Nettle Malfatti with Brown Butter, Lemon and Parmesan
Those of us lucky enough to have lived in Napa/Sonoma wine country for decades before glamorous food reigned and the Michelin stars were handed out remember when Italian American food was king. In those days, two entrees were on every menu: cannelloni and malfatti. To this day, this region is the only place I’ve ever found malfatti. The word means “badly made,” and though malfatti are used for an odd dish or two in Italy, our wine country malfatti are unique. Local legend says that the dish was invented during the Depression by an elderly local Italian American woman faced with feeding a football team and having no pasta on hand.
The traditional and economical mixture is composed of old bread, eggs, cheese, and swiss chard or spinach. Our use of wild nettles would probably have made this frugal woman happy. The blue-green color and richer flavor of the nettles really enhances these malfatti. A few cooks add riotta, but we’re sticking with the old way. This wonderful dish survives in just a couple of little delis in Napa. The pleasure deserves preservation.
Make the malfatti a day or two ahead for the best well-married texture, then roll the malfatti mixture into the traditional tiny breakfast sausage shapes. Vegetarians must cook this.
Makes 5 Dozen
For The Malfatti:
- ½ pound nettle leaves, cleaned (sear gloves at all times during handling, until cooked)
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely diced (1 to 1¼ cups)
- 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
- ½ cup flat-leaf parsley
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 large eggs, well beaten
- ¾ cup grated parmesan, plus ¾ cup for topping malfatti
- 1¼ cup panko bread crumbs
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Wearing gloves or using togs, plunge the nettles into the water and cook for 3 minutes, punching the nettles down as needed. Drain the nettles through a colander, then spread them out on a rack placed inside a baking sheet to cool to room temperature. Squeeze out any excess moisture, then chop them coarsely.
- Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and garlic, stirring to coat with the oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender 6 to 7 minutes. Add the nettles, parsley, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and ⅛ teaspoon of the pepper and stir together. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, then cover the pan and turn off the heat. Let sit for 5 minutes. Uncover and cool to room temperature.
- Place the nettle mixture in the bowl of a food processor. Add another ½ teaspoon of the salt and the remaining ⅛ teaspoon pepper, Process until the mixture is very finely chopped. Place in a large mixing bowl.
- Whisk the eggs into the nettle mixture to loosen it. Add the Parmesan and bread crumbs and work them in evenly, using a wooden spoon or your hands. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or up to 2 days.
- Lightly flour a cutting board and have a bowl of flour nearby to use for shaping the malfatti. With floured hands, pinch off a rounded teaspoon (¼ ounce) of the malfatti mixture. Gently roll it between the palms of your hands to form a small torpedo shape, about 1½ inches long, with slightly tapered ends. The mixture will be moist, so keep your hands lightly floured to prevent sticking. Line up the malfatti on a floured baking sheet, close to but not touching one another. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. (At this point, the malfatti can be frozen on a tray, then put into resealable plastic freezer bags for up to 1 month. Thaw in the refrigerator on a baking sheet before cooking.)
- Place the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook until foaming and starting to turn golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes. You will see little bits of golden brown milk solids in the bottom of the pan, and the foam will begin to turn golden brown. Remove from the heat before the color gets too dark, because the butter continues to cook for a few minutes off the heat. Hold in a warm place while the malfatti cook.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Drop in enough malfatti to fit comfortably in the pot without touching. When the water comes back to a boil, turn down the heat slight. Cook the malfatti until they bob to the surface, then cook for 3 to 4 more minutes. Lift the malfatti out of the water with a flat strainer, give them a gentle shake then place them on a baking sheet and hold them in a warm place while you cook the rest. Bring the water back to a boil before adding the next batch.
- Reheat the butter over low heat. Stir in the lemon juice and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Add the warm malfatti to the pan in a single layer and roll them around to coat with the butter.
- Sprinkle with the lemon zest and the remaining Parmesan. Serve immediately.
Tips and Techniques
The nettles lose their sting after cooking, so handle them with gloves before they are blanched. After that, they can be touched safely.
If you don’t have a large enough sauté pan to hold all the malfatti in a single layer, divide the butter between two pans to heat them all at the same time.
If you are serving the malfatti with roast chicken or other poultry, save the pan juices and add them to the brown butter along with the lemon juice and salt.
Substitutions and Variations
Swiss chard or spinach leaves or a combination can be substituted for the nettles.