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Fresh spinach gnocchi, topped with finely shredded Parmesan cheese, sit in a tomato cream sauce flavored with shallot, carrot, and celery.

When deciding what to make for dinner, I meander through farmers’ markets or the produce section of supermarkets and let the vegetables point the way.

A few days ago it was bunches of bright green spinach that insisted I turn them into gnocchi. If you don’t know what gnocchi are, maybe it’s time to get acquainted. They’re a kind of small dumpling made with cooked vegetables and flour and served with butter, cheese or some sauce of your choosing. They’re a homey comfort food that Italians make in all parts of Italy and typically serve as a first course.

Gnocchi, pronounced NYAW-kee, take a bit of time, but they’re well worth it for the taste they pack into every bite. For spinach gnocchi you’ll need about 1 1/2 pounds (2 bunches maybe) of the fresh vegetable. Stay away from baby spinach. It’s fine for salads but cooks to a mush. For gnocchi, you need spinach with structure that will wilt when cooked and not fall apart. So buy bunch spinach with large firm leaves and wash thoroughly to remove grit.

I find that early season spinach stems also cook up nice and tender, and I leave a few inches attached to the leaves. Spinach is loaded with water, so after cooking it for a few minutes, drain well, swish it around in cold water to stop the cooking, drain again and squeeze as much water as you can from it. Cooked and squeezed spinach comes to about 20% of its raw weight.

I’ve based the gnocchi and sauce recipes here on Marcella Hazan’s first cookbook, “The Classic Italian Cookbook” (Harper & Row, 1973). Get set for a delicious food adventure!

Tomato cream sauce

Make the sauce first so that it’ll be ready when the gnocchi are. You can make the sauce a day or two ahead and refrigerate it, but don’t add cream until you’re going to reheat the sauce to serve with the gnocchi.

  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons each, finely chopped carrot, celery, yellow onion or shallot
  • 1 can (28 ounces) crushed Italian tomatoes, with their juice
  • Salt
  • Large pinch of sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan (3-quart) over medium heat. Stir in the finely chopped vegetables and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Don’t let the onion or shallot brown. Add the tomatoes and juice, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the sugar. Cook on very low heat, uncovered, at the barest simmer, for 1 hour. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon. Purée the sauce in a blender and return it to the saucepan off heat. Sauce may be made to this point up to 3 days ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate.

2. When ready to serve, reheat sauce over medium heat, and stir in the cream. Cook at a simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and add salt, if necessary, and serve with the gnocchi.

Makes about 2 cups of sauce.

Spinach and ricotta gnocchi

It’s better to have more spinach than you need than not enough. So buy 2 pounds of bunch spinach just to be safe. You can shape and cook the gnocchi way ahead of time and refrigerate, covered, for a day or two. Final reheating with Parmesan cheese takes just a few minutes. I serve this as a main dish for four, but you can make it as a first course for a party of 6 to 8 people.

  • 2 pounds fresh bunch spinach
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup minced shallots
  • Salt and pepper
  • 8 ounces ricotta, full-fat or part skim, 1 packed cup
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour (3 3/4 ounces), measure by dipping dry measuring cups into flour, filling to overflowing and sweeping off excess with a straight edge
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup, loosely packed, freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 1/2 ounces)
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for shaping
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

1. Cut 2 to 3 inches off the ends of the spinach. Rinse the trimmed spinach well in cool tap water to remove all dirt and grit and drain in a colander. Bring an inch or two of water to the boil in a large pot over high heat, add the spinach, give a big stir, and cover the pot. Lower the heat to medium and cook about 5 minutes until the spinach is tender. Drain well in a colander. Add a few inches of cold tap water to the pot and dump in the drained spinach. Swish spinach around until cool and drain again. Squeeze spinach in clumps to remove as much water as you can. Near the end, combine all the clumps into a single lump and keep squeezing until you can’t see any more liquid coming from the spinach. (When I made the gnocchi for this story, my trimmed and washed spinach weighed in at 1 1/2 pounds and, after squeezing, the cooked spinach tipped the scale at 5 1/2 ounces.)

2. To chop the spinach, flatten the mass and hack away with a large chef’s knife going left to right, right to left, then back and forth at different angles until you end up with spinach cut into very small pieces. Spend a few minutes doing this. It’s a lot of fun!

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3. Now you’re ready to make the gnocchi. Melt the butter in a medium skillet (10-inch) over medium heat. When foaming, stir in the shallots and cook about 1 minute. Add the chopped spinach, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

4. Scrape the spinach and shallots into a large mixing bowl and add the ricotta. Mix in the ricotta thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Add the flour and stir it in well. You will wind up with a large lump of dough that holds together and feels damp to the touch.

5. Stir in the yolks, Parmesan and nutmeg. Be sure to mix very well with the spoon. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

6. Shaping the gnocchi: Smear some softened butter on the bottom of a 13 x 9 inch pan. The gnocchi dough is a tad sticky. Place a sheet of plastic wrap on your counter and spread it with a thin film of extra-virgin olive oil. Transfer the ball of gnocchi dough onto the plastic and turn to coat with the oil. Flatten the dough into a rectangle about 5 x 8 inches and divide with a sharp knife into 40 one-inch pieces. Each piece will weigh about 1/2 ounce. Shape each bit of dough into an oval measuring about 1 1/2 inches long and 3/4-inch wide, rolling gently between your palms. Set shaped gnocchi onto the buttered pan as you go. (At this point, if you don’t want to cook the gnocchi, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 3 days).

7. To cook gnocchi, bring about 4 inches of water to the boil over high heat in a large pot (about 8 quarts capacity) and add 1 1/2 tablespoons salt. One by one, add about 6 gnocchi to the pot and reduce heat slightly so that water boils gently. Gnocchi will sink, then float to the top after about 3 minutes. Remove gnocchi 2 or 3 at a time with a slotted spoon, tap onto paper towels to blot any water, and return gnocchi to their storage pan. Repeat until all gnocchi are cooked and drained. If not serving in a few hours, cover the dish tightly with plastic and refrigerate.

8. To serve the gnocchi, bring them to room temperature if refrigerated. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with the rack adjusted to the highest position. Sprinkle the gnocchi with the 1/2 cup Parmesan and set the pan in the oven. Bake 5 to 7 minutes to heat through. Meanwhile, reheat the tomato sauce over medium heat until very hot and simmering.

9. When gnocchi are hot, remove them from the oven, divide the hot tomato sauce evenly among 4 to 8 heated soup bowls (depending on whether you’re serving gnocchi as a main course or first course), and set gnocchi onto the tomato sauce. Serve right away with some crusty Italian or French bread.

Makes 40 gnocchi. 

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Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America.” He co-hosts a weekly show, “The Food Guys,” on Montana Public Radio, and blogs about baking at www.thebakingwizard.com. Please follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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