Gnocchi is one of the staple dishes of Italian cuisine, but the version most of us are familiar with is not the original preparation. Today these small dumplings are often made of potato, a vegetable that is not even native to Italy. In fact, quite a few mainstays of that country's famous repertoire were imported from the New World in the late 15th century. These ingredients include the corn that is ground for polenta and the tomatoes that are simmered for marinara and Bolognese sauce, as well as potatoes.
Originally, gnocchi was made from semolina, a soft yellow flour of durum wheat. This dish, which is known as Gnocchi alla Romana, is quite delicious. I learned to make it as a young chef in France, and in truth, it is far easier and less error-prone than its potato-based variation. You begin by creating a custardy dough of semolina flour, milk, egg, Parmesan, and butter, among other ingredients. The mixture is spread on a cookie sheet and chilled, and then the dumplings are cut using a round cookie cutter. The gnocchi are sprinkled with cheese and set under a broiler. Parmesan works well, but I also like the addition of taleggio, a semisoft Italian cheese with a mild flavor and a fruity tang.
To celebrate the transition of the seasons, I've paired the dish with a satisfying sauce of cream, leek, fresh herbs, asparagus, and shelled English peas. It is comfort food hearty enough for late winter, but with a definite nod to spring.
GNOCCHI ALLA ROMANA
1 ½ cups whole milk
1½ cups water
1 cup semolina flour, ¼ cup for dusting
5 T butter
1 egg, whisked
1 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 leek, white part only, thinly sliced
1 bunch green asparagus, ends trimmed and discarded, stalks cut into 1-inch pieces
⅓ cup fresh shelled English peas
½ cup cream
Zest of 1 lemon
4 oz. taleggio cheese (optional)
Freshly ground white pepper
1 T each of fresh parsley, tarragon, and chervil, chopped
2 chive stems, cut into ½-inch pieces
In a medium nonstick sauce pot, combine the milk, water, and 1½ teaspoons salt and bring to a simmer. Whisking, stream in the 1 cup semolina flour slowly, so that it doesn't clump. Whisk vigorously for about 20 seconds to incorporate the semolina, then switch to a rubber spatula. The mixture will quickly start to thicken. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently with the spatula. When the mixture is very thick and barely sticks to the spatula, remove the pot from the heat and add 4 tablespoons of the butter, the egg, and ½ cup Parmesan cheese, stirring until combined. Transfer the dough to a nonstick cookie sheet and spread to form a rectangle approximately ½ to 1 inch thick. Cool in the refrigerator for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium pot set over medium heat, melt the remaining butter and add the leek. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add a splash of water to keep the leek from caramelizing, if necessary. Add the asparagus and peas and continue cooking for another 4 minutes, covered, seasoning with salt to taste. Add the cream, 3 tablespoons of water, ¼ cup Parmesan, and lemon zest. Stir and cook until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Keep warm.
Transfer the cooled dough to a clean work surface dusted with the ¼ cup semolina. Using a round cookie cutter about 2 inches in diameter, cut the gnocchi into disks. Arrange them back on the cookie sheet, layering slightly to form 4 rosettes. Sprinkle the rosettes generously with the remaining ¼ cup Parmesan and the taleggio, if desired. Set the tray on the bottom rack of the oven and broil until the tops are golden brown, about 5 minutes. Keep warm.
To serve, spread the vegetable cream sauce among four plates. Transfer a gnocchi rosette to each plate and garnish with white pepper and herbs.
WHAT TO DRINK
"The asparagus in this dish calls for an earthy wine with a touch of green," says Raj Vaidya, sommelier at Daniel restaurant. Vaidya recommends Bailly-Reverdy's Chavignol Sancerre 2014 ($18) from France's Loire Valley. "It is a lovely, minerally wine with great acidity and balance, and just the right herbaceous notes." For an American alternative, Vaidya suggests Lieu Dit's 2014 Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Ynez Valley, California ($22), left. "This is a richer and more fleshy choice that complements the spring-like flavors of the peas, tarragon, and parsley."