Ricotta Gnocchi with Mushrooms, Asparagus and Peas

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Where was ricotta gnocchi been all my life?

This is a serious question. A solid gnocchi recipe has been on my wish list for years. Proper gnocchi is one of those foods that can elicit comically inappropriate noises from people. Groans and moans accompanied by fluttering eyelids and lingering licks of the utensils. I have seen it. It is possible. So why can I never get my gnocchi to turn out that way? Every attempt at gnocchi, and there have been several, has produced middling results. Gnocchi that ended up too starchy or too gummy or simply exploded on contact with the water. Nothing that makes you want to run back for a second helping. Certainly nothing that would produce the kind of eating noises that make the people dining at the next table a little uncomfortable. I had written off gnocchi as one of those handful of dishes that were going to forever elude me. Something I would order at restaurants but never enjoy at my own table.

And now this.

Ricotta gnocchi. So freaking easy I still cannot believe it. And the result was fantastic. But really, it was not just the super easy and delicious gnocchi alone. This entire plate is inspired. The recipe came from Bon Appetit, though I made a few modifications to the ingredients based on availability, and I loved the end result so much, I would be hesitant to go back and change anything. There are a lot of steps here. This dish takes a little while. You should expect to spend a solid hour in the kitchen for this. This is something to make when you want to make something special. Though on an average night, you could do this gnocchi prep in very little time and serve it was a nice tomato sauce and that would be just lovely. But when you have the time, do this whole preparation. It is so worth it.

Ricotta Gnocchi with Mushrooms, Asparagus and Peas
(adapted from Bon Appetit)

Gnocchi

  • One 15 oz. container of whole milk ricotta
  • large egg
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
  • teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • Olive oil

Sauce

  • 1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed*
  • 1 cup frozen peas, thawed**
  • 8 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered***
  • 1 small shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, separated
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Fresh chopped chives, grated pecorino romano, and lemon zest (for garnish)

Start by making your gnocchi dough. Lay a stack of paper towels on a baking sheet (three or four depending on thickness). Take the ricotta and lay it out on the paper towels to drain for 20 minutes. [To accomplish this, I chopped the ricotta block into four sections and spread those sections out, each one getting a quadrant of the paper towels. At about the halfway point, I flipped each section over to a dry spot on the paper towels.] When it is done draining, toss the paper towels but hold onto the baking sheet for later in the prep.

When drained, put the ricotta in the bowl of food processor with the egg and the pecorino. Puree until smooth. Add the salt and the black pepper and puree again to incorporate. Add the flour and pulse just until combined. Do not overmix. Take the dough and load it into a pastry bag with a 1/2 inch tip. (If you do not have a pastry bag, you can use a ziplock bag and cut a hole in the corner, but do not cut the hole until you are ready to use the dough.) At this point, your dough can be refrigerated until needed, up to a day. (If you are storing the pastry bag in the fridge, be sure to cover the tip. Or better yet, put the whole thing in a plastic bag or tupperware container.)

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook your asparagus for one to two minutes, just until it turns a deep green. Remove from the water (I used a pair of tongs) and plunge into a ice bath. Remove from ice bath and cut into one inch pieces on the diagonal. Set aside.

Now, time to cook the gnocchi. Using the same pot of water, reduce the temperature so that the water is at a simmer. Take the baking sheet, lightly oil it and set it next to the pot. Take the pastry bag and a paring knife. Pipe the dough directly into the simmering water, cutting off dough in one inch pieces using the knife. (The back side of the knife actually works better than the sharp side. And be careful of hot water splashing up!) You will want to do this in batches of about a dozen pieces. (The trick here is that you want to get enough in to constitute a batch but you want them all to finish cooking at about the same time. I found that this resulted in about a dozen gnocchi each time and about six batches total.) It takes 2 to 3 minutes to cook and is cooked once it has puffed up and is bobbing around on the surface nicely. Using a slotted spoon, remove the cooked pieces and lay them on the oiled baking sheet. Repeat until you have cooked all the gnocchi. Take the pot of water off the heat. Remove about a half cup of the cooking liquid from the pot and set aside.

On to the sauce. In a large skillet, heat one tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring for about three to five minutes, until mushrooms begin to soften and brown. Add shallots and a generous pinch of fine sea salt. Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until shallots are softened and translucent. Now add the asparagus, peas, cooked gnocchi and remaining tablespoon of butter to the pan. Add a splash of the cooking liquid. (More if you like a soupier sauce.) Cook for a minute or two until the butter melts and the sauce thickens, stirring throughout.

