Saturday, May 30, 2020

Potato Gnocchi

It has been my intention to write a post on how to make potato gnocchi for almost as long as I have been keeping a blog.  I love good potato gnocchi.   In the early years I didn’t write it because I hadn’t perfected my written recipe—or my method of teaching—enough to give me confidence that everyone who used my recipe and method would have good success.  Then, I somehow never managed to get good pictures of the process (I was in a hurry…the room was too dark…etc). I corrected the first problem years ago.  And recently, when I taught an online “cook along” class all about potato gnocchi, the conditions were just right for taking pictures of the process.  So here it is.  Finally.

People have strong opinions about gnocchi….they either love them or hate them.  I suspect this is due to the wide variation in quality.  Potato gnocchi can be utterly delicious: light, tender pillows of potato floating in a flavorful broth, tossed in a rich ragû or tasty pesto, or lightly crisped from a quick sauté and tossed with seasonal vegetables.   They can also be gummy and heavy…true belly bombs.  To make things worse, this latter sort is often served drowning in an overly rich sauce.  I’m not sure why I like them so much, certainly I haven’t had too many good examples when eating out.  The ones I make at home are of the former variety.

The good news is that potato gnocchi are simple to make.  (There’s just no excuse not to make them at home.)  The trick to making gnocchi is a light, restrained touch.  If you add as little flour as is necessary to make a manageable dough and then work the dough as lightly as possible to avoid developing too much gluten (as when making a good pâte brisée), you will have good gnocchi.  If in addition you take the time to make them into petite little pillows—rather than large “two-bite” sized chunks—you will be the road to making excellent potato gnocchi. 

To begin, choose starchy potatoes.  Idaho Russets or Yukon Gold potatoes are perfect.  You will get an even better result if the potatoes are a bit older (since vegetables lose moisture as they sit in storage).  Then, bake the potatoes instead of boiling/simmering them which will introduce water.  (Even steaming will add water.)  

Baked potatoes, split while hot, to get rid of excess moisture via steam.

Baking the potatoes cooks the potatoes thoroughly without adding water. The drier the potato, the less flour you will need to hold the gnocchi together. 

Besides the flour and potato, most gnocchi include some egg.  There are very fine gnocchi makers who insist that egg should not be a part of the mix because it can give a rubbery texture to the gnocchi.  Also, because egg adds moisture, the dough will necessarily require more flour (which as noted above can contribute to heaviness or toughness).  But egg insures that the gnocchi will not disintegrate when they are cooked (since the egg protein sets the gnocchi before the water comes to a simmer).  No one has ever complained that my gnocchi are tough or rubbery.  So I am confident that as long as you are careful to use only as much flour as is necessary to form a cohesive dough—and don’t allow the gnocchi to remain in the simmering water too long (which will harden the egg protein)—you should be able to add egg without lowering the quality of your result. 

The other ingredient of note in my gnocchi recipe is a little bit of butter.  Alice Waters in her book Chez Panisse Vegetables includes a bit of butter in her gnocchi and I have always liked the added flavor and tenderness that results.  But you could easily leave it out if you prefer.

I mentioned above that you should make an effort to form petite gnocchi.  The reason for this is that small gnocchi will cook more rapidly and more uniformly than larger specimens.  Gnocchi that are not cooked through are doughy and heavy.  Because of the egg, gnocchi that are cooked too long can be rubbery.  Considering both these things, large gnocchi have the potential to be rubbery…or doughy…or both (if they are very large).  Making them small is a further guarantee that they will be tender and light.

As for the nuts and bolts process of making the gnocchi, it is very thoroughly detailed in the recipe below.  I will only emphasize a couple of things here.  First, the baked potato pulp needs to be passed through a food mill…or potato ricer…or a mesh sieve/tamis...or the large holes of a box grater—basically anything that will mill the flesh of the potato into a perfectly smooth substance without activating the starch by a vigorous stirring or back and forth motion.  Simply using an old fashioned potato masher is not enough.   

Secondly, the process of working in the flour is best accomplished on a counter top (or other flat work surface) with the aid of a bench scraper.  The cutting motion used will quickly and thoroughly incorporate the flour without developing the starch in the potatoes or too much gluten in the flour.  If you have never worked dough on a counter (rather than a bowl) it might feel a bit awkward, but the bench scraper will not only help cut the flour into the potato-egg mixture, it will also be used to clean the counter as you work.  It is counterintuitive, but dumping all of your ingredients out of the bowl and onto the counter is actually a very efficient and neat way to work.

