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Gnocchi Verde, or The Redemption of Frozen Spinach

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If you're like us, you look to the seasons for what to cook. Get to the market, and we'll show you what to do with your haul.

Today: Don't resign yourself to brown dinners just yet. Take a look in your freezer (or in the freezer aisle), thaw the frozen spinach, and sculpt it into something beautiful (and cheesy). 

If you are someone who can make frozen spinach into a meal that is not only entirely edible but also entirely appealing, you are a true artist. It’s no surprise, then, that I learned about this particular dish -- which reaps the rewards of frozen greens and leaves any scariness behind -- from my friend Nancy, who is a painter, drawer, potter, and collector.

Nancy is a woman who collects dead dragonflies from sidewalks and cloudy shards of glass from highway shoulders; who has almost too many cats (but really, not enough); who hangs rusty wrenches on the wall next to her own watercolors; who devotes an entire room of her house to succulents; and who, earlier this year, fought (and won) a 3-week battle with a raccoon that made a home in her kitchen and used Nancy's husband’s sculptures as its jungle gym.

As for cooking, Nancy is the type who has a gravity-defying tower of new cookbooks yet turns to Time Life Books’ Food of the World set, published in 1968, when she’s entertaining company. "The Cooking of Italy" booklet, which you are more likely find in an attic then a kitchen, splays open to her favorite recipe: Gnocchi Verde. After more than forty years, this recipe is still artful in its thrift, offering a way to cope with the produce that's available, if not at the market, than in the freezer aisle. 

The recipe is simple enough that you can be the artist, sculpting frozen spinach into leaf-green orbs for a solo, 10 PM-on-a-Monday dinner. But you should also remember this recipe when you have enough energy to turn that dinner into a party, and that's because these gnocchi are also artful regardless of their thrift. Make them if you have all of the ingredients on hand, but go to the grocery store if you don’t. And if it’s spring, buy fresh spinach.

You’ll mix the greens -- fresh or frozen -- with ricotta, eggs, and just a bit of flour. Chill the gnocchi, shape the loose mixture into small balls, boil these in simmering water until bobbing, and then nestle them into an oven-proof dish. Cover the dumplings with finely grated Parmesan, bathe them in butter, then set the pan underneath the broiler. The gnocchi will emerge -- as most food from the broiler does -- tanned and irresistible.

Underneath crackly threads of broiled Parmesan are little pockets of creamed spinach in need only of some crusty bread, a glass of red wine, and, if you’re having company, a salad with some crunch. These dumplings will dissolve in your mouth in a way that -- despite our greatest efforts -- finicky potato gnocchi almost never do. 

This recipe is my reminder to return to my battered cookbooks and my dated recipes even as I make room on my shelf for Prune and the latest from Christina Tosi. It's also a reminder that, instead of pining for frisée and Bibb lettuce as I pour myself a bowl of cereal for dinner, I have the option of looking at frozen spinach like an artist (or an optimist) would, of finding its potential to become something beautiful.

Gnocchi Verde (Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings)

Serves 4 to 6

4 tablespoons butter
Two 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, defrosted completely, squeezed dry of all moisture, and chopped very fine (about 1 1/2 cups), or 1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, blanched or steamed, squeezed dry, and chopped
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, divided, plus more for serving
1/2 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch of ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons melted butter, divided

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Spinach, Weeknight Cooking, Long Reads, Editors' Picks