After plating, add some chopped chives, grated pecorino and lemon zest to each dish. (You can add salt and pepper to the finished dish, but I did not find them necessary. The chives were the pepper. The pecorino was the salt. All was balanced as it should be.)

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* Do you trim your asparagus with a knife or snap the hard ends off by hand? I recommend snapping the hard ends off. You are always sure that way to remove all the woody part and it is just satisfying on a tactile level.

** You could use fresh peas as well here, but frozen work just fine. I set mine in a small colander and ran them under warm water for a minute to thaw them, then set them aside until I needed them.

*** The original recipe called for morels here. I will definitely upgrade the mushrooms to morels if I can get my hands on some, but man, they are hard to find and pricey. In the meantime, crimini mushrooms did the job just fine.

Rigatoni and Cauliflower al Forno

If you say cauliflower, you will have my attention. I came to cauliflower late in life but it has become one of my very favorite things. And I am always looking for new ways to prepare it. So when I saw this recipe in the New York Times, I was interested but my interest waned a bit as soon as I saw the word “capers”. Ugh.

Now, I don’t hate capers but capers just don’t do it for me. Usually, they are one small note in a larger profile so I am fine to have them linger in the background. But with a dish like this, the few ingredients are usually all essential elements. Take one out and the whole dish falters. So, how do I lose the capers and keep the basic flavor profile intact? I decided to double the amount of lemon zest and add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar. I also decreased the amount of cheese. Not to make up for the absence of capers. I just didn’t want that much cheese. I was aiming for light spring dish, not fortifying winter put-a-brick-of-cheese-in-me dish.

The resulting dish will definitely be coming back into my rotation. Very light and flavorful but it is the great textures at work here that really make it sing. Some noodles are soft and some are all crackled and crunchy. There are toasty bread crumbs and I am glad that the cauliflower does not get overcooked. And bonus! It actually reheats nicely in the microwave. I drizzled a little olive oil in the leftovers and stuck them in the microwave for a few minutes and all the textures were still working. That doesn’t always happen so I’m really pleased when it does.

Rigatoni and Cauliflower al Forno
(Adapted from the New York Times)

  • 1 pound rigatoni
  • 1 medium cauliflower, about 1 1/2 pounds
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon capers, coarsely chopped (extremely optional)
  • 1 teaspoon crushed garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped sage, plus a few sage leaves left whole
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest*
  • ounces coarsely grated or finely cubed fontina**
  • 2 ounces finely grated Romano cheese
  • ½ cup coarse dry bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Cook the rigatoni in well-salted water according to package directions, but drain while still quite al dente. Rinse pasta with cool water, then drain again and set aside.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut cauliflower in half from top to bottom. Cut out tough core and stem any extraneous leaves. Lay cauliflower flat side down and cut crosswise into rough 1/4-inch slices. Break into smaller pieces.

Put 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil in a wide skillet over high heat. Add cauliflower slices, along with any crumbly pieces, in a single layer. You will need to do this in batches. Let cauliflower brown and caramelize for about 2 minutes, then turn pieces over to brown the other side. Cook for another 2 minutes. Set browned cauliflower aside in a large bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Repeat with remaining batches of cauliflower. Add garlic, red pepper flakes, chopped sage, sage leaves and lemon zest to the bowl and stir to coat. (And yes, this is where you would add the capers if you were insistent upon doing such a thing.) Add cooked rigatoni and fontina and toss.

Transfer mixture to a lightly oiled 9×13 baking dish. Top with Romano cheese, then with bread crumbs and drizzle with about 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Bake, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until top is crisp and golden. Sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley before serving.

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* I never imagined that I would use my microplane as much as I do. In fact, I use it so much that I have two of them and they are both always in the dishwasher. I am constantly using it to zest fruit and finely grate hard cheeses. It is just so frigging handy. (Also, fun fact, it was originally designed as a woodworking tool before it got appropriated for kitchen use. I really want to meet the person who first saw someone doing detail work on a table leg and had the idea to take that tool and use it on fruit.)

** I actually find that the texture of fontina does not lend itself to grating. It is a little too pliable. I usually take the wedge of fontina, cut it into slices and then further chop those into little cubes. Much easier and cleaner than grating it and it melts nice and evenly that way.

Mushroom Linguine

My friend has a new baby and with new babies comes joy and sleep deprivation and friends bringing you large containers of food. My friend the new mom was due for another round of such food deliveries. I asked her if she wanted anything specific, and she responded immediately. Did I remember that dish that our friend Nancy used to make? The mushroom pasta dish? That was what she wanted.

