So I like to joke that there's an Unofficial Alanna Kellogg Fan Club and that it has exactly one member. That's our new friend Charlie and given his long-standing encouragement, I've appointed Charlie president.
Laugh if you will but it's true. Some years back and long before we'd met, Charlie read and liked Kitchen Parade when it was published in the local newspaper. He's a volunteer poll worker too so one election, Charlie watched for me and put out his hand to introduce himself. Fast forward to 2011 and Charlie and and his wife Jan's introductions to the Missouri Mycological Society and a smaller culinary group, the Incurable Epicureans.
Both warmly welcome new faces. They're good good people and they don't just like mushrooms, they love good food! Four times a year, they prepare a 'theme meal' for forty or fifty people. On Sunday, we attended our first, a feast of Marcella Hazan recipes. What a meal! There are at least two, maybe three recipes I'll make to post here on A Veggie Venture, simple, fresh and seasonal, you know, the recipes we like best!
Do you know Marcella Hazan? She is the Italian cookbook author who introduced Americans to traditional Italian cooking in the way Julia Child did for French cooking. I first became aware of her not long ago, however, when Jaden from Steamy Kitchen wrote about Meeting Marcella and Victor Hazan. When I wrote to her daughter-in-law Lael Hazan on Facebook over the weekend, telling her about the All-Marcella dinner, she said, "You can friend her on Facebook, she'll friend you back!" Imagine! What a world we live in! [Update: Sadly, Marcella passed away in 2013, I loved this tribute by Mark Bittman.]
For this particular meal, the menu was already set and assigned by the time we were invited so it was important that our recipe fit into the existing menu. The list of requirements was long: a recipe from Marcella Hazan; a vegetarian recipe; no rice or pasta since those were already assigned; no cold salads since they too were covered; no desserts or appetizers which there were plenty of. So I went hunting for something vegetable-y but heartier than a side dish – once I spied the Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi, perfetto, perfect!
The gnocchi take some doing, nothing hard really, just a little time-consuming – though I may be biased since we did FOUR batches, enough for 45, that's a pile of gnocchi. When I started cooking on Sunday morning, I worried for just a second that a test batch might have been smart. But Marcella Hazan's recipe was absolutely perfect, easy to follow, perfectly balanced, just the right amount of instruction.
What are Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi like? Think spinach dumplings, light and airy, substantial but not heavy, slightly cheesy but really all about the spinach. The tomato sauce contrasts beautifully color-wise and taste-wise. I will definitely make these again!
PRONUNCIATION GUIDE How do you pronounce gnocchi? Try [NYOAK-ee]. Or if you're musical like my favorite CountryBoy, try this, Merle Haggard style, "I'm Proud to Be AnGnocchi from Muskogee ...".
MANY THANKS to my friend Karen from FamilyStyle Food for lending me her beautiful chafing dish and copies of Marcella Cucina and The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan. I liked these two cookbooks so much, I purchased Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for my own cookbook library!
RECIPE for CREAMY TOMATO SAUCE
Time to table: 4 - 5 hours
Makes about 2-1/2 cups sauce (plain) or 3 cups (creamy), see TIPS
If using the same saucepan for the sauce and cooking the spinach, you'll want to cook the spinach before starting the sauce.
5 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons very finely chopped onion
3 tablespoons very finely chopped carrot
3 tablespoons very finely chopped celery
28 ounces canned whole tomatoes, Italian if available
1/2 cup heavy cream, optional
In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter, then stir in the onion, carrot and celery and stir to coat, then stir in the tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then adjust the heat to maintain a slow-slow simmer and let simmer uncovered for 3 to 4 hours, stirring often with a wooden spoon, breaking up the tomatoes as they become soft. Let cool.
To make the sauce, process in a food processor until smooth. Gently rewarm to sauce, then stir in the cream. Do not allow to boil or the sauce will 'break'.
ALANNA's TIPS & KITCHEN NOTES
HOW MUCH TO MAKE? This makes a LOT of sauce, more than you'll probably want/need for a single batch of the gnocchi.
THAT SAID For an ultra smooth sauce, press the cooled mixture through a chinois or a food mill. This is what I did and it yielded 1-3/4 cups silky sauce (without cream, see TIPS) plus about 1/2 cup of buttery-tasting solids which I saved for tomato soup. This strikes me as about the right amount for a single batch of gnocchi.
PLAIN OR CREAMY? I loved the plain sauce so much, I left half plain and added 1/4 cup cream to the other half. This would make for an especially dramatic presentation for a small group.
