POSTCARD FROM TUSCANY
Dreamy nettle gnudi from Giulia Scarpaleggia's book, Cucina Povera--like pasta, but easier.
Welcome!! ~ This is a reader supported publication. Upgrade to paid below for full access to recipe archives, complete travel guides, essays and more. ♡ Other ways to support my work? Buy my books and forward this post to a friend.
I’m writing you today with a very special guest appearance from fellow cookbook author, Substack friend, and Italian cooking instructor,.
Giulia was born and raised in the Tuscan countryside, where she still lives with her husband, photographer Tommaso Galli, and their young daughter, Livia. Her writing and cooking resonates with me on so many fronts: She’s intentional about preserving Italian culture in an accessible way. She’s a champion for resourcefulness. And even though the last time I was in Tuscany was over a decade ago, when her beautiful book Cucina Povera landed on my desk last Spring, it somehow felt like home.
In a world of very loud books, I have a heart for books full of storytelling and quiet wisdom—books that don’t demand our attention but rather earn it. They have longer legs to me—the kind of book I find myself wanting to dip back into months and months after they land. These books tell me about a life I can sustain for generations. Giulia’s Cucina Povera is such a book.
From the toothsome, handmade Pici Cacio e Pepe on the cover to the subtitle: The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Unforgettable Meals to the humility and love that pours from her writing, there’s a thoughtfulness that, IMO, is the anecdote to the rapid, online world we often find ourselves in (to wit: just this week, authors like me discovered that our works have been harvested as training ground for building more intelligent AI—without our permission. Folks, we’re moving too fast).
In the intro to her latest book, Giulia writes:
Cucina povera, Italian peasant cooking, is the way people have been cooking in Italy for centuries, in both the cities and the countryside. Cucina Povera is not just a unique approach to cooking and ingredients; it’s the highest expression of the Italian Arte dell’arrangiarsi, the art of making do with what you’ve got.
The week Cucina Povera landed on my desk, on a night I felt I had nothing in the fridge—I made Giulia’s Savory Swiss Chard and Parmigiano-Regiano Pie, with the abundance of greens from the garden. While I baked, I threw together her Roasted Pepper Rolls Stuffed with Tuna and Capers with jarred red peppers and tinned tuna in olive oil from the pantry. My husband and I devoured them both. Directly after dinner, I earmarked two more dinners to make right away: Roasted Squash Risotto and Bread-and-Cheese Stuffed Eggplant.
I recognize in Cucina Povera and all of Giulia’s work the spirit of my own cooking, of the cooking of my grandmothers, and the world we know in Hungary: slow, gentle, thoughtful — without waste.
And though I think Giulia and I long ago recognized each other as kindreds, when she sent me the images for this post this week—misty landscapes and rolling hills dotted with sheep, the large weeping wild apple trees—I knew it’s not just our souls that are connected, but the souls of these places we love and call home.
For all the writing and pining about Southern Italy out there in the world (including my own), Giulia’s writing reminds me that Northern Italy (or the North part of Central Italy—technically) is still Italy’s most traveled-to region for a reason. And my own draw to it makes perfect sense: it overlaps with everything I love about Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia (which is surprisingly pasta-rich).
You could find her Fontina and Savoy Cabbage Bread Casserole in Austria, Hungary, or Germany—and while the Gnocchi Baked with Tomato Sauce and Mozzarella and many other recipes are distinctly Italian, they all answer my heart’s call. It’s the kind of food that satisfies deeply in this season, and I’ll keep this book close by for months to come.
Today, Giulia’s sharing her recipe for the gnudi (pictured above) with us—Thank you, Guilia! This has a particular draw for me—and hopefully for you— because gnudi, essentially little dumplings or pillows, are easy to make. Unlike other styles of pasta, they require no special techniques or equipment but deliver the same comforting mouthful (Giulia calls them naked ravioli; watch her make them—here). This dish gets a classic brown butter and sage treatment that you’d also find on squash or pumpkin ravioli, a roast pork loin or chop, or a pounded piece of veal; It’s classic for a reason—it’s hard to improve upon.
The gnudi or dumpling recipe in her book calls for nettle, a nutritious wild green that’s potent beyond belief (more about nettle and how to harvest and use it after the recipe). I have plenty of nettle in my yard, but I’ll make it tonight with Swiss chard, the last holdover from our summer garden, still towering above decaying squash plants and vining beans. It would also be brilliant with spinach (traditional for gnudi in this region) or kale.
Find the recipe below, with more dreamy photos that make me want to book a ticket to Tuscany to sit in on one of her cooking classes ASAP. In the meantime, Giulia offers online classes and lots more recipes in her book and her beautiful newsletter, which you can find worldwide.
