Monday, January 8, 2007

Adventures in Gnocchi

Gnocchi are beautiful little things. Potatoe-y, noodle-y, chewy orbs of starchy goodness. Freshly made are best, of course, but even packaged ones have the ability to be fantastic. Dressed simply with olive oil, garlic, and salt and pepper they make a tasty side dish. Tarted up with marinara sauce, capers, and olives they become a filling main course. However, the past few times I've made gnocchi, I've served them with a squash based sauce – and loved each bite more than the last. I've used sweet potato gnocchi, whole wheat, and regular potato -- all types seem to compliment the sweet earthiness of the squash. I prefer butternut or acorn for this recipe, but any squash you like can be used (though I don't recommend spaghetti squash – its texture just won't work here).

This particular dish was an exercise in kitchen improvisation and a good example of how I usually cook. I get an idea (here: squash, sage, and sausage) and run with it. Usually this "cooking by feel" method results in some great dishes. . . but, occasionally, a meal cannot be redeemed (ask me about a certain coconut salad --- eeek). Don't get discouraged by the rare bad dish -- a good one is surely just arount the corner.

In this case, the idea had promise, but needed a little nudge to make it just right. I hope you enjoy this as much as we did -- it is comfort food at its best -- salty, creamy, soft, rich, and sweetly spiced. Posted below is the recipe as I made it, with notes about the later changes.

Gnocchi with chicken sausage and squash serves 6 hungry people


--2 packages of gnocchi (approximately 24 ounces) (I recommend Trader Joe's Whole Wheat)
--enough salted water to give the gnocchi plenty of room to boil freely (approximately ½ gallon)

--2 tablespoons of olive oil

--1 tablespoon of good quality butter/margarine (more if you are feeling decadent) ( I use Earth Balance)
--1 whole sweet onion, roughly chopped
--2 or 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
--4 or 5 chicken or turkey sausages (or feel free to substitute another salty meat – bacon, proscuitto, and pork sausage come to mind. I used TJ's garlic spiced chicken and turkey sausage)
--7 to 8 fresh sage leaves, finely minced ( I originally used 5 leaves and it wasn't sage-y enough)
--salt and white pepper to taste (at least ½ teaspoon each)

--a 1 lb squash, cooked. (I used butternut) (to cook, cut it in half, scrape the seeds and membranes out, and place cut side down in a dish big enough to fit both halves. Pour ½ inch of water in the dish and either bake or microwave until soft – baking should take around 30 minutes at 350 and microwaving about 15 minutes.)

--liberal dash of each: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg (fresh, if you've got it)
--splash of apple cider vinegar
--1/2 cup total of white wine or chicken broth (or soy milk or cream) (or a combination of any of these)
--a few tablespoons of cream cheese (soy or cow) (optional -- if you are feeling decadent)
--a slurry made of 2 to 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and enough white wine/chicken broth/soy milk/cream to make a loose paste

--½ cup of ground walnuts to garnish (at least) (toast lightly to release more flavor)
--parmiggano reggiano to garnish (It's dairy, so I can't vouch for it, but M is convinced it would be good on this)
--fresh nutmeg to garnish


1) Put on your pot of water to boil, add a touch of salt, and leave it alone for a bit. It will be boiling by the time you need it.

2) Scrape the cooked squash meat out of the shells and put into a bowl.

3) Add the olive oil and butter to a large pan or skillet and turn the heat to about medium high. When the fats are hot, add the garlic and onions. Sautee until softened, stirring occasionally. Cut up the sausage into a fine dice and add to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally for a few minutes. Add the minced sage, salt, and white pepper. Breathe deeply – your kitchen should smell fantastic about now.

4) Add the squash meat, smashing it with your spoon and breaking up any large pieces. Stir until the squash begins to break down. Add the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cider vinegar. Stir. Add the ½ cup of wine/broth/milk/cream and the cream cheese (if you are adding it). Stir. Turn the heat down to medium and let this simmer for a few minutes, stirring to keep mixture from sticking.

5) Drop the gnocchi into the now boiling water.

6) Add the cornstarch slurry to the pan and stir, stir, stir. In the 2 or 3 minutes that the gnocchi need to cook, the cornstarch mixture will thicken your sauce and the raw cornstarch taste will cook off. When the gnocchi float to the top, scoop them out of the water and put them into a colander to drain. Do not overcook the gnocchi -- they will become chewy, heavy balls of unappedtizing dough.

7) When all of the gnocchi are cooked, dump out the cooking water and put the gnocchi back into the pot. Turn the heat off the sauce and pour immediately over top the hot gnocchi. Stir like mad until the sauce is distributed evenly.

To serve:

Plate the gnocchi and liberally sprinkle finely ground walnuts over top. Add parmigianno reggiano if desired. Generously grate fresh nutmeg over top.*

In the first version of this sauce, I added rooster (sririacha) sauce to give it some heat. It turned out that the rooster sauce was distracting – this dish didn't need heat. I also did not have enough sage, nutmeg, or salt in the sauce and I hadn't thought of the walnuts or cheese. However, once I added more sage, salt, and nutmeg and sprinkled the gnocchi with walnuts, the dish just *popped*. As is often the case, a few tweaks make all of the difference in the world.

Happy eating!

*(If you've never had fresh nutmeg, I recommend a trip to your nearest gourmet shop or kitchen store. Buy a few nutmegs and a grater and experience the joy of fresh nutmeg. Remember the SAT? It goes something like this: Fresh nutmeg : dry nutmeg as 1997 Silver Oak : wine in a box. The fresh nutmeg is brilliantly spicy, intriguingly complex, and heady with perfume. Once you go fresh, you never go back. Try it on oatmeal, in cookies, or in pancakes. Divine.)Sauteeing sausage, onions, garlic, and sage.

Up close and personal.
Cooked squash, waiting to be scraped clean.

Sauce, just before the cornstarch slurry (on the right) was added.
Dinner! (before the walnuts, and extra sage, nutmeg, and salt were added. See above for the final product)

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