Finally, the formed gnocchi should look like a little pillow with rounded edges, with ridges on one side and a dimple/divot on the other.  The ridges and dimple are formed simultaneously when you press the cut cylinders of dough against the tines of a fork with your thumb.  Because the finished gnocchi is generally rectangular in shape it seems to make sense to take the cylinder—which is longer than it is wide (like a rectangle)—and lay it across (perpendicular to) the tines of the fork and roll it forward  and off of the fork.  But in my opinion this is incorrect.  I think the cylinder should be placed on the fork upright…with one of the cut ends against the tines of the fork.  

Then using your thumb you press on the other cut surface—down and forward—squashing the cylinder down a bit as you roll it forward off of the fork.  

You will have to keep the fork and your thumb lightly floured because you’re working against the tacky cut surfaces, but when formed this way the gnocchi are plump and rounded….just like a little pillow of potato.

Once you get the hang of it, making gnocchi is not difficult.  But like a lot of handmade foods (fresh pasta, for example…or meatballs), it is a process and it does take time.  Fortunately the formed gnocchi freeze beautifully. (Spread on baking sheets and freeze the gnocchi until hard, then transfer to freezer bags for storage.)  And while many recipe writers will tell you that you can cook the gnocchi from frozen (straight out of the freezer), I have found this to be a risky proposition.  Dropping the frozen gnocchi into a pot of boiling water is like dropping ice cubes into the water.  The temperature of the water drops and even over high heat, as it recovers, the edges of the gnocchi begin to fall apart in the lukewarm water.  By the time the water boils, you might have potato soup. 

Instead, when you want to cook your frozen gnocchi, spread them out on a semolina dusted baking sheet and leave them (uncovered) for about a half hour until they have thawed.  You can then cook them exactly as you would if they were freshly made. 

Before I finish, I wanted to give a plug for something new I'm doing on my Instagram feed.  I have begun to post short cooking demonstration videos to IGTV.  My first one was for the ever popular Cream Scones that I posted many years ago.  The most recent is for the potato gnocchi in this post.  I have made an effort to describe the process in detail here...but having a video to watch can only help.  If you have questions, please feel free to post them here...or on my IG feed.

Potato Gnocchi

2 russet potatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs.)
1 c. all-purpose flour (about 4 to 4 1/2 ounces)
1 to 1 1/2 T. butter
1 egg, beaten
salt, pepper & nutmeg, to taste
Semolina flour

Prick potatoes and bake in a preheated 400° oven until quite soft and tender—about 1 hour.  As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and pass through a food mill.  

Add the butter and seasoning (start with 1 t. kosher salt, several grindings of black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg) and combine lightly with a fork.  Add the egg and blend into the potato in a few strokes.

Place the flour in the center of a clean counter and turn the potato mixture out onto the flour.  

With a bench scraper, cut the flour into the potatoes just until it has disappeared.  

Knead briefly to form a soft, slightly tacky, dough.  

Cut the dough into eight pieces.  On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece out into a long rope that is about 1/2-inch thick.  

Place the ropes on a floured or semolina dusted cookie sheet and let rest for 1/2 hour at a cool room temperature.  

To form the gnocchi, place each rope on the floured board and cut crosswise into ¾-inch-thick slices.  

To finish shaping, place one of the cut surfaces of the gnocchi on a floured fork.  With your (floured) thumb press the other cut surface down and away from yourself, rolling the gnocchi off of the fork as you do.  You should end up with a small dumpling that has the marks of the fork on one side and a dimple from your thumb on the other.

Place the finished gnocchi on a semolina dusted sheet pan and scatter more semolina over all.  Set the gnocchi aside until you are ready to cook them—ideally they should be cooked within 1 to 3 hours.  They may also be frozen at this point. 

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.  Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil or melted butter on a sheet pan or large platter and set aside.  Add the gnocchi (don’t overcrowd the pot—cook in 2 batches if necessary).  Carefully run a flat wooden spoon or heat proof rubber spatula over the bottom of the pan to make sure the gnocchi aren’t sticking.  Continue to cook for 1 minute after the gnocchi float to the surface—or about the time the water begins to return to a boil.  Lift the gnocchi out of the water with a mesh strainer and spread them in the prepared pan.  Serve immediately dressed with your favorite sauce or drizzled with more melted butter and grated Parmesan. 

