Pasta, Pork Products, Potatoes

Winner winner gnocchi dinner.

About a year ago, I answered a question about successful gnocchi-making, noting that both egg and flour can make gnocchi heavy or tough, and that “once you become adept, you may be able to incorporate the flour and potato without using any egg at all.” Well, now’s the time.

Here’s why. Kneading wheat flour with liquid develops gluten, a protein that, once developed, lends structure and elasticity. Gluten denatures and firms when exposed to heat. Egg proteins – particularly the ovoalbumin in the white – denature and form an increasingly hard gel when exposed to heat. Together, flour and egg transform fluffy, starchy potato into poachable dumplings. Without anything to hold together the potato, it will simply disintegrate and dissolve into the cooking liquid. With too much, however, the dumplings become tough and/or heavy.

One way to minimize the potential for toughness is to eliminate the egg entirely. You don’t need it; the egg really just enriches the gnocchi. Using egg, however, means you must use more flour to soak up the egg’s moisture. The more flour you add, and the longer you knead the dough, the stiffer and more leaden the gnocchi will be. So dispense with the egg, and use just enough flour to lend structure to the potato. Work the flour-potato mixture long enough to develop the gluten so the gnocchi don’t completely collapse on cooking. Rest the dough before forming, to allow the gluten to relax for more tender dumplings.

A lot of people think the eggless gnocchi are more difficult to make than the egg-enriched variety. I disagree. Once you get the hang of these, they’re easier and far faster to make than any gnocchi involving egg, and the texture is so much better. Counting the time to bake the potatoes, you can get these out in an hour; make extra and freeze them if you like. You may incorporate small quantities of light, dry flavorings like minced herbs or Parmigiano-Reggiano at the same time as the flour.

Potato gnocchi

Preheat the oven to 400F/204C and, using a fork, poke several holes in the potato skin. Place the potatoes in kosher salt in a baking dish and place in the hot oven; alternatively, simply bake directly on the oven rack. The salt is not essential. Bake until thoroughly tender.

As soon as possible, halve the potatoes, scoop out the innards, and rice directly onto a wooden board. Spread out on the board by fluffing with a fork to release steam. Set salted water to boil.

Riced potato, spread out to dry.

Season the surface of the riced potato lightly with salt and then add just enough flour to coat the surface of the potato at first; knead together until the mixture forms a sticky dough. If it’s too sticky (sticking mostly to your hands), add more flour. I use my fingertips to grab just a couple of tbsp at a time, to avoid over-flouring.

Sprinkled with flour (and salt).

When you reach this point – the dough holds together but is not stiff, and is a little sticky but not gluey – cover with a clean kitchen towel and rest for about 30 minutes to give the gluten time to relax. Then portion with a bench scraper and roll quickly and lightly with your hands on a flour-dusted board into a rope about 3/4″ in diameter. Don’t press too hard as you roll; just press hard enough to roll to 3/4″. The surface shouldn’t be sticky; it should feel smooth. Using the bench scraper, cut into 3/4″ pieces. Roll each piece out onto a gnocchi board or the tines of a fork if you like.

Cook the gnocchi immediately in just-boiling salted water until they float. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in heated bowls.

Rolled and grooved.

Sauce as you like. These are served with braised ibérico de bellota pork cheeks and peas, in a sauce of the reduced braising liquid, with thyme and chive. You can finish with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I did not.

I used the ibérico de bellota product I wrote about here – you can order it from Ibérico USA. I highly recommend it – the cheek meat is sweet and rich.

Pork cheeks, peas, gnocchi.

2 lb/1kg pork cheeks, cleaned of silverskin if necessary
one large onion, peeled and diced
two carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
two stalks celery, coarsely chopped
2 c/450 ml light red wine (I used a pinot noir; brouilly or something similar would be great as well)
6 c/1.4 l quart veal stock (substitute white beef stock or chicken stock)
bouquet garni
1c shelled English peas
several branches thyme, leaves only
chive, minced

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Add the vegetables and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the wine and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Stir in the mustard and horseradish; place the pork cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a covered container and chill until ready to use. Strain the braising liquid through chinois. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan, torn to coarse chunks with a fork. Add the peas. Heat through until the peas are cooked.

Sauce the gnocchi with the cheek and pea, and the reduced braising liquid. Garnish with chives and thyme, and black pepper.

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Winter.

Someone recently complained to me that nothing I write about is suitable for the home cook. “Seriously, is this how you cook at home?” she asked.

Well, yes. I mean, not to get all “A is A” about it, but I cook what I cook. I don’t write about every single meal, though, and there’s only so much one can say about making a quick tomato sauce from canned San Marzanos or frying an egg.

