I am in a memory mood in this period, maybe because it is a long time since I last felt at home. Here is another dish inspired by childhood memories. Before I was born, my parents lived for a couple of years in Tuscany. Now, Italian cooking does have some generic national guidelines, but it is mainly regional. This specificity was much stronger thirty years ago: it was not so easy to find the right ingredients outside of the production area, and what is grown is so local that sometimes you will find it in a radius measuring no more than ten kilometers. This is due to geography: Italy is full of hills and mountains, and features a variety of climates, since it has considerable altitude and latitude differences, and differently exposed coastline; we even boast one humid, foggy plane. On the other hand, Italy does have a massive, relatively recent internal mobility, due to the presence of many low employment areas. So a lot of people move, and they bring their recipes with them.
My parents brought with them from Tuscany two dishes that were quite unknown in their native Veneto: cecina (or farinata, as it is called in nearby regions) and castagnaccio. They are quite similar in spirit: you mix ‘poor’ flours, respectively chickpea and chestnut, with water; add a few flavourings, pour them in large iron pans and cook them in the wood oven. Both are flavoured with rosemary and olive oil, but cecina is savoury, while castagnaccio is sweet. Both are outrageously good when eaten fresh from the oven, especially cecina, if I may express a personal preference. My parents occasionally prepared them in the home oven, as there was no place in Milan where you could buy them at that time. The result is not bad, but if you do have access to a wood fire, it is a completely different story. It is a bit like pizza: you prepare it yourself only when there is no shop at the street corner that will prepare a better (and cheaper) version for you.
For me, as much as I love chickpeas, hummus being a weekly production in my house, I rarely used chickpeas flour because the home baked cecina is not as good as the original one. Today however I was leafing through a cookbook and a recipe for ‘gnocchi alla romana’ prepared with chickpeas flour caught my eyes. Pietro Leemann is Joia‘s chef, an iconic vegetarian restaurant in Milan. His cooking style features seasonal, local ingredients with techniques borrowed from Asia, especially Japan. The result is quite stimulating, even though it took me a while to connect with it because I am not a huge fan of his writing style. At first I was slightly put off by his habit of recreating meat dishes in a vegetarian key, but on the other hand, many vegan alternatives to dairy based dishes are real discoveries, and he does have an incredible array of techniques you can borrow from.
Gnocchi alla Romana are also a childhood dish for me: soft semolina dumplings, baked to crispness with parmesan and butter. Every child loves them. This vesion of the gnocchi has the same chickpeas flavour of cecina, and the consistency is lighter than traditional ‘gnocchi alla romana’ (see here for a recipe). Pietro Leemann pairs them with a variety of fresh green beans and a few black truffle slices. Good pairing, probably. I am not a Michelin starred chef, and furthermore, green beans are not in season here yet, so I paired them with quickly cooked vegetables I had from the market: quickly sautéed mushrooms and spring onions, and pan dried spinach, a technique he suggests in another recipe, that he learned from the even more iconic chef Gualtiero Marchesi (I was using it before, without knowing it was his :) ). I also added a bit of parmesan shavings, because you really cannot go wrong with them, but who make this dish technically non vegetarian.
A note on ingredients: I am lucky enough to find Italian chickpeas flour at the local Italian supermarket; in the UK I used gram flour from the ethnic shop, which is chickpeas flour in the end; I found the Indian version to have a slightly more bitter flavour, but maybe that was just a random variation.
Gnocchi di cecina
For the gnocchi:
500 ml liquid between milk and water (I had about 300 ml milk – you can use all milk or all water)
150 gr chickpeas flour
For the spinach:
250 gr fresh spinach, washed
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon dill
For the mushrooms:
250 gr fresh champignons
3 spring onions
1 teaspoon oil
For the gnocchi:
Lay a tray with baking paper. Heat the milk and water in a pan, add salt, pepper and grated nutmeg, then when it is boiling add the flour while whisking, as if to make polenta. Cook for about 10 minutes on gentle heat, whisking or stirring quite often as the bottom tends to burn. When you taste it, it should not taste of raw flour. Spread the chickpeas polenta on the tray, in an even layer of 2-3 cm thickness. Smooth it with a wet large knife blade, and leave to cool. This will keep for a day. When ready to serve, cut the polenta layer: the traditional cut is in rounds, but since I wanted no angles leftovers, I made squares instead. Heat well a non stick pan with a tiny bit of olive oil. Add some of the polenta shapes in one layer and leave to brown for a minute or two. Turn and brown on the other side as well. Repeat until you have browned all the gnocchi you want to eat. Don’t leave them to cool down or they will not be so nice.
For the spinach:
wash the leaves and spin them dry. Cook them, a handful at a time, with a tiny bit of oil in a pan. They will dry and wilt. Add dill and a little salt.
For the mushroom & spring onion:
slice everything thinly, and saute quickly in a little olive oil over high heat. Add a little salt and pepper in the end.