Sometimes it seems like everyone in the entire world has turned into a foodie. Then I take it on the chin for not coming up with new ways to serve wings as Super Bowl snacks and I know that’s just an illusion shared by those of us who spend more time than we probably should in our kitchens.
The kernel of truth in the illusion is the growing number of people who belong to dinner clubs or travel to France to cook at some winery or purchase specialty meals at charity auctions.
I was fortunate enough to participate in just such an event on a recent weekend. I believe people’s appreciation of food is linked to how pleasant the company and the evening are, but there was definitely appreciation, and I promised to share some of the recipes.
The buyers chose a family-style Italian dinner, which translates to chaos in the kitchen, huge quantities of food on the table, and the constant free flow of wine. All three occurred on schedule.
Gnocchi with Asparagus in Mushroom Butter Sauce
Many guests chose this course as their favourite dish, so it’s the one I would like to share with all of you today.
If these little potato dumplings are new to you, then you are in for a treat. They are not some elegant, expensive dish featured in fabulous restaurants in Rome. These are made every day in home kitchens just like yours and mine. They are inexpensive and can be served in any sauce you like, from bottled pesto or marinara to simple browned butter.
Made well, gnocchi are magical. Of course you can buy them, but homemade are not difficult — maybe a little time consuming — but an incredible confidence booster when you get them right. This version is from an old and dear friend from Italy who left us last year, but who will live on as long as people are enjoying her recipes.
Her secrets were simple. The potatoes must be bakers — yellow or red ones just won’t work. For best results, the flour should be weighed, not measured. And the touch must be light — bring the dough together, knead for a few seconds, then leave it alone. Finally, a potato ricer instead of a masher is important. You can use mashed potatoes but you will never quite perfect the fluffy little pillows.
Gnocchi can be made up to 1 hour ahead of time, or freeze them in a single layer on a baking sheet and transfer to a zipper bag to keep up to 1 month. Cook from frozen exactly as you would fresh; it just takes a little longer for them to float.
This amount will make about 60 gnocchi, enough for 6 to 8 people.
2 lb. russet potatoes
1 egg, lightly beaten
5 oz. all-purpose flour (1 cup less 2 tbsp.)
1/2 tsp. salt
2 oz. dried mushrooms (Portobello or any you like are fine.)
2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup unsalted butter, divided (no other)
2 tbsp. olive oil (divided
1 lb. fresh asparagus, cut into 3/4-inch lengths
1 large shallot, minced
1 lb. fresh mushrooms, cut into thin slices
1 clove garlic, minced
4 fresh sage leaves
2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Scrub the potatoes and bake them at 400 F until cooked through — about 45 minutes to 1 hour. You can shorten the baking time by microwaving them on high for a few minutes first — don’t forget to prick the skins so they don’t burst. While still hot, cut in half and scoop the flesh into a potato ricer. Push through and spread out on a clean surface to cool. Measure out 1 lb. (about 2 cups but weighing is more accurate) of the riced potatoes into a large bowl. If you have potato left over, put it in the fridge to go with dinner tomorrow; don’t be tempted to use it up because you will ruin the gnocchi.
With a fork, stir in egg. Whisk together and add flour and salt. Stir just until it forms a dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 30 seconds; dough will be stiff. Cover and allow to rest 15 minutes.
Divide into 8 pieces and roll each with your hands into a 1/2-inch-wide rope. Cut into 3/4-inch lengths. You can stop here and have perfectly delicious gnocchi. If you want to go all the way, then shape them. It’s not hard. Hold a floured fork with the tips of the tines resting on the board and the tines curved downward, push each little dumpling against the top of the tines on the back of the fork, cut edge first. Roll down the length of fork to form ridges. If you push with the right amount of force, each dumpling will form a small cup as you get to the bottom of the fork.
I know this sounds difficult, but after the first three or four you’ll have enough confidence to breeze through them. The beauty of this recipe is, the more rustic they look, the better your guests will like them.
Place the finished gnocchi on a sheet of floured parchment paper — they will stick to any other surface on the planet.
Now make the sauce. Cover dried mushrooms with boiling water and set aside for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, melt 1 tbsp. of the butter in a large non-stick pan and add 1 tbsp. of oil. Add asparagus and fry over medium-high until it is nearly tender but retains some crispness. Remove from pan and set aside. Add another 2 tbsp. of butter and remaining 1 tbsp. of oil to pan and add shallot and fresh mushrooms. Fry until mushrooms release their moisture and it evaporates, and everything is golden brown. Add garlic, sage, thyme, salt and pepper and cook together 1 minute, until fragrant.
Mince the reconstituted dried mushrooms and reserve 1 cup of the soaking liquid — take it from the top, not the bottom, of the bowl because there is always a little grit left. Add dried mushrooms and reserved liquid to frying pan. Return asparagus and bring to a boil. Whisk in remaining butter — the sauce will be slightly thicker and glossy. Keep warm.
Drop gnocchi gently into a large pot of well-salted boiling water and cook about 90 seconds or until they float. Cook another 30 seconds. Lift them out with a strainer and add to the sauce in frying pan. Stir gently to coat. Serve in small bowls topped with grated Parmesan.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, NL, A1E 4N1.