After spontaneously deciding to make fresh ricotta cheese, I needed to find something substantial to do with it. I thought about making ricotta gnocchi, but I really enjoy the process of working with potato gnocchi dough, and I thought that Ella would too. I think that a lot of people are intimidated by the prospect of making potato gnocchi. They have the reputation of turning into dense and chewy rubber balls instead of the light little pillows of goodness they should be. One of the tricks to making light gnocchi is keeping the dough dry enough so that only the minimum amount of flour is necessary. This is achieved by baking the potatoes, not boiling. Another trick is to use a potato ricer to mash the potatoes. This keeps gluten from forming in the potatoes and incidentally is the trick to making the best mashed potatoes as well.
So I decided to make a combination of potato and ricotta for the gnocchi which I served with a simple tomato sauce and some sauteed swiss chard. The tomato sauce is one that I was reminded of here. It comes from "The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan. This was the first cookbook that I bought for myself after graduating from college in 1995. My parents took me and some of my friends to Chez Panisse for dinner after graduation, and my boyfriend bought me Chez Panisse Cooking.
I quickly realized that my kitchen skills were not quite good enough to follow the recipes in Chez Panisse Cooking. I have found that many of the recipes coming from Chez Panisse cookbooks assume that you already know how to execute most techniques and are proficient in the kitchen. I was not. For instance, I did not understand braising. The first osso bucco I made was horribly tough. I knew that it was cooked, but I did not understand that it needed to cook for hours in order for the toughness to melt away and transform the meat into something that you could eat with a spoon. I also needed to learn time management in the kitchen. I needed to understand the order in which things should be prepped and the timing of different dishes so that everything was done at the same time.
Someone recommended that I look to The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I did, and I credit this book for giving me a solid foundation and confidence in the kitchen. It taught me so much about technique, ingredients and kitchen tools. But I had moved on and forgotten about this beloved book. Until Molly reminded me.
And now the simple tomato sauce with butter and onion is one that I turn to often. It's one of the simplest dinners for me to make while also keeping a 2 year old entertained. It takes almost no effort at all, and the aroma of butter and onion simmering away is intoxicating.
Tomato Sauce With Butter and Onion
(Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking)
1 28 ounce can of San Marzano Tomatoes (These make a big difference so try to search them out)
5 tablespoons Butter
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
Put the tomatoes, butter, onion and salt in a pan large enough to hold the pasta or gnocchi. I usually buy whole tomatoes that I carefully squish between my fingers while adding to the pan. Cook uncovered at a very low simmer for about 45 minutes. Stir from time to time. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing with the pasta or gnocchi.
Potato and Ricotta Gnocchi
2 pounds large russet potatoes
1 to 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese (drained)
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
about 1 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 400F and roast the potatoes until soft, about 1 hour. Peel the potatoes while still hot and pass through a ricer into a bowl. Add the egg, 1 cup of flour, Parmesan, ricotta cheese, nutmeg and salt and mix well. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 1 minute. Add just enough flour to keep it from being sticky. This part takes a bit of practice because it is all about feel. I used to be afraid to knead the dough too much, but then I would end up with the gnocchi falling apart in the water. So I think there is a bit of a fine line between not kneading enough and over kneading.
Cut the dough into 4 pieces and roll each piece into a 3/4 inch thick rope. Cut each rope into 1 inch long pieces. Roll the pieces off the back of a fork to create a dent in one side and ridges on the other. Drop the pieces onto a lightly floured baking sheet. These can be covered and stored in the refrigerator up to a day. They can also be placed into the freezer and once frozen, stored in Ziploc bags. If they are frozen they do not need to be thawed before boiling, just place straight into the boiling water.Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt liberally. Add the gnocchi and cook for about 2 minutes, or until they are all floating on the surface. You may need to do this in batches. I usually only add an amount that would cover the bottom of the pot. Use a strainer to transfer the gnocchi to the sauce and toss gently to coat. Transfer to a bowl and grate Parmesan over the top.