This dish looks harder than it is ... just allow time so you don't get flustered.
Sauce 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed 2 x 400g (15 oz) cans Italian crushed tomatoes ¼ cup water to rinse empty tomato cans 2 Tbsp tomato concentrate (UK purée) 1 tsp dried Sicilian or Greek oregano Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste Pasta 400g (14 oz) frozen spinach 1 small peeled and finely chopped onion, or ⅓ cup chopped shallot 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed Butter 200g (7 oz) ricotta 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese 1 Tbsp chopped basil or marjoram Freshly grated nutmeg to taste Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1 small (size 5) free-range egg 200g (7 oz) large orecchiette pasta ears 125g (4-5 oz) fresh mozzarella balls
1 Make the sauce first. Put the oil in a heavy-based saucepan, set it over a medium heat and drop in the garlic. Sauté until it turns a pale biscuit colour – no further. Remove pan from heat, cool briefly, then carefully tip in the tomatoes. Swirl a little water around the cans to get the last bits and add to sauce with tomato concentrate, oregano, a few large pinches of salt and some black pepper.
2 Bring the sauce to a bubble, then lower the heat. Cook gently, stirring occasionally, for 25–30 minutes, or until the tomatoes are pulpy.
3 Gently thaw spinach in a saucepan with 2-3 tablespoons of added water. Drain in a sieve, cool, then press out excess water.
4 Put onion or shallot, garlic and 1 tablespoon of butter in a small saucepan, cover with a lid and cook very gently for several minutes until tender and golden. Cool.
5 Put cooled spinach in a bowl with onion or shallot mixture, scraping in all the butter. Mix in ricotta, ½ cup parmesan, basil or marjoram, nutmeg, a few good pinches of salt and black pepper to taste. Break the egg into a cup and dispose of the chalaza (the stringy bit). Lightly beat the rest of the egg and add to spinach filling and beat in.
6 Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, salt well and add a small nut of butter, about half a teaspoonful. Add the pasta, bring water back to a gentle boil and cook gently until about three-quarters cooked. For orecchiotte, cook for about 12-15 minutes; the pasta will just start to float to the surface. Drain in a large sieve, then with tongs, carefully transfer each piece of pasta to a board so the water can drain out. Don’t worry if there are broken pieces of pasta as they can be pressed together with the filling.
7 Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F). Spread 2 tablespoons of the tomato sauce on the bottom of a 21cm (9”) ovenproof gratin dish. Fill the pasta with the spinach mixture and arrange in the dish. Spoon the rest of the tomato sauce on top. Drain mozzarella balls and pat dry with paper towels. Slice thickly and arrange on top of tomato sauce, then sprinkle with ½ cup parmesan cheese. Season with freshly ground black pepper and dot the top with butter. Bake for about 25 minutes, until bubbling and golden on top. Serve hot.
This dish is dependent on good Italian pasta made with hard durum semolina. Anything else is likely to collapse, loose shape during cooking and become too soft after cooking. I have used large handmade orecchiette pasta, sometimes called ‘orecchiotte’.
The dish can be prepared 1-2 hours ahead, cover but keep in a cool place not the fridge.
Further information about pasta can be found here: