malfatti & Misdeeds
I remember Luca telling me a story about when he first worked in restaurants in London. There was a large pot boiling away on the back of the stove which his head chef asked him to remove.
He tried and failed to reach the pot.
‘I cannot arrive’, he explained to his boss.
‘You cannot arrive?’ she replied, incredulously, ‘what are you talking about? You’re already here!’
‘No, I mean I cannot arrive!’ he repeated, exasperated, pointing at the pot.
He wept with laughter as he told me this story, and it is the perfect example of a verb and phrase in Italian which is used in certain scenarios; non ci arrivo (which more-or-less means in English ‘I can’t reach’) but when translated literally makes little sense. As a teacher and a learner of language (teaching English & learning Italian) and a general word squirrel, little things lost in translation inevitably take up a large part of my pensieri (thoughts).
Years ago I was in Venice as a student looking at a menu outside a restaurant (it must have been Chinese influenced). Reading the ingredients of a dish translated into English I was tickled to read ‘mean sprouts’. I chuckled to myself imagining an army of sprouts armed with mini pitch forks and murderous expressions (I’m easily amused).
Equally, when I looked up Malfatti, Google Translate threw up myriad alternatives, each more bizarre than the next. Whilst I’d translate Malfatti (knowing them as an edible thing) as ‘badly made’, Google, in keeping with the ‘mean sprouts’ genre came up with ‘mis-deeds’ or ‘wrong-doings’, both of which have nicely nefarious nuances.
Malfatti, however, are not really villainous at all, but instead harmless and innocent little fluffy dumplings made of ricotta and spinach, bound together with a little egg and flour. As delicate and puffy as cumulus clouds and like baby-food to eat, they are, like many classic Italian dishes, extremely forgiving and straightforward to make (as the name would suggest). More than forgiving, their very nature encourages you to make them badly, in a rush even, which – as an impatient person and extremely impatient cook – couldn’t be more appealing. I made them with Luca’s mother Franca once, and she added saffron to her filling (in keeping with the common Sardinian filling for ravioli) and she missed out the shaping altogether, simply plopping them into boiling water from the tip of a tea spoon, so that they were truly irregular little nuggets, but you can roll or scoop them as I did here according to preference. Traditionally found in both Lombardy and Tuscany but now disseminated all over Italy, they are a deliciously straightforward way of making a (vegetarian) meal out of two simple spring ingredients, spinach (or leafy greens of some kind) and ricotta.
Traditionally the Malfatti, like Gnudi (see previous post) are served with sage butter and extra parmesan, occasionally with tomatoes, here as the weather was warm I opted to serve them simply with some good olive oil, a grating of lemon zest and a sprinkling of extra grated parmesan. I also added my current favourite ingredient, wild (or three-cornered) leek which I have found in the verges here and which has a lovely, mild, allium flavour. The leaves can be sautéed and used much like spinach, and the flowers for sprinkling (also edible – providing little pops of delicate oniony flavour).
If you wanted to substitute the greens in the Malfatti with borage, nettles, wild chard or cultivated chard all would work brilliantly.
Shape-wise I made rough quenelles with two teaspoons (a very satisfying activity) but you can roll into balls or shape into whichever shape you see fit.
Serves 6 as a primo, 3-4 as a main
500g fresh ricotta (if using the tubs then it will need draining. See this post for more instructions)
200g cooked wild greens/spinach
70g plain flour
60g finely grated parmesan, plus extra to serve
Olive oil, parmesan and lemon zest
Or sage butter & parmesan (again see this post)
Prepare the greens. Wash them well, then wilt them briefly in salted water. Drain them. Once cool enough to handle squeeze all of the excess moisture from them in your hands.
Place them on a chopping board and chop them roughly.
Place the ricotta, the grated cheese, the flour, the egg and a good pinch of salt in a mixing bowl. Add some scrapings of nutmeg and the chopped greens and mix well until smooth-ish.
Flour a tray/board/plate ready and bring a pan of salted water to the boil.
Using two tea spoons, two dessert spoons or your hands, roll or roughly quenelle walnut sized amounts of the mixture to form either spheres or quenelles.
Place them on the floured tray/board/plate until you are ready to cook.
When you are ready to serve, drop the malfatti into the boiling water and cook for a few minutes, until they bob to the surface. Ladle them out gently and serve with whatever you choose.