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.

Breaking Bread

Last week I tallied up what remained on my Bittman Sides project and discovered, through careful calculations that included pointing to my calendar and counting on my fingers, that if I make two selections from the list every week, I will be finished with the whole thing at the end of the year.  And I mean the end.  The very last week.  Ambitious, yes?  I decided I could do it.

Guess how many I made this week?



So I’m not starting out well with this, but I’m going to try anyway.  I’m years overdue from my original goal anyway.  And in my own kind of backwards reverse engineering, I try to make up for this how?  By posting twice in one week.  So it goes, I suppose…

87. Combine 2 cups whole wheat flour with 2 cups white flour and 1 teaspoon each baking powder, baking soda and salt in a food processor. Pour in 1½ cups buttermilk or thin yogurt, and pulse until a ball is formed. Knead for a minute (fold in ½ cup raisins or currants if you like), shape into a round loaf, slash the top in a few places and bake on a greased sheet for about 45 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when you thump it.

I’ve tried bread in the food processor before and it didn’t go very well (what does “when the dough is shaggy” mean anyway?), but I was willing to give this a shot.  It looked like a basic Irish soda bread recipe, and though I’ve never put that in the food processor, I have made it with success on multiple occasions.  So, I pulled down my food processor, opened my pantry, and collected

2 cups wheat flour

2 cups white flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup Greek yogurt whisked with 1 cup whole milk (I had neither buttermilk nor thin yogurt – this seemed like a happy medium)

½ cup craisins

I followed Bittman’s directions to near disaster.  Either my food processor is too small, or this method isn’t all that reliable, because the dough never formed a ball.  Half of it just clumped into a solid mass in one side of the processor bowl and refused to budge.  I said some words in the quiet of my own brain and then held my breath while I tumbled the half-mixed contents out onto a floured board.

This is certainly not a ball.  But I sprinkled on half a cup of craisins and started kneading anyway, trying to ignore the hateful feel of dry dough on my hands.  After a minute or two I determined that things were just not coming together.

Flour-streaked hands reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the milk, dribbled a few tablespoons into a hollow in the dough, and tried again.  This time, things started to stick, to smooth, to pull into a ball.  I patched, I patted, I pushed and knuckled, and finally plopped one of the homeliest loaves ever made onto a greased baking sheet.  Slashed, scored, and enclosed in a warm oven, and I’d done all I could.

Bittman didn’t specify a temperature, but I estimated 375F and returned to grading papers for the better part of an hour.  The timer’s buzz 45 minutes later called me back to a crusty, mottled, flour-speckled loaf that sounded empty when I thumped the bottom, and smelled like humble sour sweetness.

I waited a few hours to try some.  When I cut into it, my knife scraping through the crust and scattering crumbly bits across the board, the interior was dense and moist and still just warm.

It tasted good.  A bit heavy, from the whole wheat flour, and not suitable for eating in large chunks like the one I’d carved off for myself.  But the craisins added a welcome punch, and I think if I’d used all buttermilk instead of my odd mixture of milk and yogurt, the tang would have come through and broken some of the one-note density of the texture.  This would be good, I suspect, toasted and buttered, or maybe – if you’re the daring type – transformed into French toast.  It might also be good made with 3 cups of white and 1 cup of wheat flour, rather than equal parts.

Both N. and I have some Irish blood, and although it doesn’t show too often (unless you count his beard and my very occasional temper), by strange coincidence we ended up eating this bread as part of an accidentally, avant-garde-ly “Irish” dinner: pan fried gnocchi and sauteed cabbage.  Potatoes, cabbage, and Irish soda bread.  If only we’d had corned beef, I told N., and a horseradish sauce to moisten it.

But here’s the good news: smeared with cream cheese, the bread was tasty and chewy and wholesome, with bright pops of cranberry sweetness here and there.  Shallow fried in a mixture of butter and olive oil, the gnocchi were amazing.  Tongue searingly hot, their exteriors crisped and browned like the perfect roasted potato.  Their interiors remained soft and creamy and rich, but the contrast of crusty brown outside to creamy chewy perfection inside was unbelievable.  I could eat these every day.  I could eat them for every meal.  Fried and rolled, still blisteringly hot, in cinnamon sugar, I would scarf these for breakfast alongside a glass of milk like tiny churros.  Tossed with pesto or roasted red pepper sauce, I would gulp them for lunch.  Folded into a mornay sauce with too much extra cheese, I would sub these for pasta in a beautiful perversion of oven-baked macaroni and cheese.  And well salted and perhaps tossed in garlic powder or red pepper flakes, I would happily substitute these for popcorn during a movie.  I might be obsessed.

So with one Bittman down for the week and an intense regimen in store for the rest of the year, it turns out I’m more interested in fried potatoes.  And I’m tempted to ask: who wouldn’t be?  But then I wonder… is that just the Irish in me talking?