Malfatti, which loosely translates as “poorly made” in Italian, are billowy dumplings of ricotta and spinach. Essentially gnocchi, but without the dough casing. A wonderful choice for a gorgeous light meal that is sure to satisfy even die hard meat sauce lovers.
Malfatti speak for themselves. Unlike gnocchi, there is no fiddling about making perfectly shaped dumplings. These have a very rustic homemade allure that harkens back to 17th century northern Italian cooks in the countryside. Malfatti can be steamed, boiled, sauted, or gently cooked in a simple tomato sauce.
I make my own ricotta (see recipes here) paired with the simplest tomato sauce (see recipe here) made with imported Italian tomatoes or tomato passata, fresh Italian tomatoes which have been passed through a food mill to remove the skin and seeds. Imported passata is readily available. To a passata just add onions, garlic, salt and pepper, and olive oil and you have the simplest of red sauces made in no time.
Malfatti: makes about 15 3 servings
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- large bunch of young spinach leaves, chopped
- 6oz/170g ricotta cheese
- 1 organic egg, whisked
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- ¼ tsp finely grated nutmeg
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
prepared red sauce
- whole dried red chiles (optional)
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the spinach and saute just until the spinach has wilted, about 1 minute. Transfer the spinach to a paper towel to absorb excess water and set aside.
Place the ricotta in a mixing bowl and add the wilted spinach, egg, ¾ cup of Parmegiano-Regiano, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and flour. Fold the ingredients together until just combined and coming together.
Cover the mixture and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This will make the malfatti easier to form.
Then scoop out a generous tablespoon size portions of the mixture and form into elongated egg shapes without being too concerned about their uniformity. Think malfatti!
Place them on a parchment lined tray, cover, and refrigerate until you are ready to cook them in red sauce.
Preheat the oven to 350f/180c
Warm the red sauce and pour a cup or so in a baking dish. Then add the malfatti to the dish and add more sauce to nearly cover the malfatti with only the top exposed. Add the dried chiles if using and transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
Open the oven and add the remaining ¼ cup grated Parmigiano over the tops of the malfatti. Turn the baking dish for even baking and continue baking until just lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
Serve the malfatti as pictured in a pool of red sauce along with a mixed greens salad and some crusty bread.
A perfect summer meal!
Just a mention of meatballs and spaghetti is probably going to conjure up a flashback to one of those cafeteria lunch offerings we would all rather forget from our childhood. And of course most of us didn’t have an Italian Nona to cook for us, so we were left with the next best option, the ubiquitous Italian American restaurant versions of meatballs and spaghetti which were just often delicious enough to keep us coming back.
Fortunately, the true glories of meatballs have surfaced in nearly every culture and cuisine throughout the ages. From China’s Qin Dynasty, the Romans, the Persians, and of course the modern day Italian’s cuisine we are all familiar with today.
The recipe that follows does not stray far from the wisdom of the Italian Nona. My one exception is making the meatballs larger than the smaller traditional Italian “polpettes”. I much prefer the tender juiciness of these meatballs that are slowly simmered in a simple traditional “passata” tomato sauce. Serve them as they are or with pasta along with a beautiful crisp salad and you have a perfect pairing for simple meal for any season.
Meatballs…(Basics) makes twelve 2 ½ oz meatballs
- 1 pound/ 455 g best quality ground beef
- 1 pound/ 455 g lean ground pork
- 2 thin slices pancetta, minced
- ½ cup dry breadcrumbs
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Regiano
- 1 small onion, minced (about ¾ cup)
- 2 small garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- ½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley leaves
- 1 extra large organic egg, whisked
- ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
- 1 ½ teaspoons flaked sea salt + more to taste
- 1 cup flour
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Passata tomato sauce
- 3 bay leaves
In a large mixing bowl combine the ground beef, ground pork, and minced pancetta. Toss with your hands until well combined and set aside.
In a small mixing bowl combine the bread crumbs and milk. Set aside for 5 minutes and then squeeze out the excess milk.
In a medium bowl combine the milk soaked bread crumbs, 1 cup grated Parmegiano-Reggiano, minced onion, minced garlic, chopped parsley, whisked egg, ground pepper, pepper flakes, and sea salt. Toss the ingredients together until well combined. Then scatter the mixture over the ground meats and pancetta.
Using your hands, toss all the ingredients together until they are completely combined. Cover the mixture with cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Once the chilled meatball mixture has firmed up, remove from the fridge, and weigh out 12 2 oz portions. Roll each portion gently between the palms of your hands until uniformly rounded. Do not over compress the mixture as you roll the meatballs. The less densely compacted they are the more tender and juicy they will be when cooked.
Gently roll each meatball in the flour until evenly coated. Shake off excess flour and place the meatballs on a tray. Cover the filled tray with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This will firm up the meatballs so they retain their shape while browning them.
