Ricotta gnocchi with corn and chanterelles.

This is not the time, amid all this heat, humidity, and rain, to ask you to stand in your kitchen with the stove-top going—two burners—and roll gnocchi.  And it isn’t the time, quite frankly, to ask you to eat gnocchi, ricotta gnocchi, covered in brown butter; heavy with cheese and fat.

But it is the season for corn. And chanterelles are popping up here in New Jersey. And there’s lots of fresh summer herbs.  This gnocchi is perfect, really, for after one of those summer days of swimming and exercise; those days when you get home in good spirits with some adrenaline left and you can get to work rolling gnocchi. Then by the time dinner hits the table, you’ll be ravenous.

I think I just planned your Saturday.

You won’t be disappointed.  Homemade gnocchi is just better than anything you can get frozen or—gasp!—from a box.  (Though, to be honest, I’ve heard that Trader Joe’s frozen gnocchi is pretty good…)  It takes a little getting used to; you need to use the right amount of pressure while you roll each piece against the tines of a fork in order to make those pretty little grooves, and while that right amount of pressure can’t be taught by a recipe, it’s easily learned after you experience squashing your first few.

It’s a bit more labor intensive than rolling out pasta, but I think I mentioned, cheese is involved in this dough, so a little more labor is worth it.  And gnocchi is the perfect pasta fix for those without a pasta machine.

This gnocchi recipe is Suzanne Goin’s from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, a gorgeous cookbook, organized by season. I want to make every single one of her recipes, but this was the perfect way to jump into the book.  The gnocchi cook up luscious and tender, only to be made more so by the brown butter used to cook each component of the recipe.  First the chanterelles are fried in the butter with thyme until they are crisp and ruthlessly seductive.  You really must work not to eat them all before the dish is done.  Then sage is added to the butter, and the house all of a sudden smells better than ever.  Corn gets tossed in with some shallots; the hot butter shines over each kernel of corn before slipping around to hug the gnocchi, which is added to the pan last.  Let everything saute for a moment and then serve with lots of fresh parsley, some chives, a grating of parmigianno, and some crispy toasted breadcrumbs.

We ate this alongside spare ribs from the local farm, from pigs we met last winter, using James Beard’s recipe for baking spare ribs.  His technique let the natural pork flavor sing and we couldn’t decide which we liked better, the ribs or the gnocchi, until we decided that it was useless, they were both so good, working so well together, that picking sides would be like choosing between chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes.  But everything about the gnocchi, we did agree, even with all it’s lusciousness and butter, epitomized summer.  It’s irrestible.  Happy-making.

Now get rolling.

Ricotta Gnocchi with Chanterelles, Sweet Corn, and Sage Brown Butter

adapted (ever so slightly) from Sunday Supper at Lucques

The only adaption I made was to add less salt than the original recipe.  During the last step, Goin advised us to add another 1 teaspoon salt, but I found I didn’t need that.  I recommend tasting before adding.

1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 pound chanterelles, cleaned
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon sliced sage leaves
3 cups fresh corn kernels (from about 4 ears)
2/3 cup diced shallots
1 recipe ricotta gnocchi (follows)
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375F.

Toss breadcrumbs with 2 tablespoons olive oil.  Spread them on a baking sheet, and toast 8 to 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until golden brown.

If the mushrooms are big, tear them into bite-size pieces.

Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes.  Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and heat another minute.  Swirl in 1 tablespoon butter, and when it foams, add the mushrooms, half the thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a health pinch of pepper.  Saute the mushrooms about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they’re tender and a little crispy.  Don’t be tempted to move them around in the pan too much in the beginning: let them sear a little before stirring.  Transfer the cooked mushrooms to a platter.

Return the pan to the stove, and heat on high for 1 minute.  Add the remaining 6 tablespoons butter to the pan, and cook a minute or two, until the butter starts to brown.  Add the sage, let it sizzle, and then add the corn, shallots, remaining thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and some freshly ground pepper.  Saute quickly, tossing the corn in the hot butter for about 2 minutes, until the corn is just tender.  Add the gnocchi and toss well to coat with the corn and brown butter.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, add the mushrooms.  Toss to combine, and heat the mushrooms through.  Add the parsley.  Arrange the gnocchi on a large platter, and shower with the breadcrumbs.  Grate over some parmesan cheese if you like.

