12 August 2013

The Naked and the Ill-formed

It won’t be love at first sight. Even a glowing description wouldn’t set your taste buds on fire. But you won’t be sorry you tried them. Malfatti means ‘badly made’, and the charm of these dumplings seems to be in squeezing them into shape by hand any which way—they’re never supposed to be completely tidy and uniform like their cousins, the gnocchi (in some corners of the northwest they sometimes call them gnocchi verdi, ‘green gnocchi’).

            Essentially, a malfatto is the common stuffing used for ravioli or tortelli: spinach and ricotta, bound with eggs, and some nutmeg and parmesan thrown in—only without the pasta cover.  In much of Tuscany, the same thing is logically called gnudi, or ‘nudies’ (malfatti in Siena, gnudi in Florence ; it’s a local thing). Some restauranteurs in Napa, California claim that their mother invented them in 1925, but the Italians say they come from Lombardy, where they’ve been making them for centuries.

            They’re pretty trendy now, both in Italy and the U.S. Malfatti are easy to make, and offer a great alternative to pasta for a primo, or a good lunch all by themselves along with a salad.  The most popular recipe has them with slightly browned butter and sage on top. They’re perfect like that, but up in Lombardy they will also put mushrooms cooked in butter on top, or even a tomato and meat ragú.

Here’s Dana’s basic recipe for malfatti:

This recipe is very forgiving,  and can be easily adjusted to what you have in the garden or fridge.

1 firmly packed cup of greens (whatever you have in the garden will work; this one is a mix of chicory, chard, amaranth and spinach); boiled,  drained, squeezed and finely chopped

garlic cloves, minced (if you like garlic, put in five; if you don't put in less)

1/2 cup green onions or chives, or both, minced

a handful of fresh basil leaves (if you have them)

250 gr ricotta

1/2 cup grated Parmesan

1 cup breadcrumbs or flour. Breadcrumbs make a lighter version

a big pinch of nutmeg

2 eggs, beaten

salt and pepper to taste

flour for dredging

5 tbs butter

a dozen or more sage leaves

grated Parmesan

—Sauté the garlic in a bit of olive oil and mix in the greens.

—Mix in the onions/chives, ricotta, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, garlic, nutmeg, eggs, salt and pepper to make a stiff dough. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

—Preparation: heat salted water to a boil as you roll the dough into logs about 4cm in diameter on a floured surface. Slice, making sure each dumpling is lightly coated with flour, and drop into boiling water (it usually takes four or five batches). Take them out as they float to the surface and put under a low grill to keep warm and lightly brown while cooking the other batches.  This light grilling, it must be said, is not canonical, but it gets rid of the slightly slimy surface and makes the malfatti much nicer,  at least at our house.

—Meanwhile gently heat the butter and sage until the butter is light brown and sage turns dark. Drizzle over the malfatti, top with Parmesan and serve warm.


Here’s a recipe that may more nearly approximate the original rustic malfatti, with old bread soaked in milk instead of flour or breadcrumbs (recipe in Italian here

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