The word dumpling gives me an immediate shot of culinary warmth. However, the odd thing is that I am not that keen on this kind of food. Dumplings feature in many cuisines, even here in Ireland where they are made both with flour and suet and with potatoes. The northern Chinese are very partial to their dumplings and they are also to be found in Cantonese dim sum. Usually made from either flour or potatoes and some water, they are then cooked in water, soup or even in a stew. To me, regardless of what form they take, dumplings are tasteless, glutinous and stodgy. Perhaps as a food type, they reach their apogee in the South Pacific. There, I encountered a dish known as lap lap, which brought tears of joy to the eyes of the indigenous population. Made with cooking bananas, grated taro or manioc (also known as cassava) mixed with coconut milk, the sticky mass is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a ground oven. The end product is bland and has a consistency so distasteful, that starvation would be a pleasant alternative!
Perhaps the most famous dumpling of European cuisine is the Italian gnocchi (pronounced n-ugh-ee) which, I am told, were brought to Italy 2000 years ago by the Roman Legions. Originally made from flour, gnocchi have been increasingly made from potatoes, ever since the latter were introduced into Europe from the New World in the 16th century. The Italian meal is structured in a way that is alien to us in these islands. For an everyday meal, the Italian family have what is colloquially referred to as a primo and a secondo i.e. a first and second course, and they are then followed by cheese and fruit. The first course consists of risotto, pasta or gnocchi and the second of meat or fish with a side dish of vegetables. In other words, the starch, including gnocchi, is eaten first and it is said that the object of this exercise is to sate the appetite with food, which is relatively cheap, before moving on to more costly dishes. This makes good sense, does it not?
But if I don’t much like dumplings, why am I rattling on about them? The answer is simple. There is one dumpling that I just love and let me now share the relevant recipe with you.
Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi
450g fresh spinach or 285g frozen leaf spinach, thawed
1 tablespoon very finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons chopped prosciutto or cooked ham for a milder flavour*
75g plain flour
2 egg yolks
*If desired, this ingredient could be omitted
125g finely grated parmesan
Whole nutmeg (about ⅛ teaspoon when ground)
Cook the spinach – fresh or thawed from frozen – in a few tablespoons of boiling water and salt.When ready – it should take no more than about 5 minutes – remove to a colander and set aside to drain.
When cool, squeeze firmly with your hands to remove as much moisture as possible and then chop finely. Heat the butter in a pan and add the onion. Cook until soft before adding the prosciutto or ham. Give a few stirs and add the cooked, chopped spinach and cook for about 5 minutes before putting aside.
When cool, turn the contents of the pot into a bowl and add the ricotta and flour, mixing well. Add the egg yolks, all but 4 tablespoons of the parmesan and the grated nutmeg and amalgamate all the ingredients. Taste and add salt as necessary.
Place the mixture in the fridge for several hours or, better still, overnight. Sprinkle a thin layer of flour over your work surface and with your hands roll the mixture into small croquettes the size of a wine cork. At this juncture, do not be concerned about the consistency of the mixture. The egg yolks and flour will hold the gnocchi together in cooking.
If serving in butter, melt 50g butter in a small pot. Cook the gnocchi, in batches if necessary, in a large pot of boiling water. Cooking time should be about 5 minutes. (They are cooked when they float to the top.) Remove with a slotted spoon promptly, as they disintegrate if overcooked. Pour half the butter over the bottom of a shallow ovenproof dish. Scatter on a tablespoon of grated parmesan, and on top place half the gnocchi. Repeat with the remaining butter and gnocchi scattering the rest of the parmesan on top.
Place in a preheated oven at 150ºC for about five minutes before serving.
If serving with a tomato sauce, (And here I recommend the tomato sauce I wrote about some two months ago) cook the gnocchi as described above. Heat the tomato sauce. Place half the gnocchi in a flat serving dish and cover with half the sauce. Repeat this exercise with the remaining gnocchi and sauce and serve immediately with the grated parmesan on the side.
If serving in soup, cook the gnocchi in 1½ litres of very good beef or chicken stock, as if they were cooked in water. Spoon the gnocchi into individual bowls, ladle the stock over them and serve with the grated parmesan on the side.
For what it is worth, my favourite is gnocchi served in tomato sauce. The quantities above should be enough for four people if served as a first course. If this dish were to be the mainstay of a meal, the quantities would deliver two very generous portions.