Ricotta Gnocchi

2 extra-large eggs (I used eggs from my friend’s chickens, which were smaller than extra-large, but didn’t notice a difference)
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
1 pound whole milk ricotta, drained if wet
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Beat the eggs together in a small bowl.

Place 2 cups flour, 1 3/4 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and the ricotta in a large mixing bowl.  With a dinner knife in each hand, cut the ricotta into the flour.  When the flour and ricotta are combined, make a well in the center and pour in the eggs.  Use a fork and, starting in the middle of the mixture, incorporate the eggs into the flour and ricotta.  Knead the dough with your hands briefly, just to bring together while being careful not to overwork it.  Shape the dough into a ball, and place it on a lightly floured cutting board.  Cut the ball into four pieces, and cover with a clean kitchen towel.

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.

One by one, take each piece of dough out from underneath the towel, cut it in half, and roll it into a 3/4 inch thick rope on a lightly floured cutting board.  The amount of flour on the board is very important:  if you have too much the dough is difficult to roll, and if you don’t use enough, the dough will stick to the board.  Cut the ropes into 1-in-long pices, and sprinkle a little flour over them. Using your thumb, roll each piece of dough over the back of those tines of a fork, leaving an indentation from your thumb on one side and the marking from the fork on the other.

Plunge the gnocchi into the boiling water in batches.  Once they rise to the surface, cook them for 1 minute more.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a baking sheet or platter.  Drizzle the cooked gnocchi with the olive oil, and toss to coat them well.

Mascarpone Chicken

I hope you won’t think me immodest if I say I can roast a serious chicken. Because, ahem, I can.

The art of chicken roasting is a lifelong project and all, so maybe my chickens aren’t the best they can be (yet); and it could be that half of the knock-you-off-your-chairness of my roast chickens owes to their being Podere di Melo chickens, but I nonetheless think my roast chickens are cause for immodesty.  And unchecked gluttony too, since Jim and I are liable to polish off a whole bird whenever we roast one.

Usually, I keep it simple with roast chicken: some lemon, butter, salt and pepper—and into the oven.  I’m always in love with the outcome, and it’s hard to want for anything different.  Except, of course, if there’s cheese involved.

Mascarpone cheese in fact, and how could anyone resist that?  There’s herbs too, and even the tiniest bit of olive oil, and lots of salt and pepper.  And if you follow the recipe, I promise it will be a serious chicken, with skin so crisp it crackles, and cheese hiding underneath it, lush and herb-y.  There’s more cheese than can be stuffed under the chicken, so halfway through the roasting process, you spoon the uncooked cheese all around the chicken.  It makes a creamy, curd-like sauce.  If you’ve ever had milk-braised pork, you know what the sauce will taste like, and it’s okay if you need to leave right now to procure a chicken.

Don’t fret if you’ve never spatchcocked a chicken before (and don’t skip this step, spatchcocking allows for every inch of the skin to crisp up into a delicious golden brown).  All you need is a good pair of kitchen shears (or a good handle on your sharpest knife).  You cut out the backbone, and then place the chicken cavity-side down on the cutting board.  Press down with a heavy hand to break the breast-bone, so that the chicken lies flat.  Ta-da!  You’re done.  It can seem a little brutal the first time, backbone cutting and breast-bone breaking, but let’s not forget that we are eating the chicken already, so we might as well prepare the thing right. I imagine if I were to be roasted and feasted upon, I’d want to look like this:

Roast chickens can be a tough thing for families—one roast chicken never seems to feed enough people—but in this recipe, a little goes a long way.  Jim and I couldn’t finish our pieces, no matter how hard we tried (and normally we put away a whole one).  It was so luscious and filling, one chicken could certainly feed four.  But better yet, you could make it for one, and have a lot of leftovers.

Mascarpone and Herb Stuffed Chicken

serves 4

for the filling

3 garlic cloves, minced
8 oz mascarpone cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
small handful of oregano
small handful of parsley
small(er) handful of thyme

for the chicken

1 chicken, any size, though to feed 4 you’ll need about one of about 4-5 pounds
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Combine garlic, mascarpone, eggs, parmigianno, herbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.
Cut out backbones from chicken with kitchen shears. Pat chicken dry, then spread flat, cavity side down, on a cutting board. With a heavy hand, press down at the middle of the breasts until you hear the breast-bone break. Cut two slits in the chicken skin, in the creases between the thighs and the breasts.