Makes 4 entrée or 6 appetizer or side-dish servings.

Working ahead:
  • Make the gnocchi up to a week ahead and freeze before boiling.  Freeze on flour or semolina dusted sheets and when hard, transfer to freezer bags.   When ready to cook, spread the frozen gnocchi on semolina dusted sheets and let sit (uncovered) at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes (during which time they should thaw).  Cook as for fresh. 
  • Another way to work ahead is to serve sautéed gnocchi.  (I actually prefer them this way—they are even lighter.)  To prepare them, boil the gnocchi as directed and spread on an oiled or well-buttered sheet pan.  Set the gnocchi aside and allow them to cool.  The gnocchi may be cooked an hour or two ahead and left (uncovered) at room temperature.  When ready to serve, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat.  Add 1 1/2 T. of the butter.  When the butter begins to brown, add half of the cooked gnocchi.  Increase the heat to high and cook the gnocchi in a single layer—tossing once or twice—until the gnocchi are golden brown and crispy in spots and hot through (about 2 minutes).  If you like, add some minced herbs—chives, parsley, etc. at this point.  Transfer to a serving platter and repeat with the remaining butter and cooked gnocchi.  Serve immediately.
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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Chopped Broccoli Salad

In my last post I mentioned how much I like chopped broccoli salads.  I realized when I published the post that I didn’t have any examples of that kind of salad on my blog.  There is a chopped raw cauliflower salad...a grated carrot salad…and a couple of slaws…but nothing that features broccoli.  I thought I would fix that omission today.

The salad I’m sharing was inspired by a rather old-fashioned preparation that I ran across on The Modern Proper.  Their salad featured raw broccoli florets tossed with loads of bacon, sunflower seeds and raisins…all doused in a tangy mayonnaise based dressing.  The first time I made it I followed the recipe exactly except for one thing.  As mentioned in my previous post, the task of chomping through large florets of raw broccoli is something I prefer to leave to rabbits…or horses….   Cutting medium florets into rough thin slices, and the stems into a similarly rough julienne, creates a vegetable that is much easier for humans to chew…and more importantly gives a much better ratio of dressing to broccoli with each bite. 

I was attracted to the salad because it has a retro feel that places it in the realm of what is often meant by the phrase “comfort food.”  I wrote a post several years ago about a kale salad that featured the flavors of my favorite salad bar concoction from my college days: greens with blue cheese dressing, sunflower seeds, and raisins.  If you swap out the kale for broccoli…and the blue cheese for bacon…you basically have that same set of flavors that seems to hit all my preferred buttons. 

And I liked the salad.  But it struck me as a bit rich.  I shelved it, thinking I might make it occasionally, but not that often.  Then recently when I was rummaging through my fridge for something to turn into a salad to go with my dinner I ran across some broccoli.  For some reason I thought of that particular broccoli salad.  The rest of my dinner was almost ready so I didn’t want to take the time to cook bacon.  It seemed to me the salad would be good without the bacon, so I tried it.  And I loved it.  It was the bacon that had made it seem too rich for my taste that first time. And since the “salty” component (required, I think, to “wake up” brassicas) is amply covered by the salty roasted sunflower seeds and mayonnaise, the bacon really isn’t necessary.

I should apologize for two posts in a row that feature the same vegetable.  But the reality of cooking during a pandemic appears to be a lot of repetition.  This can of course be a good way to explore ways to use familiar ingredients in unfamiliar ways.  So if you eat a lot of broccoli…but have never tried it raw, chopped and tossed with a tasty dressing, you should definitely give this salad a try. 

Chopped Broccoli Salad with Sunflower Seeds & Golden Raisins

3/4 c. (5 1/2 oz/155 g.) mayonnaise
4 t. (1 oz.) honey
2 T. white balsamic or apple cider vinegar (can add another teaspoon if you like an extra tangy dressing)
1/2 t. kosher salt
Pinch of cayenne, optional

1/4 c. finely minced shallot or white of spring onion
1 lb. trimmed broccoli crowns
1/2 to 2/3 c. roasted and salted sunflower seeds (I love sunflower seeds, so I use 2/3 c.)
1/2 c. golden raisins, roughly chopped (or not—your preference)

Place the dressing ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine.  Taste and correct the balance and seasoning.  I like my dressing pretty tangy, so I usually add more vinegar…maybe 1/2 to 1 teaspoon.  Set aside.

