First, a disclaimer: I’m not in the habit of eating morels. I usually treat myself to a small handful only once a year, if that. An usher of spring, they are very expensive in the store and hard to come by in the wild. So, if morels are out of your price range, by all means just substitute another flavorful wild mushroom – shitakes or maitakes are both delicious alternatives. That said, I’ll move on to today’s recipe: ricotta gnocchi – light, pillow-y, toothsome dumplings – bathed in rich mushroom stock and topped with spring vegetables. Ever since my first go at ricotta gnocchi, I find myself craving them every spring. I also notice ricotta gnocchi popping up on restaurant menus across the city come spring time; something about the mellow sweetness of the ricotta and the tenderness of the gnocchi makes them a perfect match for spring’s bounty. Over the years, I’ve experimented with a few different recipes, but after eating ricotta gnocchi at A16 in San Francisco last year, and buying their cookbook pretty much just for that recipe, I’ve found a sure favorite. The sauce here is my own creation – lightly buttered baby turnips (also called haruki turnips), fresh peas, and those morels with some rich homemade mushroom stock, fresh bread crumbs, and parmesan. Nothing about this dish is overly complicated – even the gnocchi are a breeze to make compared with most fresh pasta – but taken together, you will need a few hours to make the stock, prep the veggies, and make the gnocchi. What better way to spend a weekend afternoon? Serves 4 as a main course and 6-8 as an appetizer.
For the Ricotta Gnocchi
2 cusp fresh ricotta
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
1 egg yolk
½ to 1 cup all purpose flour plus more for dusting
½ cup semolina flour
Combine the ricotta and the olive oil in a medium mixing bowl. Add a generous pinch of salt and taste for seasoning – you want the ricotta to taste salty as it will mellow with the addition of the eggs and flour. Mix in the egg and the egg yolk.
Spread ½ a cup of flour on a clean work surface and dump the ricotta mixture on top of the flour. Fold the ricotta mixture into the flour using a spatula or bench scraper. Depending on the moisture content of your ricotta and the size of your eggs, you may need a bit more flour. You want to achieve a soft dough, but one that has enough structure to be rolled. It should be tacky, but not stick to your fingers. Add more flour ¼ cup at a time, folding it gently into the dough, until you achieve this texture (I used about ¾ of a cup of flour.)
Brush down your work surface and sprinkle it with a little semolina flour. Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a long slender log about ½ an inch in diameter and 18 inches long. Line up the 6 logs and sprinkle with more semolina flour and then gently cut them into 1 inch strips using a bench scraper or a chef’s knife.
Sprinkle a sheet pan with flour and carefully lay the gnocchi on the pan in a single layer. You may want to sprinkle the gnocchi with a little more semolina flour to prevent sticking. Cover with a clean dish towel and refrigerate until ready to use. Alternatively, you can freeze the gnocchi on the sheet pan until solid and then transfer them to a ziplock bag. They keep well frozen up to 1 month.
For the Rich Mushroom Stock
1 lb crimini or button mushrooms, washed and roughly chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped skin on*
1 large onion, roughly chopped skin on*
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp plus ½ tsp sea salt
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 qt water
2 tbsp sherry
*A trick I learned from my friend Becca who makes the best vegetable stocks, leaving the skin on the onions and garlic adds a richness and depth of flavor you cannot achieve without it.
Heat a medium sauce pan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the mushrooms and ½ tsp salt. Cook until the mushrooms soften and begin to release their juices. Add the rest of the ingredients except the sherry and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer 1-2 hours until fragrant and slightly reduced. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Strain, add the sherry, and set aside. I usually freeze stock in 1-2 cup portions for future use. You will need 4 cups for this recipe, which should leave you 1-2 cups to freeze.
For the Vegetables, Sauce, and Serving
1 recipe ricotta gnocchi above
10 oz English peas in their shells (a little more than 1 cup shelled)
1 bunch baby turnips
1 handful (about 1 cup) morel mushrooms
2 large handfuls pea tendrils, washed
2 shallots, finely chopped
3-4 tbsp unsalted butter
4 cups rich mushroom stock
¾ cup fresh bread crumbs
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Parmesan for topping
Chopped mint and parsley for topping
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and set out a large bowl of ice water. Shell the peas and set aside. Cut the tops off of the turnips about ½ an inch above the bulbs, leaving some green stem on. Carefully wash the turnips and quarter them. When the water boils, add the peas and turnips and cook 2 minutes. Drain and immediately plunge in the ice water. Allow to fully cool and then drain and set aside.
Using a paper towel, carefully rub off any dirt on the morels. You never want to wash wild mushrooms because they are so porous they will absorb the water and their flavor will be diluted. Half the mushrooms, checking the centers for dirt, and then set aside covered with a damp paper towel.
Place the stock in a small sauce pan over medium heat and reduce by half. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Toss together the bread crumbs and the olive oil with a little salt. Spread on a sheet pan and toast 10 minutes until crunchy and golden. Set aside.
Warm a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 2 tbsp butter. When it sizzles, add the shallots and cook 2-3 minutes until golden, aromatic, and tender. Add the morels and cook 1-2 minute more, and then add the blanched turnips and peas and season with salt and pepper. Cook another minute and then add the reduced stock and cook 3-4 minutes until slightly further reduced. Add 1-2 tbsp butter and the pea tendrils and cook just until the butter is melted and the tendrils are wilted but still green. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, Bring your largest pot of water to a boil with a little salt. Add the gnocchi and wait for them to float – cook about 1 minute after they float. Drain and divide among 4 serving bowls.
Top each bowl with the vegetables and a generous spoon of the sauce. Garnish with the toasted bread crumbs, grated parmesan, and chopped mint and parsley. Serve at once.