Spring is officially underway, but New England hasn’t gotten the memo. Temperatures here recently climbed to 70, accompanied by clear, blue skies, and then fell suddenly to the 20s with a daylong snowfall. Each morning this week I’ve checked the weather even before my texts and email (a first!), debating what to wear. And, of course, I wonder what to cook! For a small dinner we hosted for out-of- town friends this weekend, I spent as much time planning the menu as preparing it. In the end the night’s dishes reflected this transitional time of year, satisfying yearnings for both cold and warm weather fare.
Our opener—gnocchi alla romana with roasted asparagus–was a good example.
The gnocchi, assembled Roman style with farina rather than potatoes, are enriched with Parmesan and butter, cut into rounds, and then baked. Served piping hot atop bundles of asparagus, they seemed to welcome spring and acknowledge winter at the same time.
For our main course, a veal ragout with spring vegetables and mushrooms served over rice, continued this theme. Lemon sorbet and prosecco parfaits with blueberries completed the meal.
The delicious farina gnocchi can be cooked and shaped well in advance, so that all that is necessary is to pop them in the oven for a half hour. Count on only 10 minutes or less to roast the asparagus. This starter won great reviews from guests and will with yours too, whatever the weather!
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Gnocchi alla romana with Roasted Asparagus
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup regular (not instant or quick-cooking) farina (See note.)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter plus extra for the baking sheet
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 lb medium asparagus spears with 2 to 3 inches of tough bases trimmed
2 tbsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp lemon juice
4 tsp chopped flat leaf parsley
1. Heat milk in a heavy, medium saucepan over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Reduce heat and whisk in farina, pouring it in a thin, slow stream and whisking steadily. Continue whisking until the mixture forms a thick mass, about 4 to 5 minutes.
2. Remove saucepan from heat, and using a wooden spoon stir in 1/3 cup of the Parmesan cheese, 2 tablespoons of the butter, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the egg yolk. Continue to stir until all ingredients are well blended. The mixture will be quite thick.
3. Lightly moisten a large baking sheet or chopping board with cold water. Using a metal spatula or a knife, spread farina mixture, in an even layer about 1/2 inch thick on sheet. Refrigerate until completely cooled, about 30 minutes.
4. Generously butter a rimmed baking sheet. With a 2-inch cookie cutter, cut out rounds of farina and place them in a single layer on baking sheet. Gather the scraps, knead them gently, and pat or roll into a 1/2 inch thick layer and continue to cut out rounds until all the mixture is used. You should get 24 gnocchi. Dot the gnocchi with small pieces of the remaining butter. (Gnocchi can be assembled 6 hours ahead; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.)
5. To bake gnocchi, arrange a rack at center position, and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake until gnocchi are golden brown on the bottom, 25 to 30 minutes. Check by lifting them up with a metal spatula.
7. While gnocchi are baking, spread asparagus on another baking sheet, drizzle them with olive oil, and toss to coat well. Season with salt and pepper.
8. When gnocchi are done, remove and cover loosely with foil. Raise oven temperature to 400 degrees F, and roast the asparagus until tender when pierced with a knife, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn them after 5 minutes. Remove and sprinkle with lemon juice and more salt if needed.
9. To serve arrange several asparagus spears on 6 salad plates. Place 4 gnocchi, slightly overlapping over the spears. Dust each serving with some of the remaining Parmesan cheese and with parsley. Serves 6.
Note: Farina, also called cream of wheat, is usually located in the warm cereals section of the supermarket.
Note: If you don’t have a cookie cutter, shape a heaping tablespoon of the mixture into a ball; then flatten it into a round shape.
Copyright Betty Rosbottom 2016