Anyway. It’s winter here in Baltimore – technically, anyway, since the temperature suggests something closer to March or perhaps April. I happen to love winter, perhaps because I grew up in Milwaukee, where winter meant sailing down the hill on a Flexible Flyer, sword fights with broken-off icicles, and making snow cones with maple syrup and snow from the back yard right after a storm (unsanitary, I know). Winter-haters cite endless reasons for their loathing, most of which revolve around physical discomfort, although some try to conceal this wimpishness with a concern for the practical. “There’s no produce in winter,” for example. “How can you be a good locavore on the east coast when there’s nothing to eat but potatoes and winter squash?”

Not true. While winter lacks the obvious bounty of summer, plenty of fruits and vegetables are available. Tubers and roots of all sorts – not just potatoes, but carrots, parsnips, beets, and jicama as well. Cabbages, kale, and brussels sprouts are at their best in late fall and winter, as the frost makes them sweeter. Apples and pears, harvested in autumn, can be stored through to spring.

And citrus fruits are winter crops, bringing a taste of the tropics northward. Recall the plot of Trading Places, wherein the evil brothers Duke attempt to corner the market for frozen concentrated orange juice (FCOJ to those of you who play the commodities market), hoping to turn an immense profit on inside information and become even richer than they already are. Randolph and Mortimer have hired the equally dastardly Clarence Beeks (played by the delightful Paul Gleason, whom you also may remember from such films as The Breakfast Club) to steal the confidential Department of Agriculture orange crop forecast. Beeks, however, is taken hostage by the Duke’s nephew Lewis Winthorpe and his partner William Valentine as payback for their casual attempt to ruin Winthorpe’s life, and Valentine, posing as Beeks, conveys to the Dukes a false crop report forecasting a severe orange crop shortage. Based on this information, the Duke commit their entire forture to purchasing FCOJ futures, driving up the price in anticipation of a huge payout upon the afternoon’s announcement of the orange crop report. Unknown to them, however, Winthorpe and Valentine also are present on the trading floor that day, and have sold FCOJ futures at the inflated price, setting up a substantial margin. When the real crop report comes out – and reports a normal orange crop, unafffected by the cold winter weather – they buy back the FCOJ futures at a low, low price, ruining the Dukes. When did this take place? In winter.

Here are a few dishes that will make you forget all about winter, even though they feature winter produce. They also feature easy to find ingredients (mostly) and techniques, so you should have no problem at all making them at home.

Carrot, apple, and jicama salad

This salad, with its Vietnamese flavors, obviously goes with Vietnamese dishes, but also livens up simple grilled proteins like chicken breast, white fish, or tofu. So don’t feel as though you need to make a Vietnamese feast to be able to enjoy this vegetable dish. It comes together in about five minutes if you have a food processor or mandoline, and it keeps well in the refrigerator for several days.

If you have access to other suitable fruits and vegetables, like green papaya, green mango, or regular ripe mango, feel free to mix those in. Chiles as well – a mixture of sour, sweet, hot, and bland-but-crisp is really good. Taste the dressing before combining with the julienned vegetables to make sure the sour, salt, and sweet are well-balanced; adjust by adding more lime juice, fish sauce, or palm sugar as necessary. Hold back a little dressing at first and add more if necessary to be sure your salad isn’t overdressed.

1 large granny smith apple
2 carrots, peeled
½ jicama, peeled
1 serrano chile
3 tbsp each lime juice and fish sauce, plus a little more
1 tbsp palm sugar (or dark brown sugar), plus a little more
roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped (optional)
Couple grinds black pepper

Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar until dissolved. Allow to sit for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, julienne the vegetables on a mandoline or in a food processor, or grate on the coarse side of a box grater, and slice the chile paper thin.

Toss the vegetables/fruit with the dressing and black pepper. Garnish with chopped roasted peanuts if you like (not strictly necessary). Great with the grilled quail or bo la lot (below), or simply grilled chicken or fish with a squeeze of lime.

Palm sugar.

Carrot, apple, jicama.

Grilled or roast quail

Don’t be intimidated by quail. They’re just small birds. The only tricky aspect of working with quail is removing some of the bones (to make them easier to eat), and avoiding overcooking. Debone in the same manner as chicken, using only the tip of your knife, or to make matters simpler, try to find pre-boned quail.

If you don’t want to deal with quail, you can use this marinade on chicken thighs or duck breast, and it’s just as good.

