Project Sauce: Gnocchi and Broccoli with Blistered Sauce Mornay

Food Blog February 2014-3291I think a lot about what I put on this blog – the content, the recipes, the types of food – and this often leads me down a rabbit-hole of consideration about what kind of blog this is. Perhaps because I’m an academic, or maybe just because I watch an awful lot of food TV, this frequently kindles an urge in me to categorize what I do here, to define myself and my food. This is not a baking blog, though I produce a lot of baked goods. It’s not a dessert blog or a gluten-free blog or a vegan blog or a comfort foods blog, and it’s certainly not an “easy and fast” blog… what is it? To figure out if I’m doing what I’m doing well, I feel I have to know what it is that I do.

Food Blog February 2014-3260And yet at the same time, that same academic part of me that studied too much post-structuralism in graduate school screams “No! Don’t limit yourself! Don’t draw yourself into a box! Categories are restricting. Categories are unnecessary. Categories are a lie.”

Food Blog February 2014-3266True enough. Too often, categories are a lie. They lead me into grandiose, Walt Whitman-esque resistance. And yet, because blogging is, by being essentially writing, an experiment of selfness, in order to better understand myself, I have to better understand what I do here.

Food Blog February 2014-3268And maybe that’s it. Rather than stating what this is, blocking myself into a stationary category that may someday become too small for my own swelling and developing, maybe it’s better to talk about what I do, and what this blog does.

Food Blog February 2014-3272Here’s my latest approximation: I re-imagine classics. Not the most original or most creative, I assure you, and not always strictly true, but I think it’s a pretty good explanation for most of the recipes that end up here. Discontent with as is, I poke around and try anew. Ignoring, in some respects, the idea that a classic is a classic for a reason, I demand that it learn flexibility and try on new styles, metamorphosing, growing, moving. Do, don’t just be.

(Obligatory, shamelessly decadent sauce-pouring pictures)

Food Blog February 2014-3276Food Blog February 2014-3277Food Blog February 2014-3278This week’s recipe is definitely one of those that define what I do here. Furthering our exploration into the sauce world, I take a classic, simple, comfort food: broccoli cheese potatoes, and turn its world over, draping thick, cheddar-laden robes across a dish of pan-fried gnocchi and lightly blanched broccoli, letting the cheese sauce sink gracelessly into the crannies between before blistering the whole top under the broiler for a few minutes. It’s a revelation. But then, that shouldn’t be so surprising, because the classic combination it pulls from is already so good.

Food Blog February 2014-3280Sauce mornay is basically a béchamel that’s been dressed up with the addition of cheese. It is French, as so many of them are, and in application can be used to add gooey goodness to everything from crepes to vegetables to macaroni and cheese. Not a fan of cauliflower? Roast it and drench it in a mornay sauce. I can almost guarantee you’ll be a convert. Making a cheese-y potato soup? The base to which you add broth or stock will likely be something very similar to a mornay. Fondue and Welsh rarebit are other closely related preparations, though whether they are offshoots, coincidences, or legitimate progenitors is likely not provable.

Food Blog February 2014-3283Traditionally, the cheese added to a mornay is a blend of parmesan and gruyere, a particularly nutty variety of Swiss cheese. I like extra sharp cheddar in mine, though, the sharper the better. My mornay sauce, it’s only fair to tell you, is thicker and has a much higher proportion of cheese in it than is strictly traditional. My reasons for this, as I’ve mentioned before, are largely that I like the taste of cheese more than I like the taste of the sauce it becomes. This seems a bit silly – why make the sauce if what you’re really after is the cheese? – but this creation is so velvety and thick and luxurious that it’s worth tinkering with until you get the consistency and cheese percentage you are happy with.

Food Blog February 2014-3290As for the rest of the dish, I can’t take ultimate credit. The inspiration for pan frying the gnocchi comes from Nigella Lawson, the (for me) true domestic goddess. Rather than boiling them and risking gumminess or spongy bits falling about, she sautés them until golden and crisp, as I’ve done here. They are then ready – anxious even – to suck up the lush cheddar velvet we’re going to douse them in. Adding the broccoli, blanched in salted water just until crisp-tender, is my attempt to make this a complete meal and dislodge some of the guilt you might feel about the amount of cheese you’re going to consume. Plus, who doesn’t love broccoli with cheese sauce? Again, classics, but jammed together in a fresh way that I hope will delight you.

Food Blog February 2014-3289I’m giving you two versions of my sauce mornay recipe here – one quite pared down and basic, though, as I noted above, cheesier than what is typical (many mornays call for only a few tablespoons of cheese) – one “kicked up” with the integration of some more complex, exciting flavors. Use and play at your own discretion.

