Got your attention with that headline, right? Don’t worry, there’s no violence here. Just good cooking mixed with interesting lore…often the story when it comes to Italy.
I was in college before I boiled an egg. My mom, not exactly a master in the kitchen herself, loves to tell the story of the telephone call when I asked her how long the eggs should stay in the water.
She did know how to boil eggs, that’s for sure. Being a single parent, working her butt off as a nurse to keep us afloat, being on her feet in the kitchen was understandably the last thing on her mind when I was growing up. Tuna salad, egg salad, and on special occasions my favorite: deviled eggs, were our staples, along with cereal (yes, for dinner), pimento cheese, and that unfortunate American staple of the 70s: frozen fish sticks.
My appreciation for good food and for mindful cooking and eating, especially with locally sourced ingredients, would come much later. These days, I spend a good deal of time in the kitchen, experimenting with new dishes and striving to perfect favorite recipes (including achieving the perfect boiled egg, no easy feat.) I’m a little obsessed.
Then, there is Rosy, chef of Hotel Alpenrose. Her upbringing and experience couldn’t be more different. She’s been cooking her entire life. Spending time in the kitchen and learning family recipes from her mom and grandmother. Her roots are in the kitchen. And, those roots are deep. It shows in the way she just knows exactly how each ingredient should look, taste, and smell, alone and in combination.
It’s improbable, yet highly entertaining that we now find ourselves in the kitchen together often. She doesn’t speak much English. I don’t speak much Italian. We’re both working to learn the other’s language.
Maybe some words here and there are lost in translation, but it doesn’t seem to slow us down. With hand gestures, broken words, and Google Translate (as a last resort,) we seem to understand each other. Maybe more important, we get each other. We both love feeding people good, healthy food.
This week, Rosy took me under wing once again to teach me to make one of the region’s specialties. A humble dish with an unsettling name.
Strangolapreti literally means “Priest Choker” or “Priest Strangler” in Italian. The joke, passed down from generation to generation, was that the priests of yore were so fancy, so uppity, so precious that when they visited peasants – not often, I’m guessing – and were served this dish, made from basics of flour, eggs, and weeds – that this crude dish would get stuck in the priest’s pampered throat causing him to choke.
For us mere peasants, this dish is nothing less than extraordinary.
Let’s get started:
First a note about “my” recipes: I’m not a believer in exacts. I believe in improvising, guessing, doing what feels right. A dash of this, a sprinkle of that. Thankfully this is a dish well-suited for singing to your own tune.
Also, this is my opportunity to slip in a small language lesson. I promise the dish will taste better if you speak to it in Italian.
Here’s what you’ll need:
One loaf of day old pane (pan-eh, Italian bread)
I’m guessing any bread with a crunchy exterior and soft interior will do. Skip dense, wheat breads here (we’re going for a light, pillowy dough.) We used 8 Italian rolls.
1-2 uovo (woo-vo, eggs)
You want to create a workable dough, but not too much moisture. We used 2 eggs for 8 rolls.
A big bunch of spinaci (spin-ah-chee, spinach)
Actually for this recipe, we realized the kitchen was out of spinach and did what peasants for a century before us did. Rosy went outside and picked ortica, a weed. For the poisonous-until-cooked plant, you need gloves for handling.
1 cipolla (chee-pole-a, onion), diced
A few aglio (all-yo, garlic) cloves, diced
A dash of latte (lah-tay, milk)
6 – 8 oz Ricotta (you know this beautiful Italian word.)
A handful of shredded Parmesan or Grano, formaggio
Sale (sal-eh, salt)
Pepe (peh-peh, pepper)
Noci moscate (no-che mos-kat-eh, nutmeg)
Farina (fah-ree-na, flour)
A few leaves of salvia (sal-vee-a, sage)
Burro (burr-o, butter)
Putting it all together:
Chop bread into tiny pieces (small for blending,) add a splash of milk along with the egg(s). Then add a pinch of salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add ricotta and shredded cheeses (don’t be shy here, 4 big spoonfuls isn’t a sin.) Let sit for a few minutes.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Saute onion, 4-5 minutes until lightly caramelized, then add garlic for 1-2 minutes. Next add spinach with a spoonful of water for wilting, cover for just a few minutes.
Strain and chop the spinach mixture.
Add the veggies to bread mixture. Now it’s time to get those (clean) hands messy. Mix well by hand, then begin kneading the dough. Knead for 5-8 minutes, mixing in a pinch of flour here and there. If the mixture is too dry, crumbling and not holding a dough form, add another egg or more ricotta. Too moist to form small pieces? Add more bread and a little more flour.
Boil pot of water with salt.
Here you have two choices: 1. Form the dough into gnocchi, then boil, or 2. “plop” the dough directly into the boiling water. The latter may sounds easier, but I’ll assure you there’s more technique to it than you think. Try both for good measure.
Gnocchi. Pinch off a small section of the dough, sprinkle with flour, then roll into a log. Cut each log into gnocchi. Repeat. Sprinkle a light flouring over all gnocchi before submerging in the boiling water. As soon as the gnocchi pop to the top, about 1 minute, take them out.
The Spoon Method. Lightly flour the entire ball of dough and knead a tad more, place in bowl. With a large spoon, scoop out a small oval from the mixture and submerge the spoon in boiling water. In theory, it will slide off into the water with a perfect egg like shape. Keep trying, you’ll get there. Again, as soon as the eggs pop to the top, about 1 minute, take them out.
With both methods, flour is your friend. Sprinkle generously.
While your masterpiece is sitting pretty, prepare the simple sauce. Heat a dab – ok a slab – of butter over medium heat, add sage.
Drizzle sauce over the stranglopreti then sprinkle with cheese, garnish with sage.
Tip: There are so many versions of this dish. Since this day in the kitchen, I’ve made it with spinach and mushrooms, plus tasted another chef’s version with beets. Experiment wildly!
If you do make stranglopreti, please take a pic and post it her e! Let me know how it goes!