(Nyoh'-kee) - a dish of little dumplings made from potatoes, semolina, flour, or a combination of the three. There is no mention of ricotta in that definition from Dictionary.com, but there totally should be; the first time I had those pillowy puffs of goodness made from ricotta in lieu of potatoes, my mind. was. blown.
On our first trip to San Francisco in 2003, my husband and I walked a very steep hill to have dinner at a very unassuming restaurant: Trattoria Contadina. In addition to reading great reviews in our travel book--in the pre-iPhone days--it was a stone's throw from the show we were seeing that night. As we perused the menu we saw Ricotta Gnocchi. As in topped with? No, as in made from. My husband and I both looked strangely at each other, but knew right away that we would not be leaving that restaurant without having that on one of our plates.
These delicate little dumplings were light and airy and covered in a pink sauce. When you think about eating an entire plate of cheese, the word light would not come to mind, but that oxymoron is exactly what we had happening on our plate that night. Even good potato gnocchi can sometimes be chewy or gummy, especially if the dough is overworked. It seems counterintuitive to think that using ricotta--a cheese--could make these dumplings even lighter, even more pillowy than their spud-made counterparts; but believe me when I tell you that somehow, it worked amazingly well.
We took our trek back down the hill and left that unforgettable dinner before seeing the very forgettable show: Beach Blanket Babylon. We ignorantly fell into that tourist trap...but I digress. Given how much we travel, it is something pretty spectacular for a single restaurant meal memory to stand out for longer than a year, much less a decade. To this day, we are still always on the lookout for gnocchi made from ricotta; it is not easy to find. Twice we have found it, but neither time as good as we had that night.
So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when I saw in a recent issue of Food & Wine magazine a hack on our favorite version. "Mad Genius" is a feature in each issue by Justin Chapple devoted to putting the ease in easy with super simple hacks to your favorite--often complicated--dishes. His recipe for our memorable dish has no kneading, no fussing, and no rolling each one over the ridges of a wooden gnocchi roller for the perfect shape. It is, however, a whirl in the food processor, a pour into a bag, a squeeze of the mixture into a pot and a final scoop to remove them from the water. It does not get any easier than this...it truly is Mad Genius.
The recipe calls for fresh ricotta; if you can't find fresh, might I suggest Trader Joe's full fat ricotta cheese. It is the creamiest I have found and so tasty, I could--and do--eat it with a spoon. What better to finish off these beauties but my favorite brown butter, although this time I'm adding sage. Sage is not an herb I use often; in fact, the only time I use it is in my Grandmother's stuffing. The smell of this fuzzy herb reminds me of fall and the seemingly imminent Thanksgiving holiday; used sparingly, it is the perfect subtle flavor to highlight these gnocchi.
Food memories are tricky to replicate; even if you happen to be privy to the exact recipe and follow it to a T, it still never comes out the same. That's because the food itself isn't the only factor contributing to those warm, fuzzy recollections: the setting, the ambiance, the company you shared the meal with, the weather and so many other components all play a part. I will never again have pasta that tastes as good as it did while sitting in a piazza in Italy. Attending a luau in Orlando, while fun, pales in comparison to the real deal in Maui on our honeymoon.
For the most part, the memories of the food we eat disappear into the minutia of our day to day lives; finding and creating a dish that reignites a nostalgic experience makes the effort well worth it. This gnocchi may not be identical to Trattoria Contadina's, but until we make our way back to San Francisco, it's the next best thing.