Gnocchin’ on heaven’s door (gnocchi with spinach, basil, feta and roasted tomatoes)

When I first started making gnocchi a few years ago, they always seemed to come out really dense and heavy. So, I did a spot of internet research and have tweaked my method as I’ve gone along.

The recipe here is the resulting recipe I use for plain potato gnocchi, although you could add some herbs or any other flavourings that take your fancy.

Personally, I don’t think making your own gnocchi is that much of a faff. Admittedly, it would be a lot quicker to get them out of a packet, but a bit of forward planning minimises the hassle. For instance, what I tend to do is bake and rice my potatoes the night before and leave them in the fridge, ready to make into dough the next evening.

The reason I bake my potatoes, rather than boil them, is that it keeps them as dry as possible (which is what you want). It’s also easier to leave a few spuds baking in the oven than to keep an eye on a boiling pan of them. Also, I rice my potatoes rather than mash them as this allows more moisture to evaporate from the potatoes and means they don’t get overworked. If you’re reading this and thinking “bloody hell, this woman is really overthinking her potato preparation methods”, then you are probably right, and you may just want to use some gnocchi from a packet for this recipe…

Ingredients

For the gnocchi (this makes about sixty gnocchi- enough to feed three people, or two with a couple of lunch portions left over):

  • Three smallish to medium baking potatoes
  • Two eggs, beaten
  • ‘00’ grade pasta flour

For the sauce:

  • About 200g of cherry or baby plum tomatoes
  • Olive oil
  • About 200g Spinach (I use frozen, ready chopped spinach because it’s cheap and I usually have it in the freezer but fresh would be good)
  • A handful or two of fresh basil
  • Three garlic cloves, crushed
  • 100g feta

To make the gnocchi:

Prick your potatoes all over with a fork and put them on the middle shelf of the oven at gas mark 6 (200⁰C) for about an hour to an hour and a half, or until a knife slides into the centre of them easily. Cut them in half when you take them out of the oven, and when they’re just about cool enough to handle, scoop out the insides and put them through a potato ricer into a bowl. There’s no need to waste the skins- keep them in the fridge to be picked at with a squidge of barbeque sauce from a bottle when you’re peckish. (Nigella-esque late night snacking in a black satin dressing gown is optional, but encouraged.)

As I tend to bake my potatoes ahead of making gnocchi, I cover the riced potato in cling film and leave it in the fridge. If you’re doing this, I recommend getting the potato out shortly before making your dough to warm up slightly, unless you don’t mind getting cold hands.

If you’re making your gnocchi the same day, leave the potato to cool down.

Add the two beaten eggs to the riced potato, folding the eggs into the mixture with a spatula.

Now, start to add your flour, gently squelching the ingredients together with clean hands. I honestly don’t know how much flour you’ll need to add- I’ve never measured it. All you need to know is that you need to add just enough until you have a good workable dough consistency. It’s helpful here to have someone tipping the flour in for you, as the dough will make your hands very messy. I don’t usually have a spare pair of hands for this bit and my bag of flour therefore ends up covered in doughy, potato-y paw prints.

Once you’ve got your dough, divide it into four portions and roll each portion out into a long sausage shape. When you’ve got a sausage which is about an inch thick and about 12 inches long, cut it into small pieces. Lay your gnocchi out on a plate or baking sheet which has been brushed with a thin layer of oil, then lightly press a fork onto the top of each one, flattening them slightly.

To make the rest:

Cut your tomatoes in half and put them in a baking dish or tin. Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper. I often sprinkle on some fennel seeds too, but then again I sprinkle fennel seeds on bloody everything. Use your hands to coat the tomatoes in oil and lay them out cut side up in the dish. Roast in the oven at gas mark 5 (190⁰C) for about 45 minutes. If you’re baking your potatoes at the same time, you could just put everything in at gas mark 5 and do the potatoes for longer, adding the tomatoes later on. I’ll leave you to work out the logistics.

Put a big pan of water on to boil.

Whizz your basil in a food processor or finely chop it. If you’re using fresh spinach, then whizz/ chop that too.

