I'm a pretty adventurous cook, but I've always found homemade pasta a little intimidating. I mean, spaghetti noodles seem pretty straightforward, but what about all those funky little shapes like orecchiette, farfalle, or gemelli? When I saw the recipe for Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi in the February issue of Sunset, I was intrigued. I knew I would have to conquer my fear of making pasta eventually, and this seemed as good a place as any to start. There was no need for special equipment and I had most of the ingredients on hand. I told myself that if I failed, the result would just be ugly pasta covered in a brown butter sauce, which couldn't be all bad. Brown butter can do no wrong.
So, exactly what are gnocchi? They're these little pillowy dough dumplings that are typically made with potatoes and flour. Like many Italian dishes, variations exist between different regions. This recipe is actually a Tuscan variety of gnocchi, made with flour, ricotta, and spinach. Next to brown butter, spinach is the star of this dish. It's used both in the dough and stirred into the sauce at the end. Sunset recommended using whole, mature bundles of spinach rather than the widely available baby leaves. If you've only ever had the flavorless, pre-washed baby leaves sold in most grocery stores, let me tell you that fresh spinach is on another level entirely in terms of taste. In terms of preparation, well, fresh spinach requires a few rinses to get rid of all the grit trapped in its leaves. Thank goodness for salad spinners!
The first step in this recipe requires steaming some of the spinach for the dough. It always amazes me how a huge pile of spinach can wilt down to a mere half cup when it's all said and done. After steaming, squeeze out the excess liquid and finely chop the spinach. Now it's time to make the dough!
It's quite simple, really. An egg, the chopped spinach, a carton of ricotta, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, salt, nutmeg, and flour. Like I said, I had most of the ingredients on hand already. I did spring for whole nutmeg, though, and I'm really glad I did. I made my husband smell the difference in the freshly grated nutmeg and the pre-ground nutmeg we had sitting in the spice cabinet. Wow. The pre-ground stuff smells like plastic, but the fresh nutmeg was pure and intoxicating. Buy some. You won't be sorry. In a dish as simple as this one, the quality of your ingredients is everything. Now, off my soapbox and on to the dough.
Making gnocchi is a labor of love. It probably took me a few hours from start to finish, but I enjoyed every minute. I find solace in the kitchen, humming as I flour my hands and roll out the soft dough. That big dough ball has to be divided into eight small dough balls, and then rolled out like a snake and snipped into pieces. Just look at that army of gnocchi in the last photo. I'm still amazed that I did that. Respect to all you pasta makers out there.
Then came the tricky part. Gnocchi have these little indentations in them that you make with the tines of a fork. I'm not really sure what their purpose is, but I suppose they help the sauce stick to the pasta. I'm quite certain I did this part wrong because I couldn't make my gnocchi look like the perfect little ovals in the recipe photo. Oh well. Homemade pasta has to be a little rustic, no?
This is my favorite shot I got all day. After the painstaking work of cutting and shaping these little guys, all I had to do now was boil them for a few minutes, make the sauce, and devour them. This is a bit of a project recipe, but you can make the gnocchi ahead and freeze it until ready to cook. It would make an impressive dinner party pasta!
The final dish was topped off with brown butter sauce, pine nuts, and Parmesan. Seriously, yum. I can't tell you how satisfying it was to pop those little pillows of dough into my mouth. The amount of spinach in this recipe counterbalances the rich sauce in my mind, and surprisingly, its green, earthy flavor still shines through. As I sit here eating a bowl of the leftovers, I can honestly say I will be making pasta again. Soon. Make it yourself and be sure to share your cooking adventures with us on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #CookWithConfidence!