Gnocchi, Cannelloni and Judy Rodgers

Ricotta Cannelloni

As they say, the best laid plans…

This week I had the brilliant idea to make gnocchi.  I found some beautiful spinach at the market, and, inspired by recipes of home-cooked comfort food, I decided to make spinach gnocchi.  I consulted with my cookbooks and settled on Judy Rodgers’ recipe from the Zuni Café Cookbook.  I love Judy Rodgers and her restaurant, Zuni Café, in San Francisco.  I have owned her cookbook for many years, even before we moved to the U.S.  Her recipe is for ricotta and egg based gnocchi – light, airy, and mildly piquant with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.  I pictured ethereal dumplings delicately flavored with cheese and flecked with spinach nestling in a bowl with butter and parmesan for our dinner – sublime.

Now, perhaps, because it was a school night. Or, perhaps, because I had already spent many hours in the kitchen cooking for another event.  Or, perhaps, because it was the very nature of this recipe which drew me to it that proved to be so elusive.  Some things are just not meant to be.  This is in no way a critique of Judy, but rather a lesson in my own limitations in time and experience.  Her recipe oozes comfort and warmth.  It evokes the spirits of grandmothers past.  It implies tradition and secrets passed down through generations at the kitchen table.  It also assumes patience and deftness in the zen-like repetition of forming delicate pillows of egg and cheese.

Unfortunately, it was late Wednesday afternoon and a school night. I had one hour before I had to pick up children, help with homework, critique a current event presentation, and have dinner on the table. No grandmothers were in my time-zone, let alone my kitchen.  My gnocchi wisdom was unformed, my experience non-existent, and any questionable zen-like qualities I may have were rapidly dwindling with the hours in the day.  Nonetheless, I stubbornly plowed forward with Judy Rodgers as my guide.

As I stood over a bowl of ricotta spinach batter, eyeing the clock, I formed my gnocchi, well aware that I had no cues to work with in terms of judging my batter and its consistency, no comfort in mastering the technique of shaping and cooking the dumplings.  I noted Judy’s warning of avoiding a too-wet batter, but how to know when a wet batter is too wet?  Heeding her advice, I brought a small saucepan of water to a boil, so I could test one of the gnocchi to see if it passed the wet-test.  I carefully lowered one of my fragile almond shaped gnocchi into the water.  I waited.  I watched. The water grew cloudy and then foamy. I realized with dismay that my dumpling was exploding in slow motion.  It failed the wet-test.  I watched the deconstructed bits of spinach and cheese swirl around in the water, listening to the clock tick in the background, and made an executive decision. Stubborn I may be, but for the sake of dinner and my overall disposition in the rapidly waning afternoon, I quickly decided to go to Plan B.  A cook can also turn on a dime and improvise when need be, and a family has to be fed.  I would not be un-done by these delicate cheese and egg pillows; one-day I would master the elusive gnocchi-technique. I would even start my own gnocchi tradition, by golly.  Just not at 5 p.m. on a school night.

Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni

As for the gnocchi, the batter instantly transformed into cannelloni filling (surprisingly easy with ricotta gnocchi.)  A little more Parmigiano-Reggiano, some minced garlic, a liberal grinding of black pepper, and we were good to go.  I quickly sautéed an onion with some garlic, added a can of crushed Italian plum tomatoes, some condiments, and I had a quick 10-minute tomato sauce.

For the filling:
1/2 lb. (about 250 grams) spinach
Olive oil
2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese
2 eggs
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Cannelloni shells, uncooked, about 12
2 cups tomato sauce (recipe below)

Wash and dry the spinach.  Cut off stems.  Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a deep skillet.  Add spinach and sauté until limp but still bright green.  Transfer spinach to a kitchen towel.  Lay another towel over spinach.  Press to extract liquid.  Chop spinach and set aside.
Mix ricotta and eggs together in a medium bowl until smooth.  Add 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, garlic, salt, pepper and nutmeg.  Stir to combine.  Mix in spinach. Using a knife, fill cannelloni shells with ricotta mixture.

Spoon a thin layer of tomato sauce over bottom of rectangular baking dish. Arrange stuffed canneloni shells in one layer over sauce.  Spoon remaining sauce over shells to cover.  Sprinkle with remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Bake in pre-heated 350 F. oven until shells are tender and the tomato sauce and cheese topping is bubbly and melted, about 45 minutes.

10-Minute Tomato Sauce:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 28 oz. can crushed Italian plum tomatoes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan.  Add onion and garlic, and sauté over medium heat until onion starts to wilt and garlic is fragrant, taking care not to brown the garlic.  Add tomatoes, tomato paste, and oregano.  Simmer 8 minutes.  Add sugar, salt and pepper to taste.