Capers (p. 174), Sea Bass in Grappa (p. 443), Canestrelli (Shortbread from Ovada; p. 692), Chicken Canzanese (p. 458), Panna Cotta (p. 840), Pruneaux du Pichet (Prunes in a Pitcher; p. 822)
November 17, 2002: "Food: Naked Came the Pasta," by Amanda Hesser. Recipe adapted from Anna Klinger, the chef and co-owner of Al Di La in Brooklyn. —2002
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