And if all this leaves you pining for more, paid subscribers are in luck. Giulia has offered to let me share her Apple Olive Oil Cake with you this weekend. Watch for that next. Giulia is also sharing a never-before-shared story from me about apple foraging in Hungary, on Letters from Tuscany this week, and I hope you’ll support her, there.
Gnudi di ricotta e ortiche
NETTLE AND RICOTTA GNUDI
Excerpted from Cucina Povera by Giulia Scarpaleggia (Artisan Books).
Gnudi are pillowy dumplings made of ricotta and greens, usually spinach. Gnudi is a Tuscan term that means naked, so think of them as nude ravioli, light balls of filling without the fresh pasta envelope. In the area around Siena, they are also known as malfatti (literally, badly made).
You can make gnudi with whatever greens you have at hand or are in season: chard, foraged herbs such as nettles, or kale. They are traditionally dressed with brown butter and crisp sage leaves, but during summer, you could serve them with a fresh tomato sauce and a shower of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. There are two crucial techniques that make a difference when preparing these gnudi: the ricotta must be thoroughly drained, and you must squeeze every last drop of the cooking water from the greens.
SERVES 4 TO 6 AS A FIRST COURSE
For the gnudi
1¼ pounds/565 g stinging nettles (or substitute Swiss chard or kale)
1 tablespoon extra- virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
1¼ cups/11 ounces/ 310 g best-quality ricotta, preferably sheep’s milk, thoroughly drained (see Note)
5 tablespoons/30 g grated Parmigiano- Reggiano
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, or more to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 large/50 g egg, slightly beaten
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon/100 g all-purpose flour
For the sauce
8 tablespoons/1 stick/ 115 g unsalted butter
16 fresh sage leaves 5 tablespoons/30 g grated Parmigiano- Reggiano
Make the gnudi: Wearing gloves, wash the nettle leaves and remove any hard stems. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt it generously, add the nettle leaves, and push them into the water. Bring the leaves back to a boil and blanch for 5 to 7 minutes, or until tender. Drain and let cool slightly.
When the nettle leaves are cool enough to handle, squeeze well to remove any excess water: To remove all the liquid, work in batches, picking up enough greens to make a ball that you can easily handle and then squeeze it with your hands until you remove all the water; or use a potato ricer— see the Note. (You should get about 10½ ounces/300 g of squeezed greens.) Transfer the greens to a cutting board and finely chop them.
In a medium frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add the chopped nettles and cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes to infuse the greens with the garlicky oil. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool completely.
Add the ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt, pepper, and nutmeg to the nettles and stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then add the beaten egg. Mix thoroughly with a fork.
Generously dust a rimmed baking sheet with the flour. To form the gnudi, scoop up 1 tablespoon of the mixture for each one, roll into a ball with slightly wet hands, and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. As you work, shake the baking sheet once in a while to roll the gnudi in the flour to coat.
This will create a film around each one, preventing them from dissolving in the boiling water.
You can cook the gnudi now, but if you refrigerate them for an hour before cooking, the flour will absorb some of the moisture, and you’ll have firmer gnudi that are less likely to fall apart in the cooking water.
Just before cooking the gnudi, prepare the sauce: In a medium frying pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter stops foaming, add the sage leaves and fry until crisp. With a slotted spoon, transfer the fried sage to a paper towel–lined plate; set the pan of butter aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the gnudi, in batches to avoid crowding, for 3 to 5 minutes, until they float to the top. Remove from the water with a spider or slotted spoon and transfer to a warmed serving dish.
When all of the gnudi have been cooked, drizzle them with the reserved melted butter, sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and garnish with the fried sage leaves. Serve immediately.
COOK’S NOTES: To drain the ricotta, spoon it into a colander set over a bowl and let it drain for a few hours in the fridge. If the ricotta is very moist, you may want to leave it to drain overnight.
To thoroughly drain the greens, you can use your hands or a potato ricer, which works magic in squeezing out the excess water.
A NOTE ABOUT NETTLES:
Nettles are a wild herb/green, found all over the world, and boasting enormous health benefits. They’re often harvested in the spring, but can be found throughout the growing season. For a wealth of information about nettles—and how to harvest and use them—watch this video from foraging expert Dina Falconi (I’ve taken a few of Dina’s classes in the Hudson Valley; she’s a gem!). If you’re short on time, see this short video (unfortunate AI voice, but the details are sound).
Above, Guilia instructs to wash and blanche the nettles wearing gloves. This is because the sting of the stinging nettle can leave a lasting impact on the skin. Take heed, but don’t be scared away from this wonder green!