This recipe is an great example of how Italian and cooking has shaped the recipes that float through my mind. Geographically speaking, you wouldn’t think that Minnesota shares much with Italy, but that just isn’t so. Minnesota is the land of ten thousand lakes, formed by the movement of glaciers so long time ago. Interestingly enough, the area surrounding Rome is not much different. There are plenty of little freshwater lakes where people can fish, and many old forests where things grow as well, like porcini, which Italians young and old hunt with a devout passion.
If a Minnesota fisherman went to Rome, it’s quite likely that he would pull a luccio from one of the surrounding lakes; a predatory fish with a mouth of sharp teeth, and flesh that must be carefully boned before eating. Luccio is a species of European pike. Although it is not placed in the same family, culinary wise it’s just a hot cousin of our Minnesota state fish: the one and only walleye, as well as the lesser appreciated but still delicious northern pike. If you’ve had home cooked northern pike from the Midwest, you are well aware that there are bones, and many of them. There is actually a way to de-bone a filet of northern, but that’s another story.
The first time I ate northern pike was with my father when we were visiting some of our relatives near Cosmos Minnesota. The man of the house is a massive Scandinavian, with a barrel chest and arms big enough to pick up a car with his little finger. He was so stocky that I was always a bit scared of him when I was a kid. Now I respect him, and see dignity in his life of hard, honest work.
Using boneless northen pike/walleye scrap and trim
I should mention too that this recipe came about as a way of using up fish scrap from cleaning and boning a large batch of northern pike. If you find yourself with a pile of them and don’t feel like picking through the bones while eating them or tediously fileting the bones out, just remove all of the bones, then grind or chop the fish meat in a food processor. This recipe freezes very well.
I also garnish the plate with toasted breadcrumbs, as this is the custom with fish sauced pasta since cheese is an absolute no-no. It’s a fine dish, although it will be tough to come up with this much porcini unless you have a magnificent patch. If you don’t have fresh porcini , you could definitely sub another fresh bolete, or even a cultivated species of your choice, since the recipe already includes dried porcini as well.
In the end I found myself wondering: is it Roman?, or is it Minnesotan?
Gnocchi, Northern Pike-Porcini Ragu and Escarole
Yield: About 2 qts of very rich ragu. This is scaled from a much larger batch using equal weight of pike to fresh porcini, which is an insane proportion for home cooking. You can easily substitute button mushrooms or a cultivated variety for the fresh porcini. The recipe will make enough to sauce pasta or gnocchi for 8 people, scale as needed.
Prep time: 2 hours to trim fish, clean mushrooms, and chop veggies, plus make gnocchi, which can and should be made ahead of time and stashed in your freezer, just in case of random guests and impromptu dinner parties.
Cook time: 1.5 hours, depending on the height and depth of your pot
- 1 recipe gnocchi (follows)
- 1.5 lbs northern pike scrap or de-boned meat from filets, chopped roughly (of course you could easily sub walleye)
- 1 heaping cup each: carrot, yellow onion, celery, roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 qt fish fumet/stock* (See note) you could also use vegetable broth, chicken stock or water
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 3 lbs fresh porcini, stems and caps diced into cubes, (you could easily sub a cultivated variety, like crimini)
- 1/2 oz dried porcini
- Kosher salt and pepper
- Flavorless oil for cooking, such as grapeseed, canola, or light olive oil,
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 head of escarole
For the herbed breadcrumbs
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp cooking oil
- 4 tbsp chopped mixed herbs (I suggest using a mixture of equal parts of tarragon and parsley)
- Make the breadcrumbs. Toss the breadcrumbs with the oil and season with 1/4 teaspoon of salt, spread the breadcrumbs on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 350, or until golden brown and nicely toasted. Cool the breadcrumbs completely, then toss with the chopped herbs.
Northern pike-porcini ragu
- Heat the milk gently, then add the dried porcini and allow to reconstitute and infuse for 30 minutes or so, all they have to do is soften. Agitate the porcini by stirring them in the milk vigorously to remove any sediment or debris from them. Next remove the dried mushrooms with a slotted spoon or a spider tool, roughly chop the mushrooms so there aren’t large pieces of woody stem or anything floating around. Strain the infused milk through a mesh strainer, then return the reconstituted chopped porcini to it.
- Next put the chopped carrot, onion, garlic and celery in the bowl of a food processor, add the water and puree on high for 5 solid minutes, or until the mixture gives up some water, it should look like a vegetable slurry.
- Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a high sided pot or something of similar size, your regular pasta pot would be fine. Add the vegetable slurry as well as the tomato paste and cook for ten minutes on medium heat, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper.
- Add the white wine and cook until it is reduced by half
- Next add the fresh porcini in milk, fish and the stock/water/whatever you are using
- Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and cook for 1.5 hours on low heat.
- After 1.5 hours the mixture should have cooked off plenty of water and look thick enough to coat some pasta. It should not look soupy at all, but be rather thick and meaty.
- A 1/2 cup of ragu/person is decent for dinner, and will dress 3/4 cup of cooked gnocchi,
To serve the dish and feed 4 people
- Heat the 2 cups of the ragu in a saute pan. Add the chopped escarole and cook until it wilts. Next add the 2 tbsp unsalted butter and swirl/stir the pan until it is totally incorporated and the sauce thickens slightly. While you gently heat the sauce, cook the gnocchi in boiling salted water until they float (they can cook directly from frozen).
- Add the gnocchi to the pan to coat with the sauce, check the seasoning one last time for salt, then divide between four heated bowls, top with the herbed breadcrumbs and serve.
Eggless Roman Potato Gnocchi
Yield: four entree size servings or 8 smaller portions for a multi course dinner
- 1 lb russet potatoes
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- 1.5 cups 00 flour
- 5 scrapes of fresh nutmeg
- Steam the potatoes until tender when poked with a knife, about 30 minutes. Peel the potatoes and rice them.
- Lay the riced potatoes out on a cutting board and cover with the flour, nutmeg, and salt. Incorporate the flour and seasonings into the riced potato, but do not knead it hard like bread. The gluten must not be developed in the four, otherwise the gnocchi will be soft when rolled, and then hard and chewy when cooked. Instead of kneading, press the flour into the potatoes, and try to sort of just press it together into a mass.
- Continue gathering the flour that falls off and pressing it into the potatoes until the mixture is an amalgamated, even mass.
- Allow the dough to rest for 5 minutes wrapped in plastic, then quickly roll out into logs, cut into 1