One fateful afternoon several years ago, a young man asked a young woman on a date. In her last year of undergraduate studies and preparing to move across the country for graduate school, she was not interested in starting a relationship, but he was a good friend, and the offer was intriguing: lunch at a new French restaurant that she had been dying to try and a movie based on her favorite book. What’s more, the young man was visiting from out west for only a short while, so both knew that the date would probably lead to nothing more than what it was. She accepted the invitation.
The menu was made up of classic French bistro fare: from pâté and a French cheese platter to croque-madame and coq au vin – all served with a thick slice of country (multigrain) French bread. One dish, in particular, caught the young woman’s eye, both for its familiarity and its novelty: French gnocchi, served with vegetables in a cream sauce. Being Italian, she was familiar with (and fond of) potato gnocchi, but these so-called “French” gnocchi, made with pâte à choux instead of potatoes, seemed something else entirely and were quite intriguing. She accepted the invitation.
Upon initial inspection, the dish was not visually stunning but certainly appealing in its own rustic way: the gnocchi, not smooth and uniform like potato gnocchi but softer, slightly varied in shape and size, and speckled with herbs, were surrounded by slices of bright green zucchini and yellow squash and plump brown mushrooms in a pale cream sauce. From the first bite, it was love. The gnocchi literally melted in her mouth – lush and buttery with a slight hint of Dijon mustard and something else she couldn’t quite place. The vegetables were perfectly prepared and the sauce bound it all together to form a perfect dish.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten something so wonderful. Nothing she’d had in France – or Italy – was quite like this. She knew she would not soon forget this moment.
The coq au vin, which the young man had ordered and of which he was happy to share a bite, was delicious, but it didn’t compare to the bowl of perfection that sat before her. The young man, a meat-lover at heart, agreed that this vegetarian dish was truly outstanding.
The rest of date was lovely; the company was engaging, and the movie was just as good as she’d hoped it would be. But the French gnocchi. They made the day.
The two went their separate ways but returned to this spot once more, during the young man’s next visit. Shortly thereafter, the young woman moved east for graduate school; although they lived on opposite ends of the country, they kept in touch.
Within six months of their last visit to the restaurant, the young man had moved across the country to a location only a 4-hour drive from the young woman’s school, and within a year, the two lived in the same city once again, if only for a summer. They would often reminisce about this little French bistro and plan to return there together the next time they were back home. That summer, motivated by her vivid memories of the French gnocchi and a passion for culinary exploration, the young woman attempted to recreate it, and the young man was there – to share his memory, taste-test, and help shape the recipe into something that resembled this dish that stood out as one of the major dining experiences of the young woman’s life.
Miraculously, the quest was a success. Some help from the likes of Thomas Keller and Julia Child, advice from the young man, and a little tweaking of her own yielded perfection. The young man claimed that it was the best dish he had ever eaten, and the young woman was elated to have discovered how to recreate it. No longer would she dream wistfully of French gnocchi. She would make them herself.
The two would never return to the little French bistro. Sadly, the partnership between the owners of this charming little place would not be as long-lived as that forged between the two diners on that day years before. The bistro would be closed the next time the two were in town, but the memory of the French gnocchi would live on, and with it, a new recipe and a life-long culinary collaboration.
French gnocchi with vegetables
Serves 6 as a a main course.
For the gnocchi:
2 cups water
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped chervil*
1 tablespoon chopped chives*
1 tablespoon chopped parsley*
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon*
1 cup Comté cheese, fresly grated (Emmenthaler and Gruyere also work well)
*In lieu of the fresh herbs, you may use 2 tablespoons of fines herbes, a dried combination of parsley, chives, chervil, and tarragon.
In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to boil with butter, salt and pepper. When the butter has melted, remove saucepan from the heat and immediately add the flour. Beat vigorously (with a wooden spatula) to blend thoroughly. Return saucepan to medium-high heat and continue to beat for about 2 minutes, until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan, forms a mass, and begins to film on the bottom of the pan.
Remove from the heat and stir in the Dijon mustard and herbs. Then add the cheese and stir until the mixture is smooth.
Make a well in the center of the dough. Add one egg and beat for several seconds until most of the egg has been absorbed by the dough. Continue with the remaining eggs, beating each until absorbed.
Transfer dough to a pastry bag fitted with a 5/8-inch plain tip. Don’t fill the pastry bag too full; leave a few inches so that it can be folded/rolled closed. (If the pastry bag is not large enough to accommodate all the dough, cover the remainder with plastic wrap and set aside.)
Set a large pot of water to boil (a 6- to 8-quart pot filled with 4-6 quarts of water) and prepare two sheet pans for the cooked gnocchi by lining each with a double layer of paper towels. Then proceed with the vegetables.
For the vegetables:
2 small zucchini, halved long-ways and sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 small yellow squash, halved long-ways and sliced 1/4 inch thick
8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 small yellow onion, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
freshly ground pepper
Heat 1 tablespoon each butter and olive oil in a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and a good pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the mushrooms and another pinch of salt and continue to cook for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the zucchini and squash, 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, but not mushy. Keep an eye on them as you continue with the gnocchi and be sure to turn off the heat when they are done to avoid over cooking.
When the water has come to a boil, salt generously and proceed with cooking the gnocchi.
(If you have a helper, this step is a little easier with two people, but it can certainly be done solo.) Hold the pastry bag horizontally over the rim of the pot your dominant side (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to the right side). Squeeze the pastry bag gently from the far end with your right hand. With a pair of sharp kitchen shears in your left hand snip off 1-inch lengths of dough. (Don’t lean in too closely and beware of splashing hot water; the higher the water level, the less splash you’ll get.)
Cook about 20 to 30 gnocchi per batch. The gnocchi will sink initially. Once they float to the surface of the water, cook for another 2-3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or skimmer, removed the cooked gnocchi to the paper-towel-lined sheet pans.
Continue in batches with the remaining dough, folding the pastry bag smaller as it empties (and/or refilling it with the extra dough when there’s room).
Return the vegetables to medium heat. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and 1/2 cup of cream stirring gently until the cream is heated through. Salt to taste.
Add the cooked gnocchi* to the vegetables, tossing gently (the gnocchi are delicate) over medium heat until the mixture is well combined and heat through.
*You may find that you don’t need all the gnocchi. If you have extra, they will keep in the refrigerator for a few days.
In this photo, I had made the dish without cream and garnished with curls of Comté. It’s definitely better with a little cream, but still wonderful without!