A while ago I decided to try my hand at cheesemaking - as a devoted lover of cheese I think it was inevitable that I would try to make my own sooner or later. The obvious starting point for any amateur cheesemaker is ricotta. It's the simplest of cheeses - simply add something acidic, such as lemon juice, to some milk to split it into its constituent parts, and drain. Season the resulting drained curds with some sea salt and you're done; it's that easy. The nice thing about ricotta is that it's typically made with either lemon juice or vinegar, rather than rennet like most other cheeses, so you don't need any specialist ingredients.
This dish was inspired by a recipe for a Corsican/Italian dish called strozapretti, which consists of rustic ricotta dumplings loaded with chopped fresh herbs and chard. It's like ravioli but without the pasta. Normally, the dumplings would be fairly rough and imperfect in shape, but I have shaped mine nicely into rounds. I've also baked them in the oven until golden, which is great with the grated parmesan on top. Baked in a rich tomato sauce, it's pretty irresistible!
The ricotta for this recipe should be quite firm, which is easy to achieve if you make your own. Click here for my own ricotta recipe. Alternatively, you can use shop-bought ricotta and drain it overnight in a fine sieve.
- 200 g ricotta, firm
- 80 g baby spinach
- 1 small bunch mint, leaves picked
- 1 small bunch basil, leaves picked
- 25 g parmesan, finely grated
- ½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tbsp plain flour
- 1 egg
- 2 400 g tin chopped plum tomato
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped or grated
- 1 sprig thyme
- sea salt and cracked black pepper
- vegetable oil, for frying
- olive oil, for frying
Place a saute pan over a medium heat and add a little vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, add the spinach along with a small pinch of salt. Saute until the spinach is wilted, then drain in a sieve.
Reserve a selection of the nicest, smallest basil leaves for garnish at the end. Finely chop the mint and roughly chop the remainder of the basil, then place in a bowl. Add the ricotta, flour and egg to the bowl also.
When the spinach is cool enough to handle, with clean hands squeeze as much liquid out of the spinach as possible, then roughly chop and add to the bowl with the ricotta along with a generous pinch of black pepper, and sea salt to taste.
Line a large tray with greaseproof paper, then divide the ricotta mix into equal portions. Shape each portion into an approximate ball shape and set on the tray. The balls will be quite sticky but don't worry, we're going to re-shape them before cooking. Place the balls in the fridge to cool for 3 hours.
Meanwhile, make your tomato sauce: heat a medium pot or saute pan over a medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, once it's hot, add the onion and garlic and a couple of pinches of salt and cracked black pepper. Sweat gently for 10 minutes until soft, then add the tomatoes and thyme. Turn the heat to low, and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes. It should have turned darker and richer. Remove from the heat and discard the sprig of thyme.
Get a large pan of water boiling on the stove and season it generously with salt. Remove the balls from the fridge and, with floured hands shape them into nice round dumpling shapes. With the water at a rolling boil, cook the dumplings 3 or 4 at a time. The water should barely stop boiling when you add each batch. After they float to the surface cook for a further 30 seconds then remove and drain in a colander.
Heat the oven to 180C. In a casserole dish or oven-proof bowl, pour in the tomato sauce and add the dumplings. Scatter over the parmesan then place in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until the dumplings are lightly browned.
Garnish with the reserved basil leaves and serve.