Sunday, March 8, 2009
Strozzapreti..betcha can't eat just one.
It must've been about twenty years ago when I was having dinner with my brother Bill, his wife Joanne, and the kids at an Italian-American joint in the Pocono Mountains that I first encountered what Joanne and the kids called "spinach balls". They were served on a gratin dish, bubbling with butter and cheese. Nobody could figure out how they were made or what went into them. I remember Joanne, saying years later to Cait, the middle child (all grown up now and a popular high school music teacher who plays a mean funky sax) "I've almost got it Cait. I think I've figured out the spinach balls!" That gives you an insight that we are definitely NOT Italian.
"Strozzapreti" or priest stranglers, where else but in Italy could you find such a fantastic name for a food item? Who needs opera when you can eat it? I tasted strozzapreti my first summer here in 2003. Piero told me they were called priest stranglers because when the priest was an invited dinner guest he ate so many of them he would choke. When I first started researching them the only thing I found about strozzapreti was the pasta shape which indeed looked like a rolled towel ready to do the job. I just googled today and found that strozzapreti now has a wikipedia entry and what I'm talking about is strozzapreti in the baked form and along with that a few fascinating reasons about how they got their name. I've almost forgotten that they are also called "gnudi" (that's in Tuscan dialetto) which means naked..take that a little further and it's ravioli without shirts.
So, after all this..what are they? Priest stranglers are a mix of chopped greens, ricotta, an egg, grated parmigiano, a hearty grating of nutmeg, salt and pepper and the least amount of flour possible. Too much flour will toughen them. You should need very little. Now to give you the recipe I have to get out of my gram head and into my ounce head. I could even let that go and do the "a'occhio", which means by the eye..and I'm getting pretty good at that these days.
P came home with a container of fresh ricotta the other day and a gorgeous bunch of bietole (beet greens). As everybody knows, once you cook those greens you haven't got much. You need to go out and get a few more bunches. Which is what he did.I had less than a pound of ricotta and I was looking for equal the amount of green stuff or more. P cooked the greens in salted water and then chop, chop with the mezzaluna (once again, Italian ingenuity, rocking back and forth, less effort and twice as much accomplished). I mixed about a pound of chopped greens(drain very well, squeeze out all the water) with about 320 grams of ricotta, one egg, etc. Taste it along the way. Enough salt, cheese..? Now get a big spoon and start to shape them. The mix will be damp. I like about a little smaller than a golf ball for size and I toss it back and forth in my hands and then roll in flour and toss again to get rid of any excess. That last step is important. The first time I made these with my best friend Marybeth we didn't do the flour stage and our stranglers disintegrated in the boiling water.
So I've got a few stranglers ready and my salted water is boiling. I like to do a test drive to make sure they will hold up in the water. For those of you who may not be sure you've got it right this is a good thing to do.
If everything "va bene" gently add four of five stranglers at a time. You might even turn down the temp on the burner so the boil isn't rapid. I lower them in with a flat strainer. They will sink... but if you put a lid on the top for a minute or so and say an "Ave Maria" (the great Tuscan chef Alvaro Maccioni taught me this) they will rise and bob like happy stranglers in a minute or so. Remove from the water, drain and when all of them are cooked you can move onto the next step. Piero and I like ours sauteed in butter and sage. For this you need a great dollop of butter and a few nice big sage leaves. I like to use a non stick pan to keep my stranglers from sticking. Melt and add the stranglers. I let them go long enough for the butter to give them a tiny brown bottom. Then serve and pass the cheese. They are delicious.I served my friend Susan's "Chocolate Obsession" for dessert with a big helping of vanilla gelato. Everything killer.