Potato Gnocchi

And now back to our regularly scheduled letter of the alphabet “V” with Marc Vetri’s Mastering Pasta: The Art and Practice of Handmade Pasta, Gnocchi, and Risotto (book number 15). When it comes to pasta, this book is simply indispensable. More than just a cookbook, Vetri explains the science of pasta and its various components, including, for example, a super useful chart showing the comparative protein percentage, gluten strength, and elasticity of 15 different types of wheat flour. On the cookbook side, the book is encyclopedic with clear, easy-follow-instructions for making a wide variety of doughs for fresh, extruded, and hand shaped pasta, how to forms those doughs into myriad pasta shapes, and, of course recipes for using that pasta illustrated by mouthwatering photos that make me want to eventually cook and devour every recipe in the book.

We had already made a few recipes using the basic egg yolk dough, which uses a mind boggling nine egg yolks to about a cup and a half of flour, so we decided to try something different this time. I had made some very tasty, bright red beet gnocchi a few years ago, but, though we’ve both eaten them out frequently, neither of us had ever made classic potato gnocchi. Vetri’s recipe in the book is accompanied by a delicious sounding corn crema and corn salad, but, since fresh corn is months away, we took his advice to simply dress the gnocchi with butter and grated Parmesan for our first time.

As you may imagine, we started by boiling two russet potatoes. Vetri says that it’s best to make the gnocchi dough while the potatoes are still warm, so I peeled the potatoes as soon as I could handle them without burning myself, chopped them coarsely, and put them through the ricer onto a large, lightly floured cutting board. After spreading the riced potatoes on the board and letting them rest a few minutes for moisture to evaporate, I sprinkled them with grated Parmesan, freshly grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper and cut in the seasonings with a bench scraper. Then we worked in beaten egg and 00 flour until the dough came together.

After a quick kneading, we divided the dough into four parts, rolled them into half inch diameter ropes, and cut the ropes into individual gnocchi which we rolled on a lightly floured gnocchi board to give the gnocchi their characteristic grooves and shape. It was really nice to finally use the gnocchi board that has been languishing in the back of a drawer for the past two or three years.

We apparently made the gnocchi quite a bit bigger than they should have been, since we only ended up with 100 rather than the 200 the recipe suggests we should have gotten. We immediately put a quarter of the gnocchi into simmering salted water until they plumped up, shocked them in ice water to stop the cooking, sautéed them with butter until they turned golden brown, plated them, and sprinkled them with freshly grated Parmesan. They made a lovely light dinner accompanied by mixed greens with a mustardy vinaigrette.

We flash froze the rest of the gnocchi and divided them into three portions for future quick dinners. One lesson that I learned was that we should have chilled the gnocchi for a bit before cooking them. The first batch we cooked puffed up nicely, but were a little mashed potatoey around the edges. I’m sure that refrigerating them for half an hour or more before cooking them would have helped maintain their integrity. Still, they were really tasty, and we have three more meals worth in the freezer.

Up next: The Herbfarm Cookbook.

Duck Legs Braised in Zinfandel

As I mentioned at the end of our last post, we’re turning the alphabet back for another Alice Waters book that we picked up a used copy of during the holidays. The Chez Panisse Café Cookbook (book number 14), with beautiful food illustrations by David Lance Goines, is a joy both to read and to cook out of. I certainly enjoy a cookbook full of well photographed pictures of the finished recipes, but there is something really refreshing about an old school cookbook like this one with its colorful block prints that so perfectly evoke the Northern California Art and Crafts ambiance of Chez Panisse itself. I could easily imagine myself sitting in the upstairs bar sipping a Negroni and waiting for my dinner reservation while I read the book.

As you’ve probably noticed by now, Kate and I are big fans of duck, and we feel even better about eating it since we discovered the wonderful locally raised ducks from Mainely Poultry. This meal of plump duck legs braised in fruity-peppery Zinfandel was just the ticket to bring a taste of California to our cold Maine winter. We started the evening before by seasoning six duck leg and thigh quarters with salt and pepper, what the kids nowadays call “dry brining,” I suppose, and letting them get to know each other in the refrigerator overnight.

A few hours before dinner time, we preheated the oven and sautéed diced carrot and yellow onion in duck fat until lightly browned. The sautéed veg went into the bottom of a baking dish where it was joined by a bay leaf, thyme, sliced garlic, orange zest, and a cup of Renwood Zinfandel. The duck legs went into the dish next and we bathed them with a cup and a half of hot homemade chicken stock before covering them and putting them in the oven. After about an hour, we uncovered the pan to give the duck skin a chance to crisp.

As Alice suggested in her recipe notes, the perfect starter was leeks vinaigrette. We had never made it before, and there isn’t a recipe for it in this book, so I resorted to the internet and came up with this one from Bon Appetit. Although it wasn’t the main event, this was very quick to put together and is a definite keeper as a light first course. The white and pale green part of a couple of large leeks poached until tender and halved lengthwise dressed with a tangy vinaigrette of minced shallot and garlic, sherry vinegar, both Dijon and whole grain mustard, thyme, and olive oil whetted our appetites without filling us up.

After enjoying our starter, I took the duck out of the oven, arranged the golden duck legs on a platter and covered them with foil to keep warm while I strained and reduced the braising liquid, while made a lovely sauce to gild the duck. The tender dark meat of the duck was succulent with the slight toothsomeness that identifies a bird that had a quality life outdoors. And, of course, I’d be lying not to admit that we licked our plates to get the last drops of the herby, citrusy wine sauce that the duck had been braised in.

Since we only ate two of the duck legs the first night, I added the meat of one of the remaining legs to bowls of miso soup topped with fried eggs for breakfast the next morning, and the meat of the other three legs, along with the rest of the braising liquid, a quart of chicken stock, and a few cups of cooked Rancho Gordo Good Mother Stallard beans went into a spectacular duck and bean soup which fed us for two more meals. Oh the glory of leftovers!

Up next: Mastering Pasta.

Molasses-on-Snow Candy

Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. . . . One morning she boiled molasses and sugar together until they made a thick syrup, and Pa brought in two pans of clean, white snow from outdoors. Laura and Mary each had a pan, and Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in little streams on the snow.

They made circles, and curlicues, and squiggly things, and these hardened at once and were candy. Laura and Mary might eat one piece each, but the rest was saved for Christmas Day.

Those of you who know us probably know that Kate is a wonderful reader who loves to read her favorite books aloud to me in the car on trips or at home in the evenings. Knowing that the next cookbook on our agenda (book number 13) was The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker, Kate has been reading me Little House in the Big Woods, the first in the Little House series, which contains this irresistible description of homespun candy making. Having never read the Little House books, I had no idea that food memories played such an important role in Laura’s narrative. Barbara Walker’s delightful book collects those food references, places them in the context of the Little House books, and adds historical background and recipes. As much as I love historical recipes and cooking techniques, this book was right up my alley.

With relatively fresh snow on the ground, and molasses and brown sugar in the cupboard, what other recipe could we choose for a cold Sunday in January? I went outside to collect a pie plate full of snow from the dooryard and brought a small pot of molasses and brown sugar to a boil. Once the syrup reached the firm ball stage (245° F), I poured it into a pitcher and Kate and I poured it out in designs on the the snow. Like Laura and Mary, we each ate one piece immediately. It was really tasty; chewy like caramel but with a distinct molasses flavor. We’re keen to try it again with boiled down maple syrup.

Up next: Chez Panisse Café Cookbook (I know we said we were done with our Chez Panisse/Alice Waters cookbooks, but we found a used copy of this one at Powell’s and couldn’t resist).