Pamela Sheldon Johns, the author of several books on Italian cooking, has written a gorgeous new book on Tuscan peasant cooking called Cucina Povera that comes out on September 13, and I can’t wait to start cooking from it.
The life portrayed in the book is so vivid that the people and recipes jump right off the page. It features profiles of local people that Johns knows from her many years living in Tuscany, Italy, and tidbits such as traditional Italian herbal remedies. Surrounding all of the stories and facts are simple, fresh recipes that visitors to Johns’s bed and breakfast in Tuscany, Poggio Etrusco, are lucky enough to taste.
I had the pleasure of meeting Johns when my husband and I stayed at Poggio Etrusco in 2008. We chose it from recommendations on the internet, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.
It just so happened that on the day we were staying there, the Johns family was harvesting their wine grapes, and we had the great pleasure of helping to cut the grapes from the vines. We had a blast!
After cutting the grapes, we went to the local processing plant where we watched brawny Italian guys — along with Pamela and her husband, Johnny — push the grapes through a machine that removes the skins and seeds. After the juice was strained, it was poured into barrels to ferment into Poggio Etrusco’s own wine.
Before our “hard work” out in the vineyard, Johns served us a homemade lunch full of fresh vegetables and fruits, accompanied by locally produced olive oil and plenty of wine. We had a lively conversation with Johns and the other guests, including an American Catholic priest who was taking a vacation by himself.
The recipe below for gnudi, spinach and ricotta dumplings, is a perfect example of what Cucina Povera is about, making simple and beautiful dishes from what’s on hand.
Gnudi: Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings, from Cucina Povera by Pamela Sheldon Johns, Andrews McMeel Publishing, September 2011
Gnudi means, well, “nude”—because these are nude ravioli, the filling without the outer pasta covering. They are delicious served with tomato sauce in this recipe, or with melted butter and sage
3/4 cup steamed spinach(see page XX), finely chopped
3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Tomato Sauce (page XX)
In a large bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta, Pecorino, and egg yolks. Stir to blend. Stir in the nutmeg and salt to taste, then gently stir in the flour, mixing just enough to pull the mixture together.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Heat the tomato sauce and spread a thin layer over the bottom of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Set aside.
Using two tablespoons, shape the ricotta mixture into ovals and drop them directly into the boiling water in batches, so as not to crowd the pot. They will float to the top when done, after 3 to 4 minutes. Using a wire skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer the gnudi to the casserole dish. Keep warm in a low oven. Repeat to cook all the remaining gnudi. Spoon the remaining tomato sauce over the gnudi and serve at once.