In another pan, heat a small glug of olive oil and add the garlic. Fry for a few minutes before adding the spinach and basil and stirring everything together. Allow to warm through thoroughly before crumbling in the feta. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Once your other pan of water has come to the boil and while your spinach is cooking, add the gnocchi to the pan in batches to cook (I usually do about fifteen at a time). When all the gnocchi in the pan have floated to the top of the water, remove them with a slotted spoon.

Divide the gnocchi between bowls, top with the spinach sauce and roasted tomatoes and serve.

Nigella’s risotto bolognese

Risotto bolognese probably shouldn’t be a thing. But what a thing it is. I know I’m always banging on about risotto, but I make no apologies for writing about this one- it’s comforting and tasty and ideal as a bit of a Saturday night treat. Honestly- you could do a lot worse than plonking yourself down in front of a decent film with a bowl of this to shovel into your gob.

This is my own version of Nigella’s recipe, which I can’t find on her website or the BBC one. It is in her Kitchen book though (incidentally my favourite of her books so far).

Ingredients

  • 4 rashers of bacon, excess fat trimmed off
  • An onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • A small carrot, scrubbed and grated
  • A stick of celery, chopped roughly
  • Three cloves of garlic, peeled
  • Olive oil
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • Marsala
  • Milk
  • 3 bay leaves
  • A beef stock cube
  • 250g lean beef mince
  • 150g risotto rice
  • A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
  • Parmesan

Snip the bacon into tiny pieces and fry in a dry pan until it’s starting to get nicely crispy.

Put the onion, carrot, celery and garlic into a food processor and whizz until well puréed. Add a small amount of olive oil to the bacon pan and add the mush from the food processor. Cook over a medium heat for about five minutes.

Whizz the chopped tomatoes in the food processor and add these to the pan as well. Add a glug of marsala and a splash of milk, along with the bay leaves and crumbled stock cube. Stir everything together and leave on a low heat for a bit.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan, brown the beef mince and drain off any excess fat. Stir the risotto rice into the beef.

Boil a kettleful of water.

Start to add the tomato sauce to the beef/ rice mixture a ladleful at a time, allowing the rice to absorb the moisture before adding the next ladleful. When all the tomato sauce has been used up, start to add boiling water from the kettle, roughly a ladleful at a time, still allowing the rice to absorb it before adding the next one. Keep doing this until the rice is cooked. This could take 20 to 30 minutes.

Turn off the heat and stir in the parsley and a generous amount of parmesan. Season with pepper to taste (you probably won’t need salt as the bacon is salty). Divide into bowls and serve with extra parmesan on top.

Serves two greedy people (but could easily feed three).

Simple shakshuka

Do you ever experience that thing where you hear about something or read about something you’ve never heard of before for the first time, and then happen to stumble across it lots of times again within a few days? No?

Okay, well anyway, this is what happened to me with shakshuka (also known as shakshouka/ chakchouka/ a few other variants). I read about it on a blog, then saw a similar dish on another blog a couple of days later, then Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisface did it on his River Cottage Veg Every Day programme (recipe here or in the book which accompanies the series, which I can recommend whether you’re vegetarian or not).

This recipe is my own version of shakshuka, which falls into my ‘handy vegetarian midweek dinner’ repertoire. It’s nothing fancy, yet I always especially look forward to eating it. I think it’s because the process of mopping up the eggy, tomato-ey sauce reminds me of dippy egg and soldiers (that’s a boiled egg and toast to the uninitiated) or of mopping up the remnants of a fried breakfast with a bit of bread and butter.

Ingredients

  • A red pepper
  • A yellow pepper
  • An orange pepper
  • An onion
  • Sea salt
  • A heaped tablespoonful of cumin seeds
  • Four cloves of garlic, crushed
  • A red chilli, deseeded and chopped
  • Two teaspoonfuls of smoked paprika
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • Four eggs

De-seed and thinly slice the peppers and peel and thinly slice the onion. Put this all in a large shallow pan (use one with a lid if you can as you’ll need it later) with a bit of flavourless oil and a generous pinch of sea salt and fry on a medium heat until everything is softening nicely and the onion is turning translucent.

