Sunday, September 24, 2006

Quick & Healthy: Sautéed Gnocchi with Fava Beans

Gnocchi scare me a little. I don’t mean the part about mixing the delicate dough and cooking them just right. I mean actually eating them. Gnocchi, when boiled and then sautéed the way I prefer, have everything going for them. What could be bad about little thumb-sized nubs of fresh dough, crisp and buttery on the outside and soft and light within? Whether served with fresh vegetables, brown butter or tomato sauce, the attraction is strong when I read a menu description, but I am rarely able to close the deal and order a gnocchi dish in restaurants. I am just too scared that they will be (if only I could put this more delicately) …awful. One or two experiences involving heavy, chewy gnocchi that taste of little more than raw dough would make anyone shy away. The really terrible part of this sad story is that gnocchi have such potential! Have you eaten truly wonderful gnocchi? Think about biting into that feathery, flavorful specimen. It hints at the elements of a miniature fritter or savory pancake with its appearance and texture, but the actual substance is Italian pasta dough expanded to greater volume by the shape of the gnocchi.

I am not going to pretend I know how to create the transcendent gnocchi experience that I’m describing here. I wish I had a technique and a treasured recipe that brought shining results every time. It might take years to work that out, but in the meantime I have a delicious and easy alternative. I picked up some Gia Russa fresh Whole Wheat Gnocchi made with sweet potatoes one day at my local supermarket as an impulse buy. I get very excited when I see quality whole wheat products, and the gnocchi really surprised me. My best hope was that the Gia Russa would be a tasty alternative to my usual whole wheat spaghetti or penne, but I did not imagine that it would be comparable to good, traditional white flour gnocchi. I put the package in the back of my pantry cupboard where it sat for ages until last week. Thinking about some fabulous gnocchi that I had recently eaten at a restaurant and inspired by Heidi’s post titled, Golden Crispy Gnocchi, on 101 Cookbooks, I decided to give the store-bought whole wheat ones a whirl. I also had acquired more fresh fava beans from the market, and was dreaming up a mix of favas and sautéed fresh veggies mixed with crisp gnocchi, pan-fried in a little olive oil and butter. All the sweet, bright flavors of the vegetables are brought together with the barest hint of cream, an idea I got from Heidi’s recipe.

I still can’t believe how much this dish surpassed my expectations! Mike and I had to barter over the leftovers (he got the gnocchi since I got our spaghetti with swiss chard, olives and pine nuts). The veggies I chose had the right combination of sweet flavors and varying textures. The gnocchi outshined everything, even the favas, although my newfound love affair with these beautiful beans continues. Though rather large in size, the gnocchi had a soft, spongy texture on the inside. I liked that they were made with sweet potatoes for nutrition, but the flavor and color of the bright orange root was undetectable. There was no specific wheat-like flavor, yet they had more complexity than many bland, white flour pastas. I do not understand why many chefs who should be able to achieve the kind of wonderful results I got with my store-bought gnocchi are still serving up bits of dough as heavy as a bocce ball. I suggest they sample Gia Russa’s version (they also make a white flour gnocchi in both regular and miniature size). This meal renewed my faith in gnocchi, and I am glad I found a cooking method that I like too. If you share my old fear of this delicious Italian dish, it is time to explore your market, Italian grocery or gourmet food store and start experimenting. You’ll be rewarded with a healthy dish that comes together in a flash. If you can’t find Gia Russa in your market (their products are also available here from, try another brand and let me know what you think!

The extra (quick) step of sauteeing the gnocchi is worthwhile--it completely transforms them.

All it needs is a touch of cream to bind all those fresh, sweet flavors.

Sautéed Gnocchi with Fresh Fava Beans
Serves 3

1 ¼ to 1 ½ lb. fresh fava beans, shelled (or substitute about 1 c. frozen, shelled favas)
½ to 1 tblsp. butter
2-3 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb. gnocchi (I used Gia Russa whole wheat gnocchi)
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small onion, chopped
8 oz. sliced mushrooms (I used baby bellas)
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
kernels from 2 fresh ears of corn (or substitute frozen)
2-3 tblsp. half & half or cream
¼ c. fresh, chopped basil
Parmigiano Reggiano, for serving

To remove the skin from the fava beans, boil in a large pot for 2 minutes, drain, then soak in ice water to stop the cooking. Slip the tough outer skin from each bean and set aside until ready to use. This may be done up to 1 day in advance.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt, then add the gnocchi and boil for 2 ½ minutes, or according to package directions. I wanted to undercook mine just slightly. Drain in a colander.

Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and add ½ tblsp. of the butter and 1 tblsp. of olive oil. To avoid crowding the gnocchi, you may have to do this in two batches. In that case, use the remaining tblsp. of butter and another tblsp. of the oil. Add the gnocchi to the hot butter and oil, season lightly with salt and pepper and cook undisturbed for 1 to 2 minutes or until lightly browned and crisp. Flip the gnocchi around and cook for an additional minute until the other side is browned. Remove gnocchi to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tblsp. of olive oil in another skillet over medium heat and add the onions and mushrooms. Cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and tomatoes and continue cooking until the tomatoes just begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the corn and reserved fava beans, stirring to combine and cook until them are warmed through. Season to taste with salt and pepper and lower the heat. Add the cream. It should be just enough to pick up all the flavorful juices in the pan and bring everything together. Add most of the basil and remove from heat. Divide the gnocchi among 3 serving plates, top with the vegetables, freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and the remaining basil.

With only a small amount of butter and half & half in the whole dish, this gnocchi makes a healthy weeknight meal!


Ivonne said...

One word ... WOW!

Baking and Books said...

My husband loves gnocchi but I've never tried making it at home. Maybe I will now, this post was inspirational!

Baking and Books

keiko said...

Oh Julie, I'm going to love this, the colour is just gorgeous! Thanks so much for sharing the recipe.

bea at La Tartine Gourmande said...

Yum yum, what a fabulous recipe! I cooked sauteed gnocchi before and loved it ! With the fava beans, it makes a perfect association

Anonymous said...

I compeletly agree with the muttering muse that this is an inspirational recipe. I love fava beans, but the only I knew to cook them so far was the traditional Turkish way with mint, dill, parsley, etc. Excellent idea!

Anonymous said...

Hi =
Looks delicious!
I am attempting to find frozen fava beans and am having no luck. I see many references to them, but no actual placles to find. Anyone have an idea?

Julie said...

Anonymous: I buy them at Whole Foods Market. I haven't seen them elsewhere, though I haven't been looking. If you happen to be near Trader Joes, I'd give them a try. Good luck!