MAKE-AHEAD TIP To make ahead of time, make the tomato sauce but don't add the cream, then cover and refrigerate. When ready to serve, gently rewarm the sauce, add the cream and heat through but do not allow to boil.
RECIPE for SPINACH RICOTTA GNOCCHI
Time to table: About 4 hours
For cooking the spinach, boiling salted water
10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, preferably thawed overnight in the refrigerator (see TIPS)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup very finely chopped onion
2 large egg yolks
3/4 cup ricotta (part-skim worked fine)
2/3 cup flour, fluffed to aerate before measuring
2 ounces (55g) fresh Parmesan, grated (about 1 cup coarsely grated)
Freshly grated nutmeg, about 1/8 teaspoon (see TIPS)
Salt to taste
For cooking gnocchi, large pot of boiling salted water
Bring the water to a boil. Add the spinach, let the water return to a boil and then cook for five minutes or until the raw taste of the spinach is gone. Let drain in a colander. Press the spinach with the back of a spoon, removing all the excess liquid.
In a large skillet, melt the butter, then add the onion and cook gently until the onion is cooked but not brown. Add the spinach and stir to coat with fat. Let the spinach cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is hot throughout and all the liquid is gone. Let cool.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks, then whisk in the ricotta, flour, Parmesan, nutmeg and salt. Stir in the cooled spinach. Cover and refrigerate for a couple of hours to firm up slightly.
To cook the gnocchi, bring the water to a boil. With your hands, form balls about the size of a golf ball, compressing slightly. Make enough to fill the pot without crowding, our four-quart Dutch oven held about 10 at a time. Drop in all ten (or so) balls at once, they'll drop to the bottom and then, after two or three minutes, float to the top. Transfer to a dish to keep warm, continue until all the gnocchi are cooked.
Plain or Creamy Tomato Sauce, warmed
Cooked gnocchi, warmed
Additional grated Parmesan, optional
To serve, pool some warm Creamy Tomato Sauce on a plate, arrange several gnocchi on the plate, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese if desired.
ALANNA's TIPS & KITCHEN NOTES
FROZEN SPINACH BRANDS I'm having great luck with the frozen spinach from Trader Joe's, few stems, very fresh tasting. I've had trouble with the house brand from Schnucks here in St. Louis, even the Birds Eye brand. I've learned that it's best to let frozen spinach thaw in a dish in the refrigerator overnight rather than to defrost in the microwave where it starts to cook and can get tough.
You might want to experiment cooking a single gnocchi to get the hang of it, to watch how the gnocchi is heavy and then lightens in the water until it then actually floats to the top.
The nutmeg was a little subtle for my taste. Next time I think I'll try lemon zest.
COOKING FOR A CROWD
For our Marcella Hazan Dinner for 45 people, we made four batches of the Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi (the perfect amount for a side dish in a full meal) and three of the Creamy Tomato Sauce (next time, I'd do just one).
Cooking this much takes awhile, even with two people cooking, especially cooking the gnocchi themselves. It took some strategizing, too. For example, I was able to cook 40 ounces of spinach in a four-quart Dutch oven, then used the same pot to make the sauce, then later to cook the gnocchi.
To break up the cooking, make the sauce and assemble the gnocchi mixture one day, cook the gnocchi another.
When mixing the gnocchi mixture, be sure to mix in each ingredient well before adding the next. It's hard to evenly distribute all the ingredients when there's so much volume.
Because our gnocchi were being (1) cooked at home, layered in a chafing dish, left at room temperature, warmed in a low oven and then (2) transported, kept warm in a chafing dish with bunsen burners for a good 90 minutes, we chose to cook the gnocchi in the boiling water first, then to drop into a hot buttered skillet to firm up a bit. This was a good idea, I think, because the gnocchi didn't squoosh together into a big blob but the extra step did add to the calories. A few got slightly brown and developed a thin crust, this actually added to the texture, a good thing.
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MORE FAVORITE SPINACH RECIPES – CONSIDERABLY SIMPLER!~ Vegetables 101: What Are Bitter Greens? ~
~ Spinach Burgers ~
~ Baked Eggs in Cream with Spinach ~
~ Weight Watchers Spinach Dip ~
~ more spinach recipes ~
from A Veggie Venture
~ Shrimp with Tomatoes, Spinach & Feta ~
~ Spinach Soup with Perfect Hard-Cooked Eggs ~
~ Bacon & Egg Breakfast Bake ~
~ more spinach recipes ~
from Kitchen Parade, my food column