Add the cumin seeds, garlic and chilli and continue to fry gently until everything has cooked down and is smelling fragrant.

Add the paprika and chopped tomatoes (I like to whizz my tomatoes in a food processor first because I’m a bit like that) and stir everything together. Cook for a further five or ten minutes, stirring occasionally.

Now, make four ‘wells’ in the peppery, tomato-y mixture as best you can. Break an egg into each ‘well’ and leave to cook on a medium heat with a lid on the pan, allowing the eggs to cook in the steam as well as the heat from the bottom of the pan. Once the egg whites are well on their way to turning opaque, I like to finish the whole thing off by putting the pan under a medium grill for a few minutes. Alternatively, you could allow them to finish cooking on the hob. You want the eggs to be cooked through, but still runny.

Divide between two and serve with a wodge of bread for moppage.

By the way, shakshuka isn’t the most photogenic of dishes. I can assure you it tastes a lot nicer than it looks…

Parkin (not Simon)

After my last horrendous attempt at baking, I finally got back on the baking horse last weekend and made some parkin (as in the cake, not the late eighties/ early nineties inhabitant of the Broom Cupboard who now happens to present the weather on Meridian) in celebration of Bonfire Night.

I used this recipe (I don’t know why they used such a blurry picture) and do you know what? It actually turned out to be delicious. I’m not going to be attempting Fraisier cake or croquembouche any time soon but at least it’s a step in the right direction…

For those of you who don’t know, parkin is a sticky cake which originates in Yorkshire and is traditionally made around November 5th. The idea is to make it at least a few days before Bonfire Night as it gets stickier and better the longer you leave it.

Happy Bonfire/ Guy Fawkes Night, everyone! (Be safe and all that.)

Damson gin and sloe gin

I’ve finally had the opportunity to make damson and sloe gin this year after some unsuccessful foraging attempts previously. I still haven’t managed to find a good spot to pick damsons or sloes, but luckily someone I used to work with did- and my god did she manage to pick a lot of them. Carrier bags full of the bastards. So, the spoils were shared, chilli jam changed hands by way of payment and I once again have the kindness of a colleague to thank for a blog post.

Sloes and damsons- a beautiful shade of inky midnight blue (there I go again with the Nigella-esque poetic food descriptions).

The idea with sloe gin and damson gin is to make them in September-ish so that they’re ready in time for Christmas. I was actually a bit late making mine, so I’m probably going to decant it in the New Year.

You might still be able to pick some sloes and damsons, although it’s likely that they will have already been found by other foragers by now. Alternatively, if you know anyone with a stash of them in their freezer, you could always try to sweet talk them into sharing. Damsons and sloes freeze well- I was given mine just before going on holiday in September so I left them in the freezer until I had time to use them. Freezing them is actually recommended, as it simulates a frost and splits the skins- a less labour-intensive alternative to pricking all the fruit individually.

I’ve tried to outline this recipe using ratios, as I realise not everyone has the same sized jars or the same amounts of fruit.

Ingredients

  • Damsons and/ or sloes- rinsed, dried and either frozen or pricked thoroughly with a skewer or fork.
  • Gin (I used good quality gin in a couple of my jars and cheaper gin in the other to see how different they tasted)
  • Sugar (I used caster)

Start by sterilizing some big sealable jars. I used 1 litre Kilner jars.

Fill the jars about two thirds full with your damsons or sloes. I put mine in straight from the freezer. This worked out as about 600g of fruit in each jar.

Add a third of the amount of sugar to fruit- so 200g per jar in my case.

Top up with gin and seal the jar. Give the jar a gentle shake to help dissolve the sugar and then invert it every couple of days until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Leave for about three months before straining through a muslin and bottling.

My plan is to decant my gin in the New Year, but save most of it until at least next Christmas, as apparently the taste improves with age. I also have plans to try making slider (no, not the tiny burgers) with the leftover sloes, although I think this might involve the use of demijohns and airlocks and what not (which could either be new and exciting or a total disaster).