Wild Leek Gnudi & Sage Butter
A charming name for a delicious thing, gnudi are really just nude ravioli: pillowy orbs of creamy ricotta filling stripped of their pasta jackets. They retain their shape instead with a delicate coating of semola, which forms a soft crust.
Originally from Tuscany, but found in many parts of Italy, they are especially good when made with good quality sheep’s milk ricotta, something Sardinia has in abundance.
The real joy of gnudi, apart from their evocative name and their delicious flavour, is how simple they are to make. No faffing around making and rolling pasta dough, just a soft, ricotta-based mix, stirred roughly in a bowl, then rolled by hand and plopped in semolina. Some people add egg to bind the mix, but I generally keep it simple and use only ricotta, occasionally adding some greens and always nutmeg, a little lemon zest (not always traditional but I love it) and parmesan.
Gnudi are also wonderfully versatile. In the winter I like to make mine pure and white. Served like this they resemble little snowballs sitting in a warm puddle of sage butter. In the spring I love to add some iron-rich greens to the mix, whether borage, nettles or spinach. In the summer I add some crushed fresh peas to make pale, pistachio-green gnudi. I almost always serve them with a simple sauce of melted butter and sage.
As Spring is now in full swing here in Sardinia there are lots of wild greens in the hedgerows. Borage, three-cornered leek and wild chard are everywhere, all of which when wilted, chopped and mixed with ricotta can make excellent filling for ravioli, malfatti and gnudi. I used a handful of three-cornered leek, which has a lovely gentle flavour, much milder than garlic or onion but with the unmistakable allium essence.
Be aware that these need to be made the day before you want to serve them, as they will firm up overnight in the fridge and their semola jackets will form properly, preventing any unwanted explosions as they cook in the boiling water.
A note on ricotta: if you can find real, fresh sheep’s milk ricotta this should be firm enough to use as is. If you are using pasteurised tub ricotta (which is much wetter in consistency) you will need to line a sieve with muslin and drain it for 4 hours until it is the right consistency.
Serves 4-6 1 bunch spinach/chard/wild greens, cooked & drained
500g fresh sheep’s milk ricotta
70g grated parmesan
good pinch of grated nutmeg
grated zest of 1 small lemon
good pinch salt
500g semolina/semola to coat
pinch of salt
a few sage leaves
40g grated pecorino
First cook the greens in a large pan of salted water until tender (mere seconds) then drain them well. Allow them to cool.
When cool, use your hands to squeeze them well, removing any excess liquid.
Chop them roughly with a knife (you can blitz them in a blender if you prefer) and set them aside.
Place the ricotta in a large bowl and add the freshly grated parmesan, zest, salt and nutmeg, and your chopped greens. Mix it all together, either with a fork or your hands.
Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
Pour out a generous (1 inch) layer of fine semolina over a large tray with deep sides.
With clean hands, take small walnut size amounts of the mix and roll them to form perfect spheres.
Place them in the semolina and roll well so they that they have an even coating.
Repeat the process.
Space the balls evenly over the tray and make sure each is well coated in semolina: you should not be able to see any white ricotta at all. Put in the fridge overnight, still on their bed of semolina.
The next day, turn the balls over and roll them briefly in your hands again to remove excess semolina. They should be nice and firm and evenly coated.
Bring a deep pan of well-salted water to the boil and gently drop in your gnudi. After a minute or two they should bob to the surface. Carefully lift them out with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Whilst the gnudi are cooking make your sauce.
Melt the butter then add the sage leaves, stir over a low heat. Add the salt and a splash of the gnudi cooking water and stir until you have a smooth sauce. Serve with the gnudi and grated cheese on top.