It is very easy, and immensely pleasurable, to fall into the spell of the Mediterranean – the vibrant colours, the shimmering sea, the warmth of its people, the gnarled olive trees, the intoxicating sweetness of its figs, the lusciousness of its vegetables…
When it comes to Italian food then, there is a misconception that it is all olive oil, garlic, basil and tomatoes, so to speak. In fact, at least one third of the Italian peninsula, from the plains of Emilia Romagna up to the Northern Alps, is bathed in butter and lard and cooks much of its food, at least traditionally, “in bianco” – that is to say, without tomatoes.
This homely supper dish, which emanates from the Emilia Romagna repertoire, makes the point.
It is a tortino, meaning a “little pie”, sometimes also called sformato, literally “unmoulded”: a crustless, generally vegetarian baked dish. Here a buttery and cheesy mash is enlivened with a hefty quantity of blanched spinach and topped with a béchamel sauce. Inside, there are soft-boiled eggs that, with a little trick, stay runny to the end. It is a rich dish, but pleasantly so.
It is Easter Monday as I write this and here in London it is cold (in fact, it even snowed briefly). This makes an ideal supper for these transitional days, remnants of winter, heading to the longed-for spring.
Tortino di patate e spinaci – potato and spinach pie
4 generous portions, a piatto unico, a one-dish meal
1 baking dish, 20 cm x 20 cm, buttered and coated with dry breadcrumbs
500-600 g spinach, net weight
1 kg floury potatoes, peeled and halved
75 g butter
50 g (approximately) grated parmigiano, plus extra to finish the dish
350 ml milk
100 g gruyere or fontina or any melting cheese, cubed small
15 g plain flour
4 eggs at room temperature
Gently drop the eggs in boiling water and cook for 4 minutes, then cool them completely under running water. Tap them lightly with a teaspoon all over (just enough to crack the shell) and leave them in cold water for ten minutes – the water will seep into the cracks and this will make peeling easier. Peel them carefully (they are fragile), place them on a plate lined with some parchment paper and freeze them for one hour.
Meanwhile, steam the spinach, refresh under cold water, drain and squeeze dry. Chop coarsely.
Steam the potatoes, pass them through a potato ricer while still hot. Add 50 g butter, the 50 g of parmigiano, salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste and 100 ml milk. Whisk into a mash.
Add the spinach and the cubed cheese and mix well.
Transfer into the baking dish, creating four nests that will then host the eggs.
Pre-heat the oven to 220 C.
Make a béchamel with the flour, the remaining 25 g butter and the remaining 250 ml milk. Add the usual flavourings if you have them: a bay leaf, a little thyme, nutmeg (go easy on it), a shallot with a fragment of clove stuck into it.
Place the eggs in the nests. Cover the pie with the béchamel sauce, making sure to coat the eggs well.
Shower with extra parmigiano and bake in the upper part of the oven for about 20 minutes or until light golden
Rest for 10 minutes at least before tucking in – volcanic temperatures inside, beware.
For other sformati: check