Ricotta gnudi with asparagus and anchovy
I was thinking spring thoughts and these delightful, fluffy dumplings came to mind. If you have never had them, think of a cross between gnocchi and a delicate, simple ravioli filling. The mix is made and left to rest in flour or semolina to firm up and form a thin skin. You blanch them to cook, and as you bite there’s a thin layer of resistance before they become an elegant mouthful with an unexpectedly gentle and soft texture.
The word gnudi in Italian translates to naked – it’s basically a pasta dish undressed of its pasta. Traditionally gnudi are served with a burnt butter sauce, with or without sage. It’s all about the subtle milky flavour of ricotta.
I used to make them at a former restaurant but I couldn’t find my recipe. As it turns out, the idea was from my partner so, not for the first time, I plagiarised his. In more recent times, they have appeared on his menu again with an excellent whey sauce, reminding me of why I loved them so much.
You will need specific equipment, time and fresh ricotta. A stand mixer with a paddle attachment is best, as is a piping bag. You can improvise, but the mix does need to be just right to get the correct texture so prepare for some trial and error. Time is important as you must drain your ricotta – again this goes to texture – and once the mix is made, the gnudi need to be well coated and firm to cook properly without falling apart and also to have the correct texture.
As for ingredients, there’s no room to hide with something that has so few, which means the quality of your ricotta is paramount. The parmesan should be a nice bitey, sharp one as it serves as a foil. The sauce recipe here veers off the track of purity a little and adds a little garlic for kick, anchovy for saltiness, asparagus for its spring sweetness and a little bitter sage to balance. All these flavours play happily with ricotta. If you don’t like anchovies, simply omit, and if asparagus isn’t to your taste, swap it for peas or broad beans.
As with all seemingly simple recipes, there is much that can go wrong and there is not enough room here to explain all the ways to fix and understand. Once you get it, though, you will be pleased with these beauties, while you wax lyrical about the bountiful produce of this season and what other ideas you can borrow from your partner.
Time: 30 minutes to prep and make + overnight resting
For the ricotta gnudi
- 300g fresh ricotta (hung in cheesecloth for at least 6 hours)
- 20g grated parmesan
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1 egg, broken with a fork
- 15g flour
- 1 tbsp melted butter
- salt flakes, white pepper and nutmeg to season
- about 600-700g fine semolina
For the sauce
- 6 cloves garlic
- salt flakes
- 6 of your finest anchovy fillets
- 70g butter
- 1/3 cup picked sage leaves
- 170g asparagus, blanched, refreshed, cut into 3cm lengths and then left to sit at room temperature (if the spears are very thick, peel them)
- a squeeze of lemon
- black pepper
- In a stand mixer on medium, with a paddle attachment, mix the ricotta, parmesan and zest until smooth (less than a minute). Add the egg, fold to combine with a spatula and follow with the flour, butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg until just incorporated. Your mix should be fluffy and a little dense.
- Place the mixture into a piping bag with a large nozzle and set aside.
- Lay out three-quarters of your semolina into the base of a shallow tray and give it a jiggle to make it even. Use the pointy end of an egg or something similar to make little indents in a grid in your semolina, leaving space in between. You will need about 18 holes.
- Pipe your mix straight into the holes in a kind of a ball shape (you can use a couple of spoons to do this but it’s a bit more fiddly). Each one should be about 20 grams. Once all the mixture is piped, use the rest of the semolina to cover the balls. Leave this to sit overnight to properly set.
- Once you are ready to cook your gnudi, have a large wide-based pot of salted water on the boil. Get your gnudi ready by removing them from the semolina, discarding any excess, and placing them on a plate. You do need to be adept at timing here as you want to be making the sauce as you blanch the gnudi to cook. The gnudi need to be delicately dropped into the water and simmered. Once they float they will take another two to three minutes to cook.
- To make the sauce, place the garlic cloves into a mortar, add a little salt and pound with the pestle until smooth and fluffy. Add the anchovy fillets and continue pounding to form a paste. Remove and set aside.
- In a large saucepan over a gentle heat, add the butter and your garlic paste and gently allow the butter to melt and the paste to warm, using a spoon to mix. Once the butter has melted, add the sage leaves and continue cooking until they start to fry. Let them sizzle away for a few minutes before adding the asparagus. Turn the heat down and make sure to coat and warm the asparagus thoroughly.
- It’s now you will want to add in the floating gnudi, using a slotted spoon to transfer them from the water to pan. (If the timing is a bit off, remove the pan with the sauce from the heat as soon as the asparagus is in until you are ready.)
- Raise the heat to high and gently roll the gnudi around in the sauce. Be very careful as they will be delicate.
- Once it is all sizzling, season with a little lemon and a nice amount of black pepper. Serve hot.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Best undressed".
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