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sweet TnT post: pumpkin gnocchi with mushroom ragu

The divide between the pumpkin lovers and the pumpkin haters is REAL.

For most people, there are two types of individuals: the ones who LOVE pumpkin, and the ones that can’t stand it. Both groups are very vocal; with the loudest group, in my opinion, the “all pumpkin everything” down to their double shot non whip grande pumpkin spice latte with extra spice. Perhaps I’m being a bit on the facetious side…but like it or not, pumpkin season is here, and it is this season that has inspired this play on a classic Italian dish.

Depending on which Italian you ask, gnocchi may originate in the Piemonte or Toscana provinces of Italy. Traditionally potato or ricotta based, gnocchi is a pillow shaped dumpling, best served with a light tomato sauce or some other form of ragu (Italian for ‘sauce), that pairs well with the item. Gnocchi, particularly different styles of it made with sweet potato and the like, have become increasingly popular in most metropolitan areas. Me, personally, I like the idea of merging savory with more sweet items, which is where this pumpkin gnocchi comes from. I’ve paired it with a wild mushroom and leek ragu, which adds another layer of intense flavor, but you could just as easily brown some butter, toss in some sage or thyme, and cover it with mounds of parmigiano reggiano (because why not?). Without the cheese, this dish is a great, hearty vegan option, but rest assured…I haven’t met a meat eater that didn’t enjoy it.

The details on this recipe are a bit long simply because I want to make sure that everything is super clear – both recipes are super easy BUT they do require some patience, so stay with me!

Pumpkin Gnocchi with Wild Mushroom Ragu

1 to ½ pounds pumpkin (sugar pie is the best type)

12 ounces ricotta cheese

1 to 1 ½ cups flour

1 egg

1 ½ teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon cinnamon

2 Tablespoons olive oil

So. First things first. Pumpkin, as far as the squash family goes, naturally has a lot of water in it. There is also a lot of liquid in your ricotta cheese, primarily from your whey. Therefore, while you are preheating your oven to 375 degrees, you should grab a sieve or fine holed strainer (or cheesecloth, cheesecloth is ideal) and begin to strain your ricotta cheese to release some of that liquid. I have a fine holed strainer. This is what you should start to see. It should drain, ideally, for at least 2 hours, but for no less than one. After you set up your cheese, cut your pumpkin up and remove the seeds. (Save them and make pepitas. They’re yum snacks. I’ll show you how another day, perhaps.) Drizzle olive oil and ½ teaspoon of salt on the cleaned out pumpkin and roast in your 375 degree oven for 40-50 minutes, or until you can stick a fork straight through the flesh of the pumpkin. When done, put in the fridge to cool off while you set up your mushrooms for your ragu.

1 ½ pounds wild mushrooms (shiitake, maitake, Portobello, or any combination of mushrooms works)

1 medium sized leek

1 Tablespoon thyme

½ Tablespoon rosemary

3 Tablespoons olive oil

3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

½ cup sherry

1 ½ cups mushroom or vegetable stock

The beautiful thing about mushrooms is that they embody soooo much intense flavor that they add layers to every dish that they are in when cooked properly. For this ragu, start by cutting the root of your leek off and slicing it down the middle, then slicing them fairly thinly, up to right before the very top. As long as your leek is fresh and the green part not too tough, feel free to use most of it. Place them in a bowl of water – leeks often have dirt in them and you want that out before cooking them. For prepping your mushrooms: slice them fairly thin (about a millimeter thick, maybe a bit less) and have them ready to go, especially because you’re about to start cooking with them the INSTANT your pan is hot enough.

Now. You’re getting your sauté pan (I used my Le Creuset cast iron sauté pan) super duper piping hot. Hot enough that water instantly evaporates and oil starts smoking the minute it hits the pan. If you have a vent or a hood in your kitchen, now’s a good time to turn it on, or to crack a window. Add some of your olive oil (it will smoke, do not be alarmed) and right afterwards add your mushrooms in increments. You want your mushrooms to begin to brown. As they do, remove them and hold them in a separate bowl. Be sure to season them as you go. You want them to be browned but you don’t want them burned. Also, keep in mind that they’re going to release water because mushrooms are naturally full of them. The more you try to add to the pan at once, the lower the temp of your pan will go and the less brown they will get. Continue this until they are all cooked and set them aside.

To the same pan, add your remaining oil and add your leeks (without the water, of course). Season with salt and pepper. You’ll want them to start to release their sugars first and get nice and caramelly (yes that’s a word) before you add your mushrooms back in, so let them cook on medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes. Once they have become looser and started to caramelize, add back your mushrooms (save any water they might’ve produced). Stir to combine and get ready to add your sherry.

When you’re about to add your sherry, please keep in mind that it is alcohol and it will flare up and as cool as that looks in cooking demonstrations, it’s not as cool when it happens and you think your kitchen is going to burn down! Please leave the pyrotechnics to the TV professionals and pull your pan off the flame before you add your sherry. Once you’ve added your sherry and returned it to the flame, stir to get any of the flavor bits off the bottom of the pan. You want the sherry to reduce by at least half. Feel free to add additional salt and pepper at this point if you feel it needs it. When the sherry has reduced almost completely, add your stock and turn your flame to medium low. At this point, add your thyme and your rosemary and let cook for about 15 minutes, or until the majority of your liquid is gone. Set aside and let’s go back to your gnocchi!

At this point, your pumpkin should be cool and your ricotta drained. Smash your pumpkin with a potato masher and make sure it is as smooth as you can get it. (You can also pulse it in a blender, but keep in mind that for my purposes, you want some texture. Too smooth and it will create more liquid. In a mixing bowl, fold in your spices and your ricotta cheese. Make sure that there is some flour on your counter because once you start creating your dough; you are going to want to have someplace to roll it out quickly. Also, get a pot of 4 to 6 quarts of water started so that it is boiling when you are ready to cook your gnocchi.

Now. It gets a touch tricky here. If your mix was too wet before, you will have an urge to add more flour to your dough, so it is imperative that your pumpkin and ricotta mix be super dry before you add your flour. The dough will be slightly sticky, so get ready to work quickly. (I promise it’s worth it.) Add your flour little by little and fold to create a dough. Once the dough is formed, get it onto your counter space. Dust it a little with flour and portion it to make it easier to handle. I did four portions. Take each portion and roll it out to about an inch and a quarter thickness, then cut into your little pillow portions. Each portion should get you about 20 pieces. The dough can be frozen for a couple of weeks if you don’t want to use it all at once – just make sure that you wrap it properly. You can leave your gnocchi the way it is or you can roll it over the top of a fork to give it an indentation.

When your water comes to a boil, salt it and turn it down a touch. I tend to keep an ice bath next to my stove to drop the cooked gnocchi in to stop the cooking, since you’re going to likely cook it again when you add your mushroom ragu. Drop your finished gnocchi into the now simmering water and pay attention to it because it will cook quickly. As soon as they rise to the top, they are done, and that only takes about three minutes, so now is not the time to walk away from your pot! Cool them in your ice bath for about five minutes and then drain.

In a saute pan, add olive oil (or butter) and add your mushroom ragu to reheat. Add a splash of that reserved mushroom water for extra flavor, then add gnocchi and turn to coat. Once all of it is hot, pull from the flame, throw it in a bowl, and cover it with as much parmigiano reggiano as your bowl can hold. (Or don’t. Totally your choice, this is a judgment free zone round these parts.)