Preheat the oven to 350 F/ 180 C
Remove the chilled meatballs from the fridge. Place the olive oil in a wide shallow braising pan or oven proof skillet set over medium heat. When the oil is nearly smoking add half of the meatballs to the pan and cook them until evenly browned on all sides. When done remove the meatballs and set them aside on a platter while you brown the remaining meatballs.
Once all the meatballs are browned, pour most of the oil out of the pan and remove any remaining bits left in the pan using a paper towel. The pan should look fairly clean. Add a bit more fresh oil if necessary.
Return the browned meatballs to the braising pan and pour the preheated “passata” tomato sauce into the pan until it nearly covers the meatballs leaving just the tops exposed. Tuck the bay leaves into the sauce and transfer the pan to the oven. The braising can also be done on the stove top if an oven is not an option.
After 30 minutes open the oven door, turn the pan, and add more sauce if needed. Return the pan to the oven for another 30 minutes. When finished the sauce should have thickened somewhat and the tops of the meatballs nicely glazed.
If you are serving the meatballs on a bed of pasta as pictured, have the pasta cooked al dente and ready for serving as soon as the meatballs come out of the oven.
Serving: Place the pasta on individual plates and top with 3 meatballs per serving. Spoon sauce over the pasta and a little over the meatballs. Top each meatball with the remaining grated Parmegiano-Reggiano and serve.
“Passata” Tomato Sauce:
- 2 24 oz bottles or cartons of Italian passata tomato sauce (Mutti brand is very good)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- a pinch of sugar
- ½ teaspoon ground red chile (optional)
- chicken stock as needed
“Passata” describes a process where vine ripe Roma tomatoes are passed through a food mill and then cooked. The process removes the seeds and skin from the tomatoes and once cooked makes a simple tomato sauce with just a few added ingredients.
I highly recommend using imported passata. There are several brands available. Mutti is my favorite and makes a beautiful sauce bursting with flavor.
Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when nearly smoking pour in the passata and stir. Once the sauce comes back to a boil lower the heat to a simmer. Stir in the salt, black pepper, sugar, and chile powder if using. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add hot chicken stock if the sauce needs thinning.
Keep the sauce warm on the stove top to add to the meatballs for braising or for saucing pasta before serving.
You will most likely have left over sauce which you can freeze for later use.
With autumn’s arrival thoughts of what to cook naturally veer towards warming heartier fare with richer earthier flavors that lift the spirit and warm the cockles as temperatures wane. Soup, soup, and more soups is what fall cooking is all about. Fortunately locally grown late summer and fall vegetables are available until the first deep frost. So, as the old saying goes, best to make hay while the sun shines. Cook up plenty of beautiful healthy and hearty fall soups to serve as main courses throughout fall and make more to freeze that will surely brightening up meals when the winter months drag on.
Over centuries frugal rural Italian cooks relied entirely on locally grown produce as the main staple in their diets. Cooking methods for making deeply flavored foods out of readily available local ingredients evolved into what contemporary Italians now call cucina povre. Rustic vegetable based soups like minestrone and ribollita, as well as vegetable stews have became Italian classics.
In fact Minestrone dates back to the Romans although the popularized canned variety we are all familiar with worldwide has little semblance to what you will find coming out of rural Italian kitchens even today. Minestrone is a vegetable soup that includes a variety of seasonal vegetables and usually includes pasta or rice and sometimes meats.
Much less well known is Ribollita, a thick, rustic, infinity healthy, and abundantly flavorsome Tuscan vegetable soup that is much more to my liking. Ribolitta begins with a sofritto (battuto) of finely diced onions, celery, carrots, garlic, and chopped parsley that is slowly braised in olive oil until the vegetables are very soft and deeply flavorful. Tomatoes and cooked beans are then added, along with liquid to cover, and cooked for another half hour or so. Then, traditionally, cavolo nero (black kale) is added along with herbs and seasonings and simmered. Finally torn day old bread is added to the soup and cooked until softened. Serving ribollita Tuscan style with a flourish of fruity extra virgin olive oil is pure perfection.
Cavolo nero may be hard to find, but not to worry. A deep green kale or a combination of kale and spinach will do just fine.
Ribollita serves 6 to 8
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups finely diced onions
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 ¾ cups finely diced celery
- 1 ½ cups finely diced carrots
- 1 cup loosely packed chopped Italian parsley leaves
- 8 canned whole imported Italian tomatoes , juice drained and reserved for another use
- 1 can/240g imported Italian cannelini or borlotti beans with their liquid
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 4 big bunches cavolo nero or kale, center ribs and stems removed, leaves chopped
- spinach leaves, chopped (optional)
- 1 1/2 cup diced zucchini (optional)
- 4 thick slices day old country bread, torn into bits
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon of pure ground red chile powder (optional)
- extra virgin olive oil to finish
Equipment: A Dutch oven with a lid or a deep wide pan with lid.
