Confession: I have never been to Italy. I’ve been to Luxembourg, but not Italy. I’ve been to Slovenia, just not Italy. I’ve even been to the Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, England, Ireland, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, etc. I’m not trying to sound privileged (most of the aforementioned countries were seen by me from the back of my parents’ brand new Volkswagen Eurovan, purchased in Belgium, as we did a makeshift tour of most of central Europe). What I’m trying to convey is the ridiculousness of my not having visited Italy, arguably one of the countries to see if one goes to Europe, especially if one is a big eater, and god knows I always was.
And it’s not that I think I wouldn’t like it there. I may be one of the few New Yorkers without some sort of Italian heritage, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love me some Italian food.
So when I opened the New York Times Magazine this past Saturday to do the crossword, I noted the recipe for “malfatti” on the previous page. First of all, Czech dumplings are among my favorite foods, so I wanted to see what I’ve been missing by not having Italian dumplings. Second of all, I liked the preamble story, all about how Italians tell it like it is. “Malfatti” literally means “poorly formed,” which is an apt description for these little spinach dumpling gremlins. At least they are not called “Perfect goose-egg shaped dumplings” or something intimidating and nearly impossible to live up to. I like the idea of being upfront about the unattractiveness of a dish. These pull no punches; they are ugly, but delicious enough for it to not matter.
While we are in confession mode, I also have never used a food processor (until today). I know I KNOW, that is like Standard Business for anyone who claims to be as into baking as I claim. Well, in case you don’t know, I worked for a non-profit for the past 2 years. Money was not exactly rolling into my bank account, it was more like a steady trickle. A food processor was the type of handy appliance I dreamed of buying one day when I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck, right up there with a double-boiler and a yogurt maker. That day has not yet come, but tonight I had the luxury of preparing dinner at my boyfriend’s parents’ house, and food processor access was part of the deal. I could go on about how much I now love food processors, and how blenders make me want to shove spoons in my eyes, but I won’t, because something tells me my opinions about food processors aren’t terribly interesting.
Anyway, back to these dumplings. They are hard to form, so I was glad there was no pressure, because I was in no state of mind to coddle them into perfect little eggs. They are really sticky, you’ll need a whole bowl of flour and you’ll have to dip back in after each one, and eventually you’ll be wearing many-layered gloves of spinach gunk and flour. To be perfectly honest, these dumplings looked fairly similar to goose turds. I know, this is the second thing I’ve made that I have compared to a turd. I can’t help it.
In the end, turd-resemblance aside, they are very soft and lovely, not at all chewy or doughy. They fall apart very easily so you have to be gentle with their poorly formed souls. We were too lazy to make our own tomato sauce, but we used our standby store favorite–Trader Giotto’s Rustico Sauce from…you guessed it…Trader Joe’s. All in all a wonderful and light Italian dish, light on the cheese and heavy on the spinach, perfect with a vinegary chopped salad. And if you are like me, you needed some green after the 80 torrone and 6 slices of chocolate cranberry torte that have passed through your mouth over the past week or so. Not to mention all the things I eat that I don’t blog about. Yeah, let’s not even go there.
Mrs. Sebastian’s Malfatti
from The New York Times Magazine; January 11, 2009
(We halved the below recipe for 3 people and it could’ve maybe fed 4. When they say feeds 12 they mean 12 if everyone wants like….3 dumplings. You will want many, many more than 3.)
2 lbs fresh spinach or 2 packages frozen
6 oz crusty Italian bread (1/2 a loaf)
1 onion, finely chopped (we used shallots, they worked just fine)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 to 1 cup dry, coarse bread crumbs
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp dried basil
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups hot tomato sauce, preferably homemade
1. Cook the fresh spinach in the water clinging to the leaves after washing, or cook the frozen spinach according to the package instructions. Drain over a bowl, squeezing out as much water as possible–do this in small handfuls so you can press out the most water–and chop. Reserve the water.
2. Briefly soak the bread in the reserved spinach water plus enough hot water to cover and squeeze dry.
3. Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Mix the spinach, bread, sauteed onion and garlic and put through the finest blade of a meat grinder or pulse in a food processor until chopped, then scrape into a mixing bowl.
4. Add 1/2 cup of the dry bread crumbs, the cup of Parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper and basil. Stir in the eggs. With lightly floured hands, gently shape the mixture into sausage-like links, 1 inch round by 3 inches long. If they do not hold together, add more bread crumbs. Lay on a baking sheet.
5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop the links, one at a time, into the boiling water. Reduce the heat to let the water barely simmer and cook until the malfatti float to the surface, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and place in a greased baking dish large enough to fit them all in a single layer.
6. Spoon the tomato sauce over the links, sprinkle with lots of cheese and broil to reheat. Serves 12.