Nancy knew what dish I was referring to but she did not have an exact recipe to send me. She sent a list of the basic ingredients and a general overview of how she made it. She asked me to play with it and let her know what I came up with. Her recipe was simple enough. Saute some garlic in oil. Add mushrooms and cook through. Add some wine and let it reduce. Add cooked linguine, fontina cheese, parsley and some reserved pasta cooking liquid. Salt and pepper at the end. Be careful of clumping cheese.

There are times when I look at a recipe and instantly know that I will make it exactly as directed, with no changes, because there is an alchemical beauty evident in the instructions and I just want to experience the results. But there are other times when I immediately know I am going to mess with a whole bunch of things and this was one of those times.

First, I love a really well cooked mushroom but I am texture sensitive and an overcooked mushroom is a horror to me so I knew that the mushrooms were going to come out of the pan mid-sauce and go back in at the end.

Second, I suspected that her reported problem with clumping cheese was because something was missing to help bind it all together. I went online and perused a bunch of recipes for pasta with fontina. A lot of people were adding some cream to their sauce, but as soon as I saw one that was all about the butter, I knew what I was going to do. For me the difference between a cream sauce and a butter sauce is licking your fork versus licking your plate. So, that meant that the oil was getting nixed altogether in favor of mushrooms cooked in butter.

The result was a silky smooth sauce and mushrooms so good I could imagine sitting in front of a bowl of this pasta and becoming dismayed at the realization that you had eaten all the mushrooms first and now there were no more to have with your pasta. It made three large lunch/dinner size portions, though it could easily make five or six smaller portions served with some bread and a small salad. Next time, I will add more mushrooms.

Mushroom Linguine

Ingredients

One 16 oz. package of linguine noodles
Approx. 20 oz. crimini mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and sliced *
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, separated
One tbsp. crushed garlic, divided **
⅓ cup white wine ***
One large shallot, minced
One tsp. sea salt
8 oz. fontina cheese, cubed
½ cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package. Drain the pasta, reserving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking liquid. (If you prefer to add salt to the water when cooking your pasta, you may want to reduce the salt added later in the recipe. I never add salt to the water when I am going to be using the cooking liquid later as I prefer more control over the saltiness of the final dish.)

While the pasta is cooking, you can slice your mushrooms, crush the garlic, mince the shallot, chop the parsley, and cube the cheese. (Though I only made it through the shallot prep before my pasta was done. I did the parsley and cheese while the mushrooms cooked.)

Melt 2 tbsp. of butter in a dutch oven or large skillet over medium-high heat. When melted, add ½ tbsp. of crushed garlic and let it cook for half a minute. Then add half of the sliced mushrooms. Let them saute, stirring occasionally for 5-7 minutes. Once cooked, remove the cooked mushrooms to a plate using a slotted spoon, leaving any liquid in the pan. Add another 2 tbsp. of butter and melt. Repeat previous steps with remaining ½ tbsp. of garlic and other half of mushrooms. (If I were adding another 10 oz. of mushrooms, I would probably do it three batches rather than upping the size of the two batches as the mushrooms cook nicely and evenly in this amount.)

Once the mushrooms are cooked and set aside, add the minced shallot to the pan and cook for about three minutes, stirring frequently. Add the wine and bring to a boil, then let it reduce by half. Once reduced, add the mushrooms back into the pan with the remaining butter, the reserved cooking liquid and the salt. Let it cook until the butter melts, stirring frequently.

Lower the heat and add the cooked pasta, cheese and parsley to the pan. Stir everything until the cheese melts completely and the sauce coats the noodles. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

Eat immediately.

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* I bought two 10 oz. packages of mushrooms but definitely wished I had more in the final product. I might add a third package next time along with another 2 tbsp. of butter, which would bring the total butter in this recipe to one stick of butter. If that seems like too much butter to you, then I would recommend still starting with two tablespoons of butter for the first batch of mushrooms and using a smaller amount of butter for each successive addition of mushrooms to the pot.

** Jars of crushed garlic are one of my favorite kitchen shortcuts as I find mincing garlic incredibly tedious. If you prefer fresh garlic, you probably want about four large cloves, divided.

*** If you do not have wine around and want to cook this, you can substitute ⅓ cup of vegetable stock with a tsp. of white wine vinegar added to it. (This is my preferred shortcut when I am wineless.)