Rinse the shallot (or onions) under cold running water or soak in a small bowl of ice water for a few minutes.  Drain well.

Trim the broccoli florets away from the stems.  Slice the florets thinly.  You will have little bits and larger pieces.  This is the goal.  Cut the stems into 1- to 1 1/2-inch lengths.  Slice the lengths thinly (rough 1/8th inch thick).  Cut the slices into sticks (a julienne).  Place the chopped broccoli in a large bowl.  Add the shallot, sunflower seeds, and raisins.  Pour the dressing over and toss until the broccoli is well-coated with the dressing.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and vinegar. 

The salad can be served right away, but I like it best if it is chilled at least a half hour.  It is still delicious the next day, too.

Serves four to six as a side dish. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

Roasted Broccoli & White Bean Salad

Broccoli has been a source of much surprise to me over the years.  At first glance it is just a ubiquitous and odd looking little tree of a vegetable that seems to have limited use.   I loathed it when I was growing up.  I am embarrassed to admit that there is nothing unusual about that latter bit.  I despised most vegetables.  Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up experiencing broccoli that was almost always badly steamed (in an effort to eradicate what?  Salt?  Fat?).  It was either soggy or crunchy…and either devoid of flavor or worse, the source of the rank sulfurous odor that emanates from all of the Brassicas when stored too long or cooked improperly.

The good news is that once I discovered that my disdain for most vegetables had to do with an overlong stay in transit or storage and/or improper cooking (coupled with a childlike resistance to the unfamiliar…and then a mulish tendency to refuse to admit that maybe something I had been compelled to sample wasn’t really that bad), I learned to enjoy broccoli.  But as I mentioned at the first, even after I learned to like it, I thought of it as limited.  Blanched in well salted water until just tender...and then doused in olive oil or melted butter…it can be eaten as is, or tossed into a myriad of other preparations (vegetable medleys, pastas, salads, grain pilafs, quiche, etc.).  But it’s still just broccoli in a new location.

Then I discovered raw broccoli.  Not giant, fodder-like, florets that are supposed to be improved by a dunk in some gloppy sauce.  But rather, finely chopped, grated or shaved stems and florets that are tossed with a tasty vinaigrette or dressing.  (If you’ve read my French carrot salad post, the comparison is like that of carrot sticks to a grated carrot salad…).  If you have never had broccoli prepared this way, you should definitely give it a try.

But the real broccoli game changer for me was when I discovered something called “long-cooked broccoli.”  Yes.  I know.  It sounds truly awful.  But by the time I ran across it in Alice Waters’ seminal cookbook Chez Panisse Vegetables I had learned to try almost anything if it was recommended or prepared by a knowledgeable and talented cook or chef.  Even so, when I tried it I was astonished by how delicious it was.  Broccoli cooked slowly—in minimal liquid, with a generous quantity of olive oil, until it’s falling apart—takes on a concentrated nutty and sweet flavor that is hard to describe.  It’s true that it looks terrible.  But it is easy to camouflage the look.  I have since incorporated it into pasta sauces, risotto, soups, etc.  It is also delicious piled on a crostini. 

You would think at this point I would be willing to try just about any preparation of broccoli.  But I seem to be a slow learner.  I resisted the idea of roasted broccoli for years.  Our culture is just so “charred” food crazy…and sometimes it just doesn’t work.  For some reason I didn’t think it would work with broccoli.

Then one evening recently I was looking around for some ideas for dinner.  Broccoli was the only fresh vegetable I had on hand.  I didn’t want any of my usual suspects (pasta, eggs, grains…).  In poking around on line I ran across a broccoli and white bean salad that looked like it had potential.  The broccoli in it was roasted.  Since I was kind of bored with my usual cooking habits, I decided to try it. 

Of course it was delicious.  The caramelized—dare I say it, slightly charred—bits of the florets are loaded with the same kind of concentrated, nutty sweetness that I love about long-cooked broccoli.  The salad I made was nothing more than a combination of white beans, broccoli and arugula pesto—but the roasting of the broccoli gave it a more complex flavor (which is exactly what I was hoping for). 

