Because this is a rather detailed recipe I will keep my usual rambling preamble brief-ish. But take heart, it is only long because I have lavishly described the ins and outs of the gnocchi-making process, and given three ways to roll it out. In fact, I think it may take longer to read this post than it will to make this dish. If you heroically read through to the end of the recipe you will see that gnocchi is quite a playful, fun thing to prepare. Not at all daunting, unlike a souffle or creme brulee, or any one of a number of dishes we foodies/gourmands/greedy guts feel we should tackle in our lifetime. Once you get the rolling out down-pat the whole process shouldn’t take much longer than 20 minutes, not including an optional timeout (the dough, not you) in the fridge. It’s just that my ramblings only make it seem like the War and Peace of recipes, rather than the Very Hungry Caterpillar recipe that it is.
I usually think of gnocchi as an Italian, cold weather rib-sticker of a dish, made with white or sweet potato, or grainy semolina. We love potato gnocchi – or dumplings if you prefer – with kale, butternut squash and chilli, or a plain tomato sauce. And the pre-made stuff can be pretty good in a pinch (I like Dell’ Ugo’s fresh potato gnocchi). However, as good as these starch bombs are, in spring and summer – even if it feels more like November with added leaves – it seems more appropriate to lighten them up. And this really needs doing oneself. Ricotta-based dumplings are usually the way to go. Lighter and more pillowy to the bite than the potato or semolina ones, ricotta gnocchi are great with just a fresh tomato sauce. But today I have raided the garden and British cheese counter for a Scottish take on an Italian favourite.
At this time of year, when the garden early-risers such as sorrel, lovage, chives and baby spinach are coming through, I like to find as many ways as possible in which to feature these almost free foods. Spinach is a frequent addition to ricotta gnocchi, but I thought the lemony punch of sorrel would work well too.I initially fancied an all-sorrel affair, with mineral tinged twang, but of course once wilted this neglected garden hero (it springs up annually without any help whatsoever, which is just as well with my lack of greenthumb) turns an unlovely shade of khaki. So I settled, happily, on half spinach and half sorrel. You could replace the sorrel with watercress for similar minerality, or use all spinach. As well as the usual heavy grating of nutmeg I co-opted in soft but crumbling Strathdon Blue cheese, a multi award-winning cheese from Highland Fine Cheeses in coastal Tain, Scotland. This makes a change from the usual Parmigiano Reggiano. Italians may balk at such sacrilege, but I think it works tremendously well. You could of course use any good aged blue, but if you can get Strathdon it is a real treat – deep, not too salty, and with a mellow hint of sea and slate. I think the cows graze near the shoreline of the North Sea. A delicious cheese. One of may favourites. *Sigh*
I know I said I wouldn’t go on, so I shall finish up and let you get on to the recipe and me to making a family lunch of heaven-knows-what on this Bank Holiday Monday. I hope you are tempted to make your own ricotta gnocchi, as it is really very satisfying to turn a few simple ingredients into a restaurant-worthy meal. Keep the finished dish super simple with just olive oil and perhaps some chilli flakes and fresh herbs, or knock together this sassed-up butter sauce and steam some asparagus. Whatever way, you and your family or friends will think it worth the small effort. Next stop – souffle! Or maybe not…
Do you make your own pasta or gnocchi? Do you have any culinary projects that you have yet to tackle?
This Week in 2011: Chilli Prawns and Vegetables with Soba Noodles
Miss R’s Track of the Week: Newton Faulkner and Sam Brook’s cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (this is the acoustic version – lush, and Newton uses his coffee cup as a percussion instrument!)
Dainty ricotta-fluffed pillows of loveliness. Have the cooked gnocchi with your favourite tomato sauce, the simple butter sauce described here, or even just anoint with your best extra virgin olive oil. Despite my long-winded instructions this is easy, spring cooking and eating. You can even freeze them. Magic.
Freshly ground black pepper – about 1/8 tsp or a bit more
200g (8 oz) baby spinach, for serving
For the gnocchi: wilt the greens in a large pan with just the water you washed them in. If using sorrel it will go a disconcerting shade of brown and wilt considerably more than the spinach – that’s normal and fine. Drain and cool for a few minutes, then pop the greens into a clean tea-towel and gently squeeze out as much remaining moisture as possible. Chop finely and add to a large mixing bowl. * You can use thawed frozen leaf spinach too, but the frozen chopped stuff might be too wet.
To the mixing bowl add the ricotta and blue cheese, the egg and nutmeg; beat well. Add the flour and seasoning, using a fork to mix – this will help keep things light. Knead the sticky dough in the bowl until it just comes together. At this point I like to cover it and refrigerate for half an hour to let it firm up for easier handling, but you can, if you are desperate for dinner, disregard this suggestion.
