2 July 2012

A Tribute to The Food and Wine Writers Workshop with Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi with Basil Butter

Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi with Basil Butter

My new mantra is "live in the moment" which has always been seriously absent from my every day life. I am the first one to admit that I am guilty of always looking to the next adventure, the next meal, the next pay day. The next anything!  I firmly believe that I have enjoyed each one of my adventures and encounters with friends, strangers and other bloggers throughout my life, but the question is... have I really?  Many cultures have it ingrained in their blood to savour every moment spent with family, every morsel of food that parts their lips, just about every waking moment is spent in the present! It seems simple enough, but, is hard for me. I am the organizer, the planner, the observer.

In Italy there are phrases like "cogli l'attimo" or "catch the moment" or "vivi il presente" or 'live for the present. The 5 weeks that I spend there this fall I have the very best of intentions of practicing my new mantra every waking hour of every day. How could I not? It's hard not to be captivated by Italy's charming towns, superb wines, delectable cuisine, and awe-inspiring historical sites. 

Falling in love with Italy should be easy and I for one am willing to give it a try. For centuries travellers from the four corners of the world have been drawn to this diverse country, which truly offers something for everyone, from stylish bustling cities, to the postcard-perfect hills lined with vineyards and olive groves, to vertigo-inducing seaside towns perched on cliffs along the coast.

And just when I think I've seen the most beautiful places and experienced the most unique aspects of the culture, I know I will feel irresistibly tempted to explore more of it, because I know that that undiscovered hole-in-the-wall trattoria waiting for me just around the corner makes the best fresh ravioli to be enjoyed from its amazing panoramic terrace. This seductive, magnetic quality is what keeps bringing people back, and what makes Italy so addictive after all. Sure I will experience all of these things, but, I want to talk to the person passing me on the street and find out about their lives, perhaps be invited into their kitchens, visit the "mom and pop" shops and explore everything inside and out until my veins run with pasta sauce!

Italians know how to enjoy life. Everything is an event. They know how to eat, drink, and talk with friends.  Not only do they value that time, they absolutely make it part of their day. They are born knowing how to live in the moment. These are the qualities that I admire, but do not possess. It is something I hope to learn since it is NOT something that runs through my veins. I grew up with Italian neighbours who plied me with plate after plate of tempting food to put some meat on my lanky frame, pinched my cheek and spoke with wild hand gestures with passion and not reservation.

This is the feeling that I had the other week when I attended a workshop. There was something new and exciting happening around every corner, each experience better than the next, or maybe just a compilation of life-changing muses. For the past week or so I have been "drinking in" all of the information, show stopping farm-to-table dinners and experiences when Jennifer Cockrall-King brought her revered Food and Wine Writers Workshop to K-town. I tried to live in the moment since my time was fleeting  by not peering onto menus for what was coming next and went with the flow of the evening. I had been looking forward to the event for some time to get together once again with Jennifer and Roz and to finally meet up with Valerie of A Canadian Foodie. I was working for most of the 4 days of the workshop but was lucky enough to be included in three dinners as well as to one day of the workshops.  

The day I attended workshops lunch was held at Cabana Bar and Grille a favourite hang-out here in K-town. Our time started with an oyster shucking demonstration with Jon Croft of Codfathers Seafood Market and the recently disgorged 1998 Cipes Ariel sparkling wine from Summerhill Pyramid Winery. "I lived in the moment."

Next we had a hands on culinary demonstration from executive chef April Roy who taught us the secrets of handmade gnocchi. "I lived in the moment."

Of course we also had a 3 course farm-to-table lunch of Okanagan D'Anjou Pear Salad with Soy Ginger Vinaigrette and Salt Spring Island Goat Cheese and Garden Mint; Ancient Grain Quinoa and Barley Risotto with Spring Peas, Micro Herb Salad and Shaved Parmesan Cheese; and for dessert Ginger Panna Cotta with Honey-Poached Rhubarb and a Sesame Crisp all paired with British Columbia Summerhill wines. "I savoured every moment!"

Most gnocchi, or as they say in the Italian translation "lumps", that I am familiar with are tiny potato or ricotta dumplings. Florentines call these tasty gnocchi morsels "topini", or "field mice". I love that! My first taste memory of gnocchi was at a family-style restaurant in Wasaga Beach north of my hometown in Ontario where my family spent their summer vacations, along with a rather memorable slice of Mile High Lemon Meringue Pie, I might add. Being a teenager, without a truly developed palate, but, an overdeveloped appetite, I don't know if these were the best "lumps" I have ever tried but I do know they embedded themselves in the recesses of my foodie memories. The gnocchi of my childhood is boiled briefly and then seasoned with a sauce limited only by your imagination. 

Fast forward to adulthood and I have tried many versions of gnocchi at restaurants, in friends homes and in my own kitchen all with varying outcomes. Some have been tender, melt-in-your-mouth morsels and some heavy and starchy, but all have been made with love. Over the years I have been particularly inspired to pour through the writings of Marcella Hazan and Lorenzo de'Medici to glean wisdom that would help me make better risottos, pizza, fresh pasta, and todays dish...gnocchi. 