Prepare all your vegetables before you begin cooking.
Place the pan on the stove top over medium low flame. Add the olive oil to the pan and when hot add the onions and stir to coat them with the oil. Cook for several minutes until the onions are translucent. Then stir in the garlic, celery, carrots, and parsley. Stir to evenly coat the ingredients with oil and reduce the heat to low. Partially cover the pan with the lid and braise for 25 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to very low if the ingredients are browning to much. They can be lightly colored but you want to avoid any scorched flavor.
Once the vegetables are softened add the drained tomatoes to the pan, breaking them up with a wooden spoon while stirring them into the vegetable mixture. Then stir in the beans and their liquid. Add enough water to the pan to just cover all the ingredients. Stir in the bay leaves, marjoram, and thyme. Partially cover the pan and cook for 30 minutes, Stirring every 10 minutes.
Remove the lid from the pan and add the chopped cavolo nero leaves, kale leaves, or a combination of kale and spinach leaves, as well as the zucchini if using. Fold into the mixture evenly and then tuck the torn bread down into the broth. Season with salt, pepper, and red chile (it using) to taste. Add enough water to just cover the mixture. Partially cover the pan and cook for another 20 to 25 minutes or until the leaves are very tender.
Taste and adjust salt and pepper to taste. The soup should be very thick with just enough liquid to engulf the vegetables without drowning them in liquid when serving.
Ribollita may be served at once or ideally cooled and then refrigerated until the next day. This allows the flavors of the soup to fully develop.
Reheat the ribollita slowly along with a little added water if needed. Ladle the soup into individual serving bowls and drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil around the edges of the ribollita and serve!
Melissa Clarke’s article, An Accidentally Creamier Fluffier Potato Salad in the NY Times last month, as always, captures Melisa’s delightfully playful ways in the kitchen that can turn what might be considered mistakenly over cooked potatoes for a potato salad into a mistake worth repeating. Her purposely soft cooked starchy potatoes folded together with a mildly rich dressing makes the case for a fluffier potato salad that is truly carving worthy.
Keep in mind the secret to success here is to gently simmer your potatoes until they are as soft as they can possibly be without falling apart.
The recipe that follows differs from Melissa’s but uses the same soft cooked potato method. Once the potatoes are drained and cooled for 10 minutes, they can then be gently folded together with sauteed onions, pancetta, garlic, and celery. The salad is then dressed with a subtly rich mayonnaise and Greek yogurt dressing and served while still warm! This has been a steadfast tried and true method I have followed for years and remains my favorite way to make potato salad not matter what ingredients you are using!
A Craving Worthy Soft & Billowy Potato Salad Serves 6
- 2.2 pounds/ 1 kilo gold potatoes, peeled
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 oz /57 grams pancetta, thinly sliced and diced
- ½ cup finely diced onion
- 1 plump garlic clove, peeled and minced
- ½ cup finely diced young celery
- ¾ cup mayonnaise (Hellmann’s)
- 1/3 cup Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon flaked sea salt + more to taste
- 1/3 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon chipotle chile powder or red chile powder (optional)
- 1/3 cup finely sliced Italian parsley leaves
- assortment of salad leaves and greens
- smoked flaked sea salt (Maldon) for finishing
- fresh parsley leaves for garnish
Peel the potatoes and cut them into ¾ inch cubes. Place in a large sauce pan and cover with water. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Stir in some salt and simmer the potatoes until they are very soft and tender but still just holding their shape. Test by inserting a knife blade into a potato which should slip easily into the flesh. Once perfectly cooked, drain the potatoes in a colander and set aside to cool briefly. Then transfer potatoes to a large bowl and set aside.
While the potatoes are simmering, heat the olive oil in a medium size saute pan set over medium low heat. When hot add the pancetta and gently cook several minutes without browning. Add the onions, season with some sea salt and pepper , and continue sauteing until the onions are soft without browning. Add the garlic and celery and season with chipotle powder or chile powder if using. Saute 1 minute more and remove the pan from the heat.
Using a silicone spoon, distribute the warm pancetta onion mixture over the potatoes and gently fold the mixture into the potatoes. Then scatter the parsley over the top.
In a small bowl combine the mayonnaise, Greek yogurt, and Dijon mustard and stir until well combined and smooth. Then spoon the dressing over the potatoes and fold in until evenly distributed. Taste and season with more salt if needed. You will notice the dressing will cling nicely to the soft starchy potatoes which gives this potato salad its soft billowy texture so do not be tempted to over mix.
Arrange a bed of assorted salad leaves and greens on each individual serving plate and place the potato salad centered into the leaves. Garnish with parsley leaves and scatter some smoked flaked sea salt over the potatoes and serve.