Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Zuni Café Cookbook: Ricotta Gnocchi

So when I saw the first challenge for the new Daring Cooks group, I couldn't help but groan. What is it with people and Italian food? Can we please cook something else? I hate Italian food. But like a good little daring foodie, I marched right out to the grocery store to round up some ricotta cheese. Unfortunately a trip to the farmer's market was not in my immediate future, so I had to make do with some Sargento ricotta. But I splurged and got full fat! That helps make up for the fact it was sitting on the shelf for at least a week before I bought it, right?

I had a frying pan full of tender turkey Italian sausage and sauteed shitake mushrooms in browned butter waiting for the gnocchi when they made it out of the cooking pot. I slapped them into the frying pan before they could disintegrate on me, only to find that despite a heavy hand with the butter, they insisted on sticking to the bottom of the frying pan. Boy, was I irked. I managed to scrape some off the pan and into a bowl for a nice beauty shot before trying some of my creation.

These things stopped me cold. What was in my mouth was very unpleasant. They were light and fluffy, but also slimy and strange. And immediately the perfect description came to me. It was like eating boogers. Nasty. Never again. My ricotta is staying in lasagna where it belongs.

Ricotta Gnocchi
From The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

1 pound fresh ricotta (2 cups)
2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves, chopped, or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg, or a few pinches freshly chopped lemon zest (all optional)
½ ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about ¼ cup very lightly packed)
About ¼ teaspoon salt (a little more if using kosher salt)
All-purpose flour, for forming the gnocchi

To sauce the gnocchi:
8 tablespoons butter, sliced
2 teaspoons water

Testing the cheese (the day before you make the gnocchi):
Check the cheese for wetness. If you are lucky enough to have an individual basket-drained ricotta—you'll see the basket imprint or dimples on the cheese—it may be sitting in a little whey; in this case, slide it out of the container and wick away the surface moisture with a dry towel. With any ricotta, place about 2 teaspoons of the cheese on a dry paper towel and wait for about 1 minute. There will always be a little wet spot under and around the cheese, but if the cheese has thrown a wide ring of moisture, it is too wet to use as is. Place it in a strainer, or double-wrap in cheesecloth, and suspend over a deeper receptacle to drain for 8 to 24 hours, refrigerated. Cheesecloth is more efficient, as it also wicks moisture from the cheese while gravity does its job of draining. You can also speed up the draining operation by cinching the cheesecloth tight and squeezing some of the moisture from the ball of cheese.

Making the batter:
Beat the ricotta vigorously, then smash a little cheese against the side of the bowl with a soft rubber spatula. If you can still make out firm curds, press the cheese through a strainer to break them up. Stir in the eggs. Melt the 1 tablespoon of butter—with the chopped sage, if using—and add to the batter. Add the nutmeg or lemon zest, if using. Add the Parmigiano and salt and beat the whole mixture very well. This is what makes the gnocchi light. You should have a soft, fluffy batter.

Forming and testing a sample gnocchi:
Make a bed of flour about ½-inch deep in a shallow baking dish or on a sheet pan.

Scrape the sides of the bowl, mass the batter, and smooth its surface. Use a spoon held at an angle to shallow-scoop out 2 to 3 teaspoons of batter. Use your fingertip to push the almond-shaped scoop of batter cleanly from the bowl of the spoon onto the bed of flour. Shimmy the pan gently to coat the sides, then flip the gnocchi with your fingertip to coat the top. Lift from the flour and cradle and rock it in your palm. Don't squeeze it. You should have a dusty oval pod. As long as the general shape is uniform and rotund, don't worry that the gnocchi has a few wrinkles, dimples, and bumps.

To check the batter, poach this first gnocchi in a small pot of simmering well-salted water. It will initially sink, but will then swell, roll, and bob to the surface. Maintaining the quiet simmer, cook until the gnocchi is just firm, usually 3 to 5 minutes from the time it floats, depending on the cheese and the size of the gnocchi. Don't boil hard, or the gnocchi may explode. If, even at a gentle simmer, the gnocchi spreads or starts to decompose, the cheese was probably too wet. This can usually be corrected by beating a teaspoon or so of egg white into the remaining batter. If the batter was very fluffy, but the sample seems heavy, beat in about 1 teaspoon beaten egg. In either case, poach another sample to make sure the fix is successful.

Taste the sample for salt, and adjust the batter if needed.

Forming the remaining gnocchi:
Use the same spoon-and-finger technique to form the rest of the gnocchi. I usually form them in groups of 4 to 6, placing them all at the same angle, and a few inches apart, in the bed of flour, then shimmy the pan to coat all of them at once; don't leave them sitting too long in the flour, or they will absorb too much. Keep scraping the bowl and smoothing the surface of the batter to permit smooth scoops. As with the sample, roll each gnocchi in your hand. Arrange them on a sheet pan lined with a flour-dusted sheet of parchment paper or wax paper. Be sure that the individual gnocchi are not touching one another.

You can poach the gnocchi right away, but if you refrigerate them uncovered for about an hour, they will firm up, making them easier to cook and handle. (They will keep for up to 8 hours that way.)

Cooking the gnocchi:
Place the 8 tablespoons of butter and the 2 teaspoons of water in a 12-inch skillet; set aside.

Bring 2 to 3 quarts water to a simmer in a wide pan, 10 or more inches in diameter, so the gnocchi won't crush each other too much as they push to the surface. A sauté pan, flared brasier, or saucier pan will work, as long as it is at least 2 inches deep. Salt the water liberally—about 1 teaspoon per quart. Add the gnocchi one by one, adjusting the heat to maintain the simmer. Dip your fingertips in water if you find they are sticking to the gnocchi, but don't fret if the gnocchi stick a little to the paper. Do avoid holding the tray of gnocchi in the steam. Cook the gnocchi as you did the sample, until just firm, 3 to 5 minutes from the time they float.

Meanwhile, as soon as the gnocchi float to the surface, place the pan of butter and water over medium heat. Swirl the pan as the butter melts and begins to seethe. As soon as the butter is completely melted and has turned into an opaque pale yellow sauce, turn off the heat. Swirl the pan a few more times.

Lift the gnocchi out with a slotted spoon or skimmer, slide into the ready skillet, and roll in the warm butter sauce. Serve instantly in warm bowls.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 comment:

Audax said...

Yes there are two types of people in the world those who love gnocchi and these who hate gnocchi. You now konw which camp you are in. Still the pix is beautiful. Cheers from Audax in Australia.