So what are the secrets to making tender gnocchi? The first secret is my own. Buy a tub of ricotta cheese. When using ricotta for gnocchi you are almost always assured of having tender morsels. The second secret is also important when choosing what flour you use. Most recipes call for all-purpose flour. From making fresh pasta and pizza dough, I learned that I always get better results when I use Italian all-purpose flour,  labeled "00," doppio zero, meaning "double zero." This flour is lower in gluten than our standard all-purpose flour. With less gluten, there is little chance that you will toughen the dough through over-kneading. It is the key to consistency and reliability in turning out fluffy gnocchi. The third secret I learned from Chef April is to have a light hand and never to overwork your dough. 

Since spinach is one of the first leafy vegetables to come from our Spring garden it seemed only fitting to recreate these little pillows with tender shoots of baby spinach and basil from my garden. My grandmothers bore names like Smith and Watmough so for this recipe I have by my side my adopted, imaginary nonna whose sturdy, no-nonsense tone makes me confidant in the kitchen. Combined with the tips for tender gnocchi from my Italian mentors and of course executive chef April failure is not an option.  

As I taste this dish I am whisked away to Italy and am sitting on a balcony with strains of opera music on the precipace of a hidden valley. The air is heavy with the scent of lemons and I hear children laughing in the background in a language unfamiliar to me. I am lulled into a deep peace. I relish in the soft pillows and am indeed savouring ever moment as the buttery morsels swirl around my tongue. Like the Italians I hope to meet these morsels are unpretentious with the flavour of the spinach shining through. I may not be born with a passion for food and "living in the moment" but I have always been a good student.

**Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi with Basil Butter **

10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed in the refrigerator overnight (if possible)
2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup very finely chopped onion
2 egg yolks
3/4 cup ricotta (part-skim worked fine)
2/3 cup flour, fluffed to aerate before measuring
2 ounces fresh Parmesan, grated (about 1 cup coarsely grated)
Freshly grated nutmeg, about 1/8 teaspoon 
Salt to taste

Cook the spinach mixture: Bring the water to a boil. Add the spinach, and let the water return to a boil. Cook the spinach for five minutes or until the raw taste of the spinach is gone. Transfer to a colander, and let drain. Press the spinach with the back of a spoon, removing all the excess liquid.

In a large skillet, melt the butter, then add the onion and cook gently until the onion is cooked but not brown. Add the spinach and stir to coat with butter. Let the spinach cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is hot throughout and all the liquid is gone. My spinach cooked for about 4 minutes. Let cool.

Prepare the gnocchi dough: Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks, then whisk in the ricotta, flour, Parmesan, nutmeg and salt. Stir in the cooled spinach. Cover and refrigerate for a couple of hours to firm up slightly.

Cook the gnocchi: To cook the gnocchi, bring the water to a boil. With your hands, form long ropes out of the gnocchi dough. Place on a cutting board and slice into 1-inch pieces. Transfer each piece to a cookie sheet (My cookie sheet was coated with flour to keep the gnocchi from sticking, but the gnocchi really absorbed the flour. Next time, I'll try parchment paper or waxed paper instead). Drop in several gnocchi at once. They'll drop to the bottom of the bowl and then, after two or three minutes, float up to the top when they are ready. When they float up, transfer them a dish to keep warm. Continue until all the gnocchi are cooked.

To serve, place several gnocchi on a plate, top with simple butter sauce, and add a dash of grated parmesan cheese.

NOTE:  I enjoy my gnocchi fried in pan to create a crispy exterior. 

**Herb Butter**

Melt 1/3 cup (75 ml) butter over low heat; add 2 tablespoons (30 ml) shredded fresh sage leaves or 1/4 cup (50 ml) shredded fresh basil. Warm gently for 5 minutes. Pour over gnocchi, grind on black pepper; top with freshly grated Parmesan.

 Vivi il prĂ©sente!!!!!

I am submitting this recipe to Presto Pasta Nights which has been the baby of Ruth over at Once Upon a Feast for over 5 glorious years. Whenever we feel the urge for some pasta we can go over to her site and have years of entries from all over the world to choose from, from pasta salad to lasagna to Pho. There is a pasta for every season, every ingredient and every taste. All of these delicious pasta dishes have been submitted by all of you!!!  Ruth says, " Every week food bloggers photograph and write about their latest pasta creation… if it’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner; served hot or cold; spicy or sweet; from appetizers to mains to desserts." This week the event is being hosted by the lovely Ruth herself.

You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and or owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.
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  1. Beautiful gnocchi! That combination is awesome.



  2. I like this new "live in the moment" attitude.

  3. Gnocchi is my fave pasta and the best is always homemade. I find in restaurants, it is usually too pasty and very few get it right. This is a great dish instead of using sauce and I would give it a try for sure!!

  4. Beautiful writing Val, and your gnocchi looks heavenly! 5 weeks in Italy? you lucky girl!

  5. Beautiful gnocchi! Best part for me was meeting you in person! And now your tips - the ricotta and the 00 - and I will try it with my homemade ricotta and let you know how it goes.
    Great picks and post.

