Pasta sauce: swiss chard and two cheeses

IMG_20141031_200804 (1) In the city of Nice, swiss chard has long been a kitchen staple and its beautiful, green, sometimes pink-stemmed leaves are known in France as blettes.  Both here and over the border in Liguria, greens of all descriptions are used extensively in tarts, soups, tians and for colouring homemade pasta and gnocchi.  On the tart front, the curiously sweet niçois dish Tourte de Blettes, which features apples, raisins and swiss chard baked in a pastry case with sugar, is a traditional and popular dessert, while the savoury and seasonal Torta Pasqualina (Easter Tart) of Liguria combines swiss chard with ricotta or the local prescinsêua cheese as a base for the tart’s filling.

This latter dish has inspired a few pasta sauce experiments recently and if, like me, you struggle to entice your children to ‘eat their greens’, this recipe could well be for you – mine lapped it up.  I kid you not!  And with some pecorino and a scattering of toasted pine nuts to finish, it’s sophisticated enough for the grown-ups too – think primi piatti and follow it up with a special piece of fish or meat for the second course.  If you can’t get hold of swiss chard, spinach works just as well and the pasta of choice is the cylindrical sort – macaroni, rigatoni or penne would be ideal.

Pasta sauce: swiss chard and two cheeses
Serves four as a starter

200g swiss chard, stalks removed
175g fresh ricotta cheese
10 large basil leaves, finely chopped
50g pecorino romano, finely grated
1 clove garlic, crushed
A pinch of salt
30ml milk
200g macaroni, penne or rigatoni
A handful of toasted pinenuts

Place the swiss chard in a pan with a lid and pour in enough cold water to cover the bottom of the pan.  Put the lid on and heat the greens on a medium heat, stirring from time to time.  After five minutes or so, the greens will have wilted. Drain them in a sieve, and once cooled, squeeze out any remaining liquid.

Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.

Combine the ricotta, basil leaves, garlic, salt and 40g of the pecorino in a bowl then stir in the cooked, drained swiss chard.  Pour in the milk and mix again.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it reserving a little of the cooking water.  Put the pasta back into the saucepan and stir in swiss chard and cheese mixture.  Add a little of the pasta water (perhaps two large spoonfuls) to give a consistency to the sauce that you are happy with.  It should coat the pasta nicely but not be too thick.

Serve the pasta in bowls and top with the remaining pecorino and the toasted pinenuts.  Watch in amazement as people lap up their greens!

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Les Gnocchis Verts (green gnocchi)

IMG_20140308_194338La Merda dé Can is the niçois name for these gorgeous, green gnocchi made with swiss chard or spinach.  The literal English translation of the term will not be repeated here as it’s less than flattering, but I am sure you can work it out for yourself.  Now, soggy gnocchi equal stodgy gnocchi so experiments have been many in our house – my family is very patient – in the pursuit of a foolproof recipe for the light, elegant parcels I have many a time seen for sale in Vieux Nice.

The principal ingredient is potatoes and they should be the floury variety. Boiling them in water, the traditional way, adds moisture of course and they need then to be dried out.  A lot.  No amount of sitting the cooked potatoes on a bed of salt, as some recipes suggest, does the job quite as well (for me) as baking the potatoes in their jackets.  Not conventional, I hear you scream but it works every time.  And anyway, this blog is about investigating and not simply regurgitating old recipes.

To dress the just cooked gnocchi, just scatter some grated parmesan and add a drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil.  It’s traditional to serve them with the juices from a beef daube in winter or, in summer, with a fresh tomato sauce. If you’ve time to whip up a pesto or pistou to top these beautiful pillows of fluffiness so much the better, and a white wine from the Luberon, as an accompaniment, will finish things off to a tee.

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Les Gnocchis Verts

3 large floury potatoes weighing approximately 1kg
200g swiss chard or spinach
350g all purpose flour
1 large egg, beaten
A good pinch of salt

Wash and dry the potatoes, prick the skins and place in a preheated oven at 200°C.  Bake until the skins are crisp and you can stick a fork into them easily.  This should take about an hour.

Wash the chard or spinach and remove any thick stalks.  Place the leaves in a saucepan and add cold water, not to cover the greens completely but just enough to cook/steam them.  Put the lid on and bring to the boil on a medium high heat, watching them regularly to ensure the water doesn’t boil dry.  Once the greens have wilted, which will take 5 minutes or so, remove them from the heat and drain in a sieve.  Leave to cool.  Then squeeze the moisture out of the greens and set aside.

Once the potatoes are ready, take them out of the oven and leave them to cool a little before scooping out the flesh and mashing it.  Allow to cool a little more before mixing all the ingredients together to form a soft dough.

Sprinkle a dusting of plain flour onto a chopping board and shape small handfuls of the dough into long, thin rolls about the thickness of your thumb. Cut the rolls into 3cm cylinders and leave to dry for half an hour or so, covered with a clean tea towel.

To cook the gnocchi, bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add the salt and drop them into the water.  When they rise to the top, they are ready.  This takes two to three minutes.  Drain the gnocchi and serve immediately with your choice of delicious adornment!

Unused gnocchi dough can be kept quite happily in the fridge, wrapped in film, for a couple of days, but do give them a good dusting of flour when you roll them out as they can become a little sticky.

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