A year ago, I was almost purely a special occasion cook. I knew how to choose a good recipe out of the thousands on the Internet (or just flip to a page in one of Mom’s books). And I knew how to follow the recipe to get good results. Always aiming for the perfect, impressive, and complicated, I would prepare course after course, search for expensive wine, buy flowers, light candles, and set the table. Though mostly pleasurable, cooking was always such an ordeal.
But, it stands to reason that if something is difficult, you probably don’t want to do it very often. Over the last 12 months, however, I’ve been converted. Weeknight cooking is now my mainstay, and I continue to be surprised by how good it can be. I love the fast pace, the time constraints, the experimentation, and the screw ups.
But every once in a while, I still love to forget time and schedules and cook with complicated, impressive, ridiculous abandon. There is nothing like that overwhelming feeling of delight and pride when you take a bite of something you’ve so carefully made – surrounded by nice dishes, soft candle light, and good wine – and it’s just so freakin’ good. (And it ain’t bad when people tell you so, either.)
Last weekend was Dad’s birthday. With Mom and Maggy away on book tour, it was up to me to make sure Dad wasn’t alone – or worse, hungry – on his birthday. I figured a birthday was a better excuse than most to pull out all the stops.
For years I’ve wanted to attempt homemade gnocchi, and with autumn on its way, the idea of sweet potato gnocchi was absolutely stuck in my head. Tony’s Italian grandmother has taught him the simple art of gnocchi-making, so I figured with his knowledge and my enthusiasm we couldn’t fail. And let me tell you, we didn’t. The process was actually quite simple, and the finished product was unspeakably good – soft, light, savory pillows nestled up with sage, browned butter, and Parmigiano.
We also had some frozen beef short ribs that had lost their vacuum seal, as well as a head of cabbage that was getting on in days. (I know, we’re pathetic. Even with special meals, we can’t resist the urge to use up aging food.) So we braised the short ribs low and slow and served them over spicy sautéed cabbage. Anything braised on a bed of something is my favorite food in the world, and this was no different.
And since my father, who hardly ever eats dessert, can often be found standing in front of the freezer with a spoon in the carton of ice cream, we decided to finish off the meal with a simple homemade cinnamon-chocolate ice cream.
The meal was wonderful, as much for the food and candlelight, as it was for the company (and the compliments from Dad). He seemed so grateful that we’d put in all that time and energy just for him. And he said many times that night – and I tend to agree with him – that a special meal is about the best present you can give someone.
Sweet potato gnocchi
Serves 8 to 10 as a first course
However you sauce these gnocchi, keep it simple so their flavor can shine. I sautéed the gnocchi in a sage browned butter after they came out of the boiling water. This quick sauté leaves the gnocchi slightly crisp and pleasantly brown on the outside and tender on the inside. This recipe is adapted from Epicurious.com.
3 medium-large sweet potatoes, halved lengthwise
12 ounces ricotta cheese (drained if watery)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano
1 1/2 teaspoons salt and ground black pepper
Pinch grated or ground nutmeg (optional)
About 2 cups of flour, more for rolling
Adjust oven to lowest position and heat oven to 400 degrees F. Place potatoes, cut side down on a small foil- or parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake until fork tender, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly.
Holding the potato in a pot holder-protected hand, scoop potato flesh into a bowl to cool completely. (You’ll need about 3 cups); mash with a fork. Mix in ricotta. Add cheese, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, several grinds of pepper, and nutmeg; mix until well blended.
Using more or less than the suggested amount, add flour 1/2 cup at a time and continue to mix until a soft (but not too sticky) dough has formed.
Divide dough into 6 pieces. Working 1 piece at a time, use your hands to roll dough into a long rope about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter. Cut the rope into 3/4 inch lengths. If you’re feeling adventurous, roll each gnocchi over the tine of a fork to get those restaurant-style indentations.
Repeat the rolling and cutting with each portion of dough. Transfer gnocchi in a single layer to a large, rimmed baking sheet and freeze them for at least 30 minutes, which helps them hold together during boiling. (Can be frozen in zipper-lock freezer bags for up to 3 months.)
When ready to cook the gnocchi, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Working in small batches, cook gnocchi until they start to float to the top – this indicates that they are cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and top as suggested (see above).