  6. AnonymousJuly 02, 2012

    Lovely post, Val. It is most excellent that you'll get to practice this live in the moment approach for five weeks in Italy. How cool is that!

  7. All of these wonderful experiences and now yo'ure going to spend all that time in Italy too? If envy is a deadly sin, then I'm about to have a massive heart attack.

    I wanted to eat your gnocchi as soon as I saw that photo! Curse me for reading your blog when hungry. Want to ship some of that to NY? I'd make the recipe myself, but I don't think mine would look as good.

  8. That's a lovely looking dish that makes me long for gnocchi but your story resonates even more. I, too, keep promising myself to savor-the-moment instead of rushing through it but, so far, it's been a big fail. But reading your post, I'm inspired once again to do so.

    I am so envious of 5 weeks in italy. You will definitely have the opportunity to relax, enjoy and live!

  9. Great gnocchi, yum!!! All your weeks in Italy, I'm envious. Years ago, we travelled around Europe in a VW and got to the Italian border 3 times and turned around. It's a long story, but I was outvoted on visiting Italy. So I think it's great with your going there this fall. The workshop must've been a blast, a great experience! Way to go, Val!!!

  10. I love the message behind this post. Not just Italians, but most European countries have phrases or mentalities like this that got lost somehow in the Americas. We really should embrace the current moment, live in it and eat well in it! These gnocchi look fantastic!

  11. I love Italy. Have been to many villages. Laughed a lot, drank a lot, ate a lot, walked a lot and had so much fun! Thanks for reminding me to live in the moment!

  12. Love the "live in the moment" idea and know you will love Italy. Your gnocchi looks fabulous with the pretty pansies. I bet the basil butter would be delicious on a myriad of things.

  13. Your trip sounds simply amazing and this gnocchi is a wonderful prelude! Looks delicious and thanks for all the "secrets"!

  14. I would have savored every moment too. What fun, Val!
    I may have mentioned I am not a big pasta eater, but I have made gnocchi (and gnudi). I never think of it as pasta. And when I eat out Italian, it's gnocchi as a side dish. The flavors here are marvelous and they'd take me back to memories of Italy as well.

  15. What a fabulous experience the conference must have been. I know you'll enjoy Italy this fall and I know the rest of us will love the marvelous food you share with us. The gnocchi sound drop dead delicious. Have a great evening, Val. Blessings...Mary

  16. I am so envious of all that you have at hand. I practiced the 'live in the moment' mantra several years ago when I was away for 7 weeks in India and Viet Nam. Easier said than done. It was a constant meditation. When in India I looked forward to Viet Nam. When in Viet Nam I kept thinking about India. But the effort is worth it. I knew that I had 'moved' when I returned home and saw a leaf tumble past me in slow motion. It has forever changed my life. Best wishes for you in this meditation of Italy.

  17. Dear Val, thank you for this reminder to live in the moment. It came at the perfect time for me, and I feel a burden lifted. :-) This gnocchi looks AMAZING!!! :-)

  18. Oh, Val! I look forward to your thoughts and posts on your trip to Italy ... what a wonderful experience! Your' live in the moment' message is a wise and wonderful one ... we miss so much by rushing headlong toward ... what?

    As for the gnocchi ... you know I have just begun to experiment with these luscious little 'lumps' - your recipe is one more to play with! I will get gnocchi right one of these days!

  19. That sounds like a wonderful way to live and I wish I could practice it more often also!

    Delicious gnocchi and the basil butter sounds awesome!

  20. Yes, I LOVE it Val...live the monet. I loved how beautifully you wrote this, and what a wonderful experience that workshop must have been. As for the gnocchi ...FABULOUS! And with basil butter, even better!

  21. What a truly lovely post. I do try to stay in the moment, but often get sucked into the crazy world around me - with work schedules and other commitments.

    The gnocchi looks fantastic and I'm so glad you shared with Presto Pasta Nights. As soon as the weather cools down, this is on my agenda... see... still unable to live in the moment.

  22. i've had some really good gnocchi, but i've also had some really bad gnocchi. i've never made it myself, though; hopefully, that would fall into the former category. :)

  23. I love homemade spinach and ricotta gnocchi. I haven't made it in years, so thanx for the inspiration. Val, you perfectly described Italy and the Italian mind-set. Where I once had no boyfriends throughout high school because of my 'ethnicity' in Iowa, I soon found pride in it despite negative stereotypes. This is such a delightful post to read to remind of my roots. Have the most wonderful, wonderful time in Italy . . . and who knows, maybe you'll be one of the next ex-pats to live there for a while!

  24. Ok this is a diffinite must try... I just love spinach... and gnocchi want a delicious addition to all the rest of your diary of them this one is over the top! cant wait to make them!

  25. Very nice shots, Val. And a beautifully enticing dish of gnocchi.
    I agree about living in the moment. It's all we ever really have.

  26. It is a lovely dish Val and I want it....Really enjoyed reading this post....


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