Sprinkle each chicken with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. To loosen the skin, gently slide your finger between skin and flesh of the breast, starting at the top. Slide your finger between the skin and flesh of the legs by going through the slits you made (be careful not to tear skin). Using a small spoon, slide 2/3 cup ricotta mixture under skin, using a finger outside of skin to spread filling over meat of breast, thighs, and drumsticks. Tuck the wing tips under. Drizzle olive oil over the chicken and sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.  Place chicken in a well oiled roasting pan, skin side up.

Reserve remaining filling.

Bake chickens in middle of oven 30 minutes, then spoon remaining filling around chicken. Continue baking until chicken is just cooked through and instant read thermometer reads about 165F, about 20 minutes more. Let chickens stand 10 minutes, then cut each into quarters. Serve with cheese.

Simple tomato salad.

When I first started to throw dinner parties, just a few years ago now, I would work myself into such a tizzy over the damn things, overextending myself, liable to melt into a pool of nervous tears halfway through.  I needed to make enough food to feed an army, in the vain hope that everyone would be so enraptured by my talents that they’d eat until it was all gone.  I chose recipes that were vastly above my skill level, deciding on them before even hitting the market. There’d be hard-to-find ingredients hailing from Asia, or Morocco; cheeses I was supposed to use though I’d never tried them (and had no sense of their potency). And when something would go wrong—I couldn’t find the ingredient or hated the cheese—I would turn into a ball of nerves, believing there was nothing I could do, that I didn’t have any other recipes to turn to.

Thankfully, those times are past.  Lots of dinner parties, and problems, later, I’ve learned that you go to market without a set plan, with your head full of possibilities.  I still follow recipes, but loosely.  I keep a pantry full of basic ingredients—for a basic vinaigrette, a basic sauce—and I revert to the simplest food whenever a problem arises (or even, before.)  After a few years of chefs and cookbooks drilling simplicity into my head, I’ve finally come around.

The lovely thing is, simple food doesn’t have to taste simple.  Duh. But I think that fact eludes most fledgling cooks, entering a world of complicated techniques and endless cuisines.  It eluded me, that’s for sure.  I think I picked complicated recipes because I couldn’t bear the thought of screwing up simple, while making a mistakes in advanced cooking were easily shrugged off.  Simple can be scary.  But simple food is worth learning.

Especially in the summer, when you don’t want to spend too much time cooking (I certainly prefer swimming), and when you can take full advantage of the tomatoes you (or your magical elves) grow in the garden, and when even the measliest herb garden will do its part.  During the dog days of summer, simple isn’t just best, it’s the only option.  This simple tomato salad is a must too, or at least it was for me, because I got to spend a lazy summer day driving around the pretty countryside along the Delaware river, picking up tomatoes down the road, and a fancy goat cheese at the market; to come home and feel very accomplished while I picked French sorrel and herbs from my little potted garden.

I used a variety of tomatoes; some from down the road, some from the little gourmet shop where I got the cheese, and one from a fancy grocery store.  We did a blind tasting before making the salad and it was hard to judge these tomatoes, they were so different — though surprisingly, the fancy grocery store won by a small margin. (They did cost about 4 dollars per small tomato: don’t judge me people, I knew full-well it was ridiculous!).  I also used a variety of herbs: lemon thyme, a few leaves of peppermint, basil, parsley, a load of chives, and some very biting sorrel.  The goat cheese, a pepper crusted capricchio, was a perfect addition; it made the watery juice of the tomatoes taste creamy and it tempered the bite of sorrel.  Pick a goat cheese that  packs a load of creaminess and some sort or herb or spice crust is a nice.  And if you don’t have an herb garden, you can just use whatever herbs are on your shopping list, two of them at minimum, because without the variety of herbs, you risk your good, simple salad turning bored.  We ate this with a chicken slathered with marsacapone that practically knocked me off my chair, which I’ll write about next, promise.  It was one of my favorite meals I’ve made, summery and, duh, simple.

Simple Tomato Salad

serves 2-3

3-4 heirloom or garden tomatoes, tasted for quality
small bunch sorrel leaves (or watercress or arugula)
handful of mixed herbs, such as mint, basil, lemon thyme, and chives
soft goat cheese, preferably with a pepper crust
balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
good quality olive oil, for drizzling
fleur de sel, or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Slice tomatoes into thick slices and season with a bit of salt.  Leave in a colandar to drain for 15 minutes.  Toss them around so any excess water comes off, then arrange them on a platter.  Tuck the sorrel leaves under and around the tomatoes.  Tear or chop up the herbs and scatter over tomatoes.  Crumble the goat cheese over tomatoes.  Drizzle balsamic and olive oil over the tomatoes and season to taste with fleur de sel and fresh black pepper.

4-hour duck with potatoes and sage; the effortless, perfect meal.

I don’t know about you, but some days I need to cook something well.  I need it to come out exactly as planned, without much effort, and I need not to be harried, or hurried, but calm, confident, and cool as a cucumber.  I need duck, that’s thrown in the oven  and four hours later your fiance tells you it’s the best meal he’s ever had–period. Not my best meal, mind you, but the. Screw Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert.  This duck.  Jim’s best meal ever.

The effortless, perfect meal is something that I’m in search of.  I’ve got my broiled fish and green beans, and red-cooked pork belly with rice, and tava, but I’m always on the lookout for more, especially (desperately) now that people actually pay me to cook for them.  It was something I badly needed after a meal I made for clients that didn’t turn out as good as I had wanted.  Cooking in someone else’s home is stressful enough, but the stress increases ten-fold when I come to realize, halfway through the cooking, that it might not come out perfectly.  Even if it makes a nice dinner and my people are happy, I’m not; I hear dissatisfaction in the air, or maybe it’s just in my head, and I badly need to make something effortless and perfect, to build my repertoire and soothe my nerves, asap.

That’s how I felt the other night—plus I needed freshly rendered duck fat.  It’s far and away better than any duck fat you can buy.  And it makes potatoes crispier than any other fat can, and it smells delicious. And it’s not that bad for you, though the amount of potatoes cooked in duck fat that you’ll be eating once you have the stuff, well, that’s another story.

This duck and potatoes dish is as effortless and perfect meal can get.  All you need is a roasting pan with a V-rack and some time to kill.  Put the duck upside-down (breasts down) into the V-rack, and cook at 250F for three hours, while you go about your business.  After three hours, take out the duck, spoon or pour the fat into a mason jar (this is easiest as a two-person job), turn the oven up to 350F, find an oven-proof skillet or pan and add to it a pound or two quartered potatoes and some of that glorious fat, and put both the duck and the potatoes back in the oven for 45 minutes or so.

The result will probably be the best meal you’ve ever had.  Certainly the best duck.  And while I’m sure our duck was the best duck, being from my favorite farm and all, this recipe is fool-proof, I promise.  The flavor of the meat is intensified through the long cooking, a bit gamey, which I consider a good thing.  But the texture is where it’s at: the meat is soft and tender, reminiscent of pate, and the skin is crackly crisp, with a layer of unctuous fat beneath the surface.  When you add crisp potatoes with creamy insides, and maybe a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, there’s hardly words to describe this meal, though sublime comes close.

Four Hour Duck with Potatoes and Sage

serves 2-3

  • 1 whole duck (peking, muscovy, or other)
  • salt, pepper
  • 1-2 pounds red-skinned new potatoes (I use red-skinned because I think they look pretty against the reddish meat of the duck, but whatever’s available)
  • sage, optional

If possible, salt your duck the night before and leave it, uncovered, in the fridge overnight.

Turn on your oven to 250F. In a roasting pan set with a V-rack, set your salted duck in, breasts side down (upside down) and cook in the oven for about 3 hours.  Meanwhile, clean and quarter potatoes.

When the 3 hours are done, take out the duck and turn the oven up to 350F.  Using caution, pour out the duck fat that has drained into the bottom on the roasting pan, reserving in a jar.  Use a spoonful or two to baste the duck, and add a few spoonfuls into a heatproof skillet or smaller roasting pan.  Then add the potatoes to the skillet and mix up so that they get coated in fat.  Put potatoes into the oven and the duck back into the oven and cook for 45 minutes.

After 45 minutes, your duck will be done but your potatoes will still need time to crisp up, so remove the duck to a cutting board and let it rest.  Check on your potatoes every few minutes and let them cook until they are crisp and golden to your liking, about 20 minutes more.  Carve your duck and set the pieces in a serving dish (the duck should be tender enough that you can remove the legs by pulling on them).  Once the potatoes are done, add them over the duck pieces to warm everything up.  Fry a few sage leaves in the oil remaining in the bottom of the potato skillet, optional.  Serve.