10 November 2011

Say Yes to Gnocchi

Article and Photo by Elizabeth Miller

As a former vegetarian, I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for non-meat eaters during the holiday season. I remember what it was like to be told that, though the turkey may have been off limits to me, the gravy was just fine, only to then find out that the gravy, though not bursting with chunks of turkey meat, had most definitely been made with turkey drippings. The stuffing was flavored with chicken stock. The Brussels sprouts were sautéed with bacon. The chocolate pie was made with gelatin. It was enough to make a vegetarian sit down and cry into her solitary bowl of mashed potatoes.

But the lot I suffered was certainly not the saddest. My friends who were vegans were cut off from nearly every single Thanksgiving and Christmas dish you could imagine, what with the preponderance of butter, milk, and meat stretching as far as the eye could see. I had a friend who once ate a Thanksgiving dinner that consisted of nothing but salad and bread, a meal that I would never think to sneeze at on a regular day, but on Thanksgiving? I think everyone deserves more than that, no matter what your diet happens to shun.

It was with this thought in mind that I decided to focus my most current farmers market shopping in a different direction. Rather than adhere to my regular challenge of coming up with a delicious, wholesome, hearty meal for $10 or under, this time I would simplify things and instead use one single vegetable as an inspiration for a Thanksgiving dish that would be friendly to vegetarians and vegans alike.

Straight away, I found inspiration in the half dozen vendors who were showcasing pile after pile of that glorious autumn favorite, butternut squash. My mind immediately began to buzz with several different ideas for the squash, but by the time I got home, I knew

From Small Things, big things come

what I was going to do. At first I was picturing a huge pile of bright, saffron-colored gnocchi made with the flesh of butternut squash, rather than the standard method of making gnocchi using mashed up potatoes. As I began to prepare the ingredients for the gnocchi, I came up with the idea to drench it in a heavenly and nutty-tasting sauce of brown butter and sage. But then, realizing that a brown butter sauce would not be vegan, I changed my mind and began to contemplate a topping of caramelized shallots and thyme. Quite on a roll at this point, I then wondered if I should instead showcase more vegetables with the dish, and again changed my mind about what should go on top of the gnocchi. It was then, locked deep inside a trance of Thanksgiving anticipation, that I made what might be the greatest decision of my adult life: I would make all three sauces, and I would eat them all.

And I did. But not before changing my mind one last time about one final thing. Though the standard method of preparing gnocchi calls for boiling the tiny little dumplings until they become lightly puffed and floaty, I thought it would be worth a taste to instead brown some of the gnocchi in olive oil and see how they turned out. Now, my gnocchi samples demolished, my tummy as round and firm as a ripe summer melon, I am here to tell you that, boiled or browned, vegetarian or vegan, there is no bad way to eat this gnocchi. Delightfully hearty and deliciously filling, you can prepare this gnocchi one way or three ways, and the only thing you’ll miss out on is the desire to satiate yourself with your Thanksgiving tablemates’ turkey.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi

1 medium butternut squash

½ teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper

large pinch of nutmeg

3 ½ to 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Poke deep holes in squash in several places. Microwave squash on high for 12-15 minutes, until the squash’s skin is soft and gives easily when poked gently with a fork. Cool squash slightly before cutting in half and scooping out and discarding seeds. If you cut open your squash and find that it is still very hard in places, scrape out the seeds, scrape out the soft parts and reserve, then place the squash, cut-side-down, on a plate and continue to microwave for an additional 2-3 minutes, until the flesh is soft.

Scrape out enough flesh to amass 2 cups. If you have any remaining squash, refrigerate and save for another use. In a large bowl, place squash and mash thoroughly with a fork or a potato masher. To the mashed squash, add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and 3 ½ cups of flour. Using a wooden spoon or a sturdy spatula, mix the dough together until it is uniformly incorporated and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. The dough will be soft and somewhat sticky. If your dough is unreasonable sticky, add another tablespoon of flour and continue to mix, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough reaches a workable consistency.

Turn the dough out onto a generously floured work surface. Using well-floured hands, knead the dough a dozen times until it begins to become smooth and pliable. Divide dough in half, keeping one half on the work surface and placing the other half back in the bowl. Knead the dough on your work surface a few more times, then cut it in half and reserve one piece to the side.

Using your hands, roll the divided dough piece into a long rope about ¾ inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the rope into ½-inch pieces. Gently roll the tines of a well-floured fork over each piece of gnocchi, lightly imprinting each one with tiny little ridges. Set formed gnocchi aside on a well-floured baking sheet or large platter. Continue shaping the remainder of the gnocchi in this manner, generously re-flouring your work surface as necessary.

Makes roughly 1 ¾ pounds of gnocchi.

The following recipes will utilize the entirely of the completed gnocchi, with the batch being divided roughly into thirds.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

Burre, it's Cold

9 ounces butternut squash gnocchi

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons fresh sage leaves cut into thin slices

salt and pepper


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When the water is boiling, add gnocchi, stirring at first to make sure the gnocchi do not stick together. Gently boil gnocchi for 3-4 minutes, until they begin to rise to the surface of the water. When the gnocchi have risen, boil another minute, then drain and set aside.

In a small pan or skillet, melt butter over medium low heat. The butter will melt, then foam, then sizzle and begin to form tiny little brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook butter, stirring frequently and moving the brown bits around the pan, until it is dark golden brown and nutty-smelling, about 4 minutes for a batch of butter this small. Immediately remove butter from the pan. Turn the heat down to low and, in the same pan, add the sliced sage. Saute sage, stirring frequently, until it releases its aroma, about 30 seconds. Add sage to browned butter and stir.

In a large bowl, combine cooked gnocchi and sage brown butter sauce. Toss to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Caramelized Shallots and Thyme

9 ounces butternut squash gnocchi

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

No Caption Necessary

4 medium shallots, sliced into thin ribs

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

salt and pepper

In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium low heat. Add shallots and, stirring frequently, cook until soft and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat if the shallots start to brown too fast and turn crispy. When the shallots have caramelized, add the thyme, salt and pepper to taste, and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Remove shallot and thy mixture from pan and set aside.

Wipe out pan with a paper towel. Over medium heat, heat olive oil until almost shimmering. Add gnocchi to pan and cook until browned on one side, about 3 minutes. Toss and turn gnocchi in pan so it can brown on a second side, which should take another 2-3 minutes.

On a large plate or in a large bowl, combine shallot mixture and gnocchi and toss to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Garlic Chips and Sauteed Spinach

9 ounces butternut squash gnocchi

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 large cloves of garlic, sliced into thin chips

3 cups fresh spinach leaves

salt and pepper

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When oil is hot, add garlic chips. Cook garlic chips stirring frequently, until they just begin to turn golden. Add spinach and stir to combine. Saute spinach until wilted, but still bright, about 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove garlic and spinach mixture from pan and set aside.

Wipe out pan with a paper towel. Over medium heat, heat olive oil until almost shimmering. Add gnocchi to pan and cook until browned on one side, about 3 minutes. Toss and turn gnocchi in pan so it can brown on a second side, which should take another 2-3 minutes.

On a large plate or in a large bowl, combine garlic and spinach mixture with gnocchi and toss to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, if desired.[slideshow]