1/4 c fish sauce
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed but left whole
about 1 tsp ground black pepper

8 boned quail, or 4 chicken thighs, or 2 duck breasts

In a nonreactive container, combine the ingredients well and let sit for about 15 minutes at room temperature. Add the boned quail, chicken thighs, or duck breasts. Marinate for between 30 minutes and overnight.

Oven 325F/162C or set charcoals to light in a grill, piled on one side.

Shake excess marinade off the birds and drizzle with a little oil. If using the grill, mark the birds over direct heat (directly over the coals); then move over to indirect heat to finish cooking until the quaiil breast is medium rare and the legs are cooked through (breast should be not more than 140F/60C and the legs aabout 158F/70C). You can accomplish this by keeping the quail breast side up. Duck should be cooked to medium rare and chicken thighs to 165F/73C.

If using the oven, place a skillet over medium high heat and, when hot add a little oil. Add the birds, breast side down (or skin side down i the case of chicken or duck), and cook about 2 minutes per breast until golden, longer for chicken or duck. Turn breast side up and transfer to the oven to complete cooking as above.

Quail, bo la lot, pork and lemongrass sausage.

Bo la lot

These slightly salty packets are worth the effort of locating grape leaves and lemongrass. And truthfully, unless you live in a rural area, it shouldn’t be hard to find either these days. Grape leaves are packed in brine, usually in glass jars. Remove them from the brine, drain, and soak in water before draining again. If you have access to fresh grape leaves (and it’s not winter, or you live in the Southern Hemisphere), go for it; just make sure they’re really clean.

You can grill these or pan-fry; grilling is especially nice since you get a little bit of smoke on the grape leaves as well. Be sure to soak your wooden skewers if you decide to grill or they’ll char and fall apart.

One last thing: “la lot” technically aren’t grape leaves; they’re wild betel leaves. You won’t find those unless you have access to a Vietnamese market, and even then, you might not. But if you can find them, use them. You also can try using shiso leaves, which often are available in Asian supermarkets.

3 dozen grape leaves in brine, or fresh leaves if available (substitute la lot or shiso leaves if available)
1 lb/454g beef: chuck, sirloin, flap meat, or similar cuts, diced 1″
2 stalks lemongrass, tender bulb only, minced
1 really large or two medium shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tsp palm sugar
several generous grinds black pepper

Combine all the ingredients except the leaves and fish sauce. Pass through a meat grinder. Season evenly with the fish sauce and combine well to distribute.

Place a cylinder of beef mixture across the center of each leaf and roll up. You can roll without sealing the ends, leaving them open, or you can seal the ends and roll (much like dolmathes). Sealing them keeps the juices in, I find, but both are good.

If grilling, set charcoals to light in a grill, evenly distributed. Thread the filled leaves on soaked bamboo skewers, about 3-4 to a skewer, and grill for about 3 minutes per side, depending on size, until cooked through. Alternatively, set a large skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add a small amount of oil to the pan. Add the filled leaves and cook for about 2 minutes on each side (more or less depending on size) until cooked through.

Grapefruit or pomelo salad

This is a huge, fresh hit of citrus in the middle of winter. It’s especially good as an accompaniment to something heavy, like pork. Pomelo can be hard to find outside Latin or Asian markets (although WholeFoods often carries it in winter). Don’t be deceived by the size of the fruit; the actual edible portion is quite small. The rind is over an inch thick, and almost like foam rubber (although a really pretty, pale pink foam rubber). If you can’t find it, substitute grapefruit but drain off as much of the juice as you can before serving.

I usually serve this salad with butter-type lettuce (such as bibb or boston lettuce), but I couldn’t get my hands on any when I took this photo, so I used romaine. Just make sure to use a large, crisp-tender leaf.

Pomelo.

1 pomelo or grapefruit, suprêmed (sectioned)
3 tbsp each lime juice and fish sauce, plus a little more
1 tbsp palm sugar (or dark brown sugar), plus a little more
small head butter lettuce, separated into leaves, washed and dried
2-3 tbsp roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
small handful mint and Thai basil leaves, chiffonade
2-3 tbsp fried shallots (available in plastic jars in Asian stores)
2 tbsp dessicated unsweetened coconut (optional)

Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar until dissolved. Allow to sit for at least 30 minutes. If using, toast the coconut in an even layer in a dry skillet, or in a 350F/176C oven, until golden.

Arrange the lettuce leaves on a plate, and the pomelo suprêmes over the lettuce leaves. Drizzle the dressing over all and sprinkle with the chopped peanuts, the chiffonade herbs, and the fried shallots (and coconut if using).

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