Food Blog February 2014-3295

Basic Mornay
Makes about 2½ cups
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 ½ cups milk, at room temperature, if possible, for easier integration
2-3 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese (or the cheese of your liking. I use a whopping 3 cups of extra sharp New York cheddar)
  • Key for this sort of sauce is having all of your ingredients ready to go from the beginning. You don’t want to get to the “whisk constantly” part and realize you haven’t grated your cheese yet. Do yourself a favor and have everything ready and waiting for you before you begin.
  • In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When it is melted and bubbling, sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine with a whisk. The mixture will become thick and a bit crumbly.
  • Add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg and stir to combine.
  • Add the milk slowly – no more than ½ cup at a time – whisking insistently and constantly as you add it. You want to combine it smoothly into the thick roux (butter and flour mixture) you’ve created, and avoid lumps. Adding 1½ cups of refrigerator cold milk all at once makes lumps much more likely.
  • Keep whisking your mixture gently as you pour in each addition of milk. When you have added all of the milk, turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to whisk gently and languidly (or more ferociously if you have ended up with some lumps… it happens…) until the sauce begins to bubble.
  • Once the sauce reaches a gentle simmer, whisk until it thickens slightly – something a bit thicker than melted ice cream, perhaps the viscosity of a soft porridge or cream of wheat (remember that stuff? God I loved it as a kid).
  • Now that your sauce is thick, turn the heat down to low and add the cheese a small handful at a time, whisking after each addition until it is completely melted and incorporated. After a few minutes, you will end up with a thick, rich, pale orange (if it’s cheddar) sauce. If you are using cheddar, you might notice that your sauce is just barely grainy. That’s okay. It will still work really well in whatever application you’re using it for. Cheddar is just such a crumbly cheese that it doesn’t melt as silky smooth as other, softer cheeses.
Kicked-up Mornay
Makes about 2½ cups
2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 ½ cups milk, at room temperature, if possible, for easier integration
2-3 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese (or the cheese of your liking. I use a whopping 3 cups of extra sharp New York cheddar)
  • See notes above about having all of your ingredients ready to go before you begin cooking this sauce.
  • Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. When it has melted completely, add the finely minced garlic and stir gently.
  • When the garlic is sizzling and has barely taken on color, add the flour and stir to combine with a whisk. The mixture will become thick and a bit crumbly.
  • Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, and mustard, and stir to combine.
  • With the spices and flavorings integrated, follow the remaining directions for the standard mornay sauce above.
Gnocchi and Broccoli with Blistered Sauce Mornay
Serves 3-4
1 pound gnocchi (I use premade, go on, judge me…)
1-2 medium heads broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 recipe kicked-up mornay
  • Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil, then (carefully!) drop in the broccoli florets. Return the water to a boil and cook for just a minute or two, until the broccoli reaches your desired state of crisp-tenderness. Drain well and set aside in an ovenproof dish. I used a 9×9 inch square pan, which worked well.
  • In the same skillet in which you intend to make your mornay, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. When it glistens as you let it flow across the pan, add the gnocchi and toss lightly to get them all in contact with the oiled surface of the pan.
  • Cook the gnocchi, tossing occasionally, until all are golden and they have gained a dry, crisp crust. This should take approximately 8 minutes, depending on how hot your stove’s “medium” is. While you wait for the gnocchi, tossing them occasionally, turn on your broiler to preheat.
  • Once your gnocchi are golden and all have a crisp crust on at least one side, toss them with the broccoli you prepared earlier.
  • Now make the mornay sauce, following the directions above. When it is thick and rich and adequately cheese-laden for your tastes, pour it over the top of your gnocchi and broccoli, letting it sink down into the crevices in between, and settle in a substantial layer across the top. You may not want to use all of the sauce, but the quantity you apply is up to you.
  • Place your sauced dish in the broiler and let it rip for 5-10 minutes, checking frequently, until the cheese sauce across the top bubbles and blisters, and the exposed broccoli florets begin to get crusty and brown. Then all that’s left to do is serve yourself up a bowl and enjoy.

4 thoughts on “Project Sauce: Gnocchi and Broccoli with Blistered Sauce Mornay

    • I am SO happy to hear it! Yes, I can imagine some toasty, nutty Swiss like Jarlsberg would work well here, as, likely, would fontina for a smoother melting sauce. Really pleased to know you enjoyed it. Thanks for checking in!

    • Nancy,
      Oh you know it. And the gnocchi, if you pan-fry them enough, retain some exterior crispness despite their cheese dosing, so there’s lots of textural contrast and toasty bits to rejoice in.

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