Lately I’ve been on a milk and flour kick. There’s been a lot of dough rolled out (wet doughs, sour doughs, pizza doughs, cookie doughs), a lot of dairy dripping into colanders (yogurt cheese, panir, ricotta), and a lot of stovetop and oven time, as if I’m trying to get it all out of my system before summer gets here and it’s too hot to be in the kitchen. Well, now you can add asparagus to that list, because I’ve definitely been on an asparagus kick since I heard we’d be getting it at the farmers market a couple weeks ago.
Maybe I ended up buying too much asparagus. But how can you not, when those slender green stalks are bundled so delicately, most of them barely a quarter inch around, with the vendor assuring you that every bit of woodiness was chopped off back at the farm and one merely needs to whisper a poem about heat and these first asparagus of the year will be tender to perfection.
Okay, so I’m a bit of a sucker when certain things first come to market. But last year I blinked and missed a whole season of sweet potatoes, so this year I’m determined to grab the veggies by the stems and revel in the first harvest of everything.
But first let’s talk about gnocchi! Gnocchi (say ‘nyyyokey’) are Italian soft dumplings, but we treat them like pasta on the plate. The process of making gnocchi is almost rustic, and simple enough that anyone who hasn’t yet built up the confidence to make pasta can start here and see where it takes you. At the risk of sounding dull, this is the only gnocchi recipe I’ve so far tried, because it’s a great excuse to make a batch of ricotta. But gnocchi can be made without dairy, with vegetable purees such as spinach, pumpkin, or potato, or even as a dessert with cinnamon and sugar or fruit.
Because gnocchi are essentially little pillows of dough, they really need a bright or rich sauce to accompany them. Not being a huge fan of rich sauces, except for during endlessly dreary winter days when rich and hearty foods are all that stand between you and gray oblivion, I turned instead to bright, vivid flavors: namely, this spiced butter from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, by way of Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks. The warm spices cut through the butter with just the right amount of sweetness from the shallots and kick from the chili.
Heidi also uses asparagus with this butter, and I couldn’t agree more, especially at the beginning of the season. The first asparagus of the year deserves heady spices, exotically colored like sun-baked bricks. It deserves the fresh milkiness of homemade ricotta. It deserves the tang of lemon zest hinting at rocky Mediterranean cliffs. It deserves a recipe like this, which builds up to a visceral climax, from stirring the hot milk, to mixing the gnocchi dough by hand, to pouring nose-tickling spices, all leading up the asparagus’s plunge into boiling water for just a couple brief minutes (and here you can whisper that poem if you like) before gracing your dinner table with its announcement of spring.
Of course you can use store-bought ricotta as well–but if you’re already making the gnocchi….
½ gallon whole milk
½ t citric acid dissolved in 1/8 C cool water
Stir citric acid solution into milk. Heat milk, stirring frequently, to about 185º. Once curds are fully separated, remove from heat and let sit 10 minutes without disturbing. Ladle curds into a cheesecloth-lined colander, twist the corners of the cheesecloth, and hang to drain for 20 minutes. Yields about 1 ½ C ricotta.
Lemon Ricotta Gnocchi
1 C flour
1 ½ C ricotta
1 t salt
¼ t pepper
2 T lemon zest
In a small bowl beat the egg with the salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Measure out the flour onto a clean surface. Make a well in the middle and add the egg mixture. Add the ricotta. Use a fork at first to begin combining the ingredients, then use your hands to mix into a smooth dough. Roll into a log and let rest several minutes.
Cut the log into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a snake 1 inch around and then cut half-inch pillows. Recipe yields about 8 servings of gnocchi. If not cooking immediately, freeze gnocchi on a baking tray then seal in an airtight container for up to a month.
Gnocchi with Spiced Butter and Asparagus
4 servings of gnocchi (about half the above recipe)
8-12 oz. asparagus, cut into 1-2” pieces
4 oz. unsalted butter
2 T olive oil
6 shallots, minced, or 1 C chopped onions
½ t ginger
½ t ground coriander
½ t cinnamon
½ t cayenne
½ t paprika
¼ t turmeric
¼ t chili flakes
¼ t salt
Heat butter and olive oil in a small sauté pan. Add shallots or onions and cook until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in spices.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add gnocchi. When all of the gnocchi float to the surface, add the asparagus and cook 2 more minutes. Drain and toss with the spiced butter.