Friday, 29 August 2014

Butternut squash gnocchi with buffalo mozzarella, lardo, sage, rosemary and chilli

One of the biggest things that I get out of cooking is how much happiness and joy it can inspire in others. The look on someone’s face when you unveil that birthday cake, walk to the table with a heaped platter or present an intricate and intriguing plate can make hours of effort instantly worthwhile. It’s funny how growing up a bit changes you; where I used to yearn for a night in the pub, now what I look forward to the most are a few hours entertaining close friends and family with good food and a bottle or two. We’ve had some great evenings this summer, sitting on the balcony in the balmy summer twilight to the sound of chatter and cutlery contacting china. But as much as I enjoy these occasions, when it comes to washing up I often am left feeling that I should have managed the food a little differently. I find it hard to strike the balance between cooking something good, but something that is also manageable to prepare without leaving poor Katie to hold court on her own. Time and time again I also find myself remembering how much easier everything is to cook last minute without the four glasses of wine just consumed. But sometimes it’s purely that I take the food far too seriously. My mind goes adrift trying to impress and indulge, when really the eating should just be the background conduit, the platform for everything else. Rarely does great food and crap company cement as a memorable evening.

Bitter experience and awkward delays have taught me the most obvious of things, that forward planning and preparation is everything when hosting dinner. Fundamentally I am clumsy and forgetful, and this is a deadly combination when wine is involved. I will and do forget about half of the ingredients painfully sourced out for the main course. Washing up, that bunch of flowers and empty drink bottles will all be sitting on that chopping board I need to use. Everything takes half an hour longer, and I end up looking so flustered at the point of serving that everyone’s appetite has sufficiently waned. Food is cold and my imagined precision plating is replaced with some Jackson Pollock slapdashery. So the least amount of time flapping around in my ever-shrinking kitchen the better. 

And this gnocchi dish is perfect for avoiding such calamities, and one of the few occasions that I sat down and thought “I’ve nailed this”. In that wonderful way that is so synonymous with Italian cooking, most of this dish is down to great ingredients prepared simply and put on a plate. Everything can be made ahead of serving, leaving the quick task of poaching the gnocchi, finishing off in the pan and plate assembling all that you need to do. Perfectly easy even when half-cut. You can even serve it in a bowl if you want to further avoid plate tippage when transporting to your guests, who will frankly be gobsmacked that you are back so quickly. 

If you are making the gnocchi in advance, the only extra step to take is to blanche them for a minute or so at the time of shaping, before shocking in cold water and draining. Then cover and refrigerate for up to a couple of days before boiling again and eating. 

Serves 4 


For the butternut squash: 

1 medium butternut squash, halved lengthways with the seeds removed 
1 large Maris Piper or King Edward potato 
3 sprigs of rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped 
1 tbsp smoked sweet paprika 
1 tsp dried oregano 
1 tsp dried chilli flakes 
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
1 lemon, zest only 
Olive oil 

For the gnocchi: 

1 egg, beaten 
3 tbsp parmesan, finely grated 
1 lemon, zest only 
Italian ‘00’ grade flour, enough to bind and dust (approx. 200-300g) 

For the infused oil: 

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
1 tsp dried chilli flakes 
2 sprigs rosemary, finely chopped 
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 
½ a lemon, juice only

For the sage leaves: 

12 large sage leaves 
Vegetable oil for frying 

To finish: 

1-1 ½ large balls of good buffalo mozzarella, torn into 12 pieces 
12 slices of lardo 
1 lemon, zest only 
1 tsp dried chilli flakes (optional) 
2 tbsp parmesan, finely grated 

Preheat the oven to 190⁰C. 

First make the spice mix for the butternut squash. Put the rosemary, oregano, garlic, lemon zest, paprika, chilli and a good amount of seasoning into a small bowl. Pour in enough olive oil to create a paste and combine well. Put the halves of butternut squash on a baking tray and slather with the mixture, then bake, along with the potato, for about 1 – 1 ½ hours until both are soft and tender. 

While the vegetables are cooking, make the crispy sage leaves. Pour the vegetable oil into a small, high-sided frying pan until it is about 1cm deep, and put on a high temperature. When hot, fry the sage leaves in small batches for 30 seconds to a minute, or until crisp. Remove and drain on some kitchen roll and set aside. 

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. 

While the squash and potato are still hot, scoop out the middles with a spoon and pass through a sieve into a large bowl. Add the parmesan, lemon zest and beaten egg and fold to combine. Next fold in the flour, a heaped tablespoon at a time, until the mash comes together to form a soft dough that is only just workable. Sprinkle some extra flour onto a work surface and take a small handful of the dough. Carefully roll out into a thin sausage, then cut into 2-3cm cylinders using a sharp knife. Roll each gently in your hands to shape, using a fork or slotted board to shape if you like. Repeat until you have made 32 pieces of gnocchi. 

Put a large, non-stick frying pan on a medium-high heat.

Carefully tip the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until they have popped to the surface, about 3-4 minutes. Do this in two batches if your saucepan is not large enough to comfortably hold all the gnocchi at once. 

While the gnocchi is boiling, add the extra virgin olive oil to the frying pan and cook the garlic, rosemary and chilli for one minute. As the gnocchi pop to the surface of the boiling water, transfer them to the frying pan with a slotted spoon. Fry for a minute or two until slightly coloured, seasoning well and squeezing over the lemon juice. 

To serve, scatter 8 pieces of gnocchi onto each plate. Dot pieces of the mozzarella, slices of lardo and sage leaves in-between and around, then spoon over some of the oil from the pan. Finish by grating over some lemon zest and parmesan and sprinkling on more chilli flakes and cracked black pepper.

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