Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Fennel, Grape Tomatoes, and Capricious Cheese

What would you cook to impress one of the most prestigious chef's in the world?

 I was confronted with this daunting question last week. As part of my BasqueStage application, I was asked to cook a recipe, photograph it, and blog about it. So I started brainstorming; I thought about searing exotic sea-creatures and topping them with heavenly and masterful sauces; or recreating a traditional basque feast. I scoured the internet for inspiration, developed tens of recipes only to veto each one of them. Then, in the eleventh hour, I came across an essay by Tom Colicchio for the LA Times. His opening line is "My general rule of thumb when it comes to cooking is that the fewer ingredients a dish contains, the harder it is to do right." Brilliant. If only he had never written it so I could make that my opening line.

He goes on to talk about the art of gnocchi, the infamous little Italian potato dumplings. They are basically just potato, flour, cheese, egg yolk or ricotta with a little flavoring thrown in. However, like any masterpiece, they are near impossible to perfect. When I think of gnocchi, I am unfortunately reminded of the dense, chewy packaged stuff I used to pick up at grocery stores. The dumplings are really just bundles of starch, so when done wrong their heaviness can be quite nauseating, but when done right, they are so right. They are soft, comforting, doughy, and lap up any sauce you toss them in. 

The trick is to maintain their starchy goodness while keeping them soft enough to melt in your mouth.
I decided to make a sweet potato gnocchi for added lightness and flavor. I found an excellent sheep's milk cheese- Capricious by Achadinha Cheese Company- at my local farmers market. It has a similar consistency to Parmesan, but has the added pungency of sheep milk. The spices in the gnocchi, overwhelming when uncooked, settle into the starch while boiling and add depth to the final dish. The freshness of the sauteed vegetables complement the dumplings and the grape tomatoes are a surprising burst of acidity.
Although this recipe is a lot of work -- it may take you upwards of 2 1/2 hours to create-- it is certainly worth the effort. Its dinner party material. As proof of its deliciousness, I cooked enough gnocchi for ten people and five of my house mates polished it off in one sitting. It is simple yet surprising and hopefully will impress the judges at BasqueStage.


Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Fennel, Grape Tomatoes,
and Capricious Cheese

Gnocchi (Adapted from Bon Appetit recipe):
2 lbs red-skinned small sweet potatoes, pierced with fork
14 oz fresh ricotta cheese, strained in cheesecloth
2 oz Capricious cheese and 1 oz Parmesan (finely grated)
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 3/4 cups (about) all purpose flour, sifted
2 egg yolks
Extra flour for molding

1 bulb fennel with stalk (bulk thinly sliced and leaves coarsely chopped)
2 cups grape tomatoes (cut in half)
3 oz unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 cup of starchy water from gnocchi
Salt and fresh cracked pepper
1 oz Capricious cheese, grated (plus some for on top)

1.  Wrap the ricotta in cheesecloth and secure at the top with a rubber band. Squeeze out the excess liquid, then secure the bundle to a long spoon or rod and suspend it above a pot to drain. Leave this for at least 45 minutes. The dryer you manage to get the cheese, the fluffier your gnocchi will be. 
Draining the ricotta
2. Bake potatoes at 400 degrees F until they are cooked through. My potatoes were small and took about 30 minutes, but this will vary. If you want to cheat a little bit, pop them in the microwave for 15 minutes instead of baking. You can do this ahead of time. When cooked, slice the potatoes in half and leave them to cool. Scoop out the cooled potato flesh and mash it in a bowl. Although time consuming, I recommend pushing the mashed potato through a strainer. This creates a lovely silky texture that will add lightness.
3. Combine the sugar, nutmeg, and salt in a bowl to evenly distribute the flavors. Thoroughly combine the potato, ricotta, and spices. Add one of the egg yolks and combine. Add the sieved flour 1/2 cup at a time, mixing after each addition, until a soft dough is formed. If the dough feels too dry or gummy, add the second egg yolk. The dough should be solid enough to maintain an indentation, but soft enough to mold without any force. They dough will taste quite pungently of nutmeg and sheep's cheese. Do not fret, the flavors mellow out as they cook. 

4. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a clean and floured work surface. Divide it into ten even pieces. With floured hands, roll each piece into an evenly shaped log that is about a 1/2 inch in diameter. Cut the log into 3/4 inch long pieces. Finally, take each gnocchi and roll it against the concave side of a fork. The gnocchi may slightly lose its shape, so use your hands to remold it. Your gnocchi will probably not turn out perfectly. Practice on few before committing to a set technique. Just keep in mind that these will all be cooking at the same time, so the most important thing is to keep them a uniform shape and size. Place the gnocchi on the sheet tray, making sure they do not touch each other. 

6. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Boil the gnocchi for about 10 minutes. The dumplings will float to the surface when they are almost ready. Cook another two minutes and then scoop them out, saving the water. Always taste test for doneness. 
7. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter on medium high in a sauce pan. Add the fennel bulb slices and cook until translucent but still crunchy. Add the salt, pepper, fennel sprigs, and tomatoes. Cook for another 4 minutes. Add the gnocchi straight into the pan with the 1 cup starchy water and cheese. Turn off the heat and gently toss the gnocchi for a minute to absorb flavor. 

8. Taste to check the seasoning and serve. Top with shaved Capricious cheese and cracked pepper.

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