Once chilled – or not, as the case may be – dust your work surface with flour and gently roll the dough into a large oval, cutting it into four even pieces.Take one piece and, with lightly floured hands, roll it carefully into a long snake, about the thickness of your thumb. Add a bit of flour if the dough is too sticky to handle (especially if you didn’t chill the dough). The rolling may prove a bit tricky as the dough looks, but doesn’t necessarily behave, like a bread dough. I find that because the middle bit tends to be thicker when rolling with one’s hands, that starting the rolling from the middle of the dough and gently pulling out as you roll seems to work for me. Just aim for as evenly thick as you can. I usually get four x 50 cm/20 inch snakes-worth. The end result will not be affected by inexpert rolling, although a huge variation in size will possibly affect cooking times. You will get the hang of it before all pieces are rolled!
Shaping of the gnocchi can be done in a number of ways: as little balls, small squared pillows, or fancy grooved. For the balls, just pinch away small fava/broadbean-sized pieces and roll them in a round or rugbyball-shaped ball. This is very quick and perfectly acceptable. Or, for pillows and fancy grooves, use a sharp knife or dough cutter, slicing off 2.5 cm/1 inch segments. Flour your knife as you go. I didn’t do this enough (my family was breathing down my neck for their meal. Hence the not-too-great photos) and my pieces were a bit ragged. And it didn’t help that my dough scraper has in the past served as a car windscreen ice scraper (see the telltale chinks out of the edge – oops).
You can leave the gnocchi like this, little green-flecked pillows with slightly flared edges, or you can go all fancy. Go all fancy – it’s fun! There are a few videos of rolling technique for the grooved gnocchi – one involving a wooden grooved board, but I used a modified version of Elises’s way (which she learned from a chef) that was easy enough, even for a klutz like myself. Hold a fork at a 45° angle with the tines facing down. Take a piece of dough and, with a light pressure, roll it down (or up) the way, letting it fall after it rolls across the tines. The top of the gnocchi will curl into a slight c-shape from the pressure of your finger – all the better for capturing sauce – while the back will pick up the impression of the fork tines – also good for sauce catching. The drier and firmer your dough the easier this will be (and with potato gnocchi it is a cinch), but hopefully your dough is very soft so your gnocchi may not look terribly uniform. But it will taste amazing. Compromises, compromises. You will no doubt be more deft and careful than I, so yours will look amazing.
Pop each curled gnocchi onto a floured baking tray, and carry on perfecting your technique and seeing your empire of little gnocchi soldiers grow. I thought of them as little terracotta warriors, a la the first Emperor of China. You can at this point cover and refrigerate for a couple of days, or you can open freeze them on baking trays for an hour, decanting into freezer bags for use within the month.
Cooking the Gnocchi: Boil a large deep pan of salted water. Carefully drop up to twenty gnocchi into the pot; they will sink down to the bottom. The gnocchi are ready when they bob up – like little doughy scuba divers – from the depths of the pot. If some seem reluctant after two minutes then give them a little nudge with a slotted spoon. Fish them all out with a slotted spoon, draining momentarily over the pan and decant carefully onto a warmed and buttered or oiled platter. You could now just douse with a bit of warmed pesto or tomato sauce and leave them in a low oven while you cook the remaining gnocchi, layering up with sauce as you go. Or carry on for this recipe.
For the Asparagus and Caper and Lemon Thyme Sauce:
While the gnocchi dough is resting, steam the asparagus until just al dente: you will be reheating it in the gnocchi water before serving. I steam mine for three minutes. Drain the asparagus and plunge into coldest water to stop the cooking process; drain and place in a covered bowl.
For the simple sauce, halve or quarter the tomatoes and set aside. Heat the butter in a small pan. When foaming and going slightly browned, add in the oil, thyme leaves and the drained capers. Leave to the side while you make the gnocchi.
After you cook the first batch of gnocchi, pop them into an oiled covered pan or dish and gently move them around to catch the oil. Place the dish in a low (100C/ 200F) oven. This will keep them from sticking. Carry on with the rest of the gnocchi.
When the last batch of gnocchi are in the pot, slide the asparagus into the hot cooking water while you rewarm the butter sauce, adding the tomatoes when starting to bubble. Fish out the asparagus and gnocchi, letting the water drip off.
Plating up: Divide the baby spinach leaves between the serving plates, and spoon on equal amounts of the gnocchi, asparagus and sauce. Serve immediately.
Serves 4 very generously