Not only was it delicious, but it was a big hit on my IG feed.  So of course I had to share it here.  I had hoped that I would have lots of things to post to my blog during our “stay at home” moment.  But the reality is that I have been cooking a lot of my old favorites (which have already been posted…).  Often the “new” things are such never-to-be-duplicated conglomerations of odds & ends and leftovers that they would be of little use to others, even if I were to post them here.  The moments of creativity and learning that have led to some of these dishes will hopefully show up down the road in the form of more fully thought out recipes.  This particular salad—even though born of the remaining half of a can of beans, leftover pesto and a bit of broccoli—seemed to me to be something others would be able to reproduce and enjoy. 

And even if you don’t make the salad, I hope you will try your hand at roasting broccoli (if you haven’t already…I think I’m a bit late to the party on this one….).

Roasted Broccoli & White Bean Salad

12 oz/340 g. broccoli, tough ends trimmed and discarded
2 1/2 to 3 T. olive oil
1/4 to 1/3 c. arugula pesto
1 1/2 to 2 T. water or bean cooking liquid
1 1/2 c. cooked (see below) or canned white beans, drained and rinsed
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste
A small handful of arugula
1/3 to 1/2 c. Whipped Feta (or 2 oz. crumbled Feta), recipe below
Warm Flatbread or thick slabs of toasted Artisan-style bread

Separate the florets from the broccoli stems and cut the florets into 3/4- to 1-inch pieces.  Split the stems as necessary so they are no fatter than 1/2-inch and then cut on a long angle into bite-sized pieces.  Place the broccoli in a bowl and drizzle with enough of the olive oil to coat and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Spread on a baking sheet and transfer to a 450° oven.  

Roast until tender and well-caramelized—about 20 minutes—turning once about 3/4 of the way through the roasting process.

While the broccoli roasts, place the pesto in a large bowl and thin with a bit of water or bean cooking liquid, if you have it.  Add the beans and toss to coat.  Season to taste.  Set aside and let marinate while the broccoli finishes roasting.

When the broccoli is tender, add to the bowl with the beans.  Toss to combine.  Add more pesto if you like, thinning with more water if necessary.  Taste and add lemon if necessary.

Smear a big spoonful of whipped Feta onto 2 plates, placing it just off center.  

Toss the arugula with a squeeze of lemon and season with salt and pepper.  Scatter over the center of the plate, half on half off the cheese.  Divide the bean and broccoli salad between the plates, mounding it in the center on top of the arugula.  If you did not make the Whipped Feta, crumble some Feta cheese over all.  Drizzle with more olive oil and serve with warm flatbreads (or warm grilled/toasted artisan bread).  Serves 2.

Note:  It would be easy to double this recipe.  Just make sure you have a large enough baking sheet for the broccoli so it isn’t too crowded on the sheet…use two pans if necessary.

Basic Cooked White Beans:
Soak 1/2 c. Great Northern (or other white bean) overnight (or use a modified quick soak).  Drain and rinse the beans.  Place them in a shallow gratin/baking dish, drizzle with some olive oil and add a couple of cloves of garlic, if you like.  Cover with boiling water by an inch, cover the pan with a tight fitting lid, or a piece of foil.  Transfer to a 325° oven and bake until tender.  This will take about an hour and 15 minutes.  Add salt to taste when the beans are half cooked.  Beans may be cooked.  Cool the beans in their cooking liquid and store in the fridge in their cooking liquid.  Makes 1 1/2 c. cooked beans.

Whipped Feta:
Place a mounded 1/3 c. drained, crumbled Feta, a mounded 1/3 c. whole milk ricotta, and 10 twists of black pepper in the bowl of the food processer fitted with the steel blade.  Process until smooth.  With the machine running, add 2 T.  of extra virgin olive oil in a thin stream.  Pause and scrape down the sides as necessary.  The mixture should get lovely and creamy.  Taste it and adjust with salt, pepper, up to a teaspoon and a half of lemon juice if you like a tangy profile or even more olive oil—you should be able to taste the oil as well as the cheeses.  Store in the fridge for up to a week (bearing in mind that it will thicken considerably during storage if you added lemon).  Makes a generous 3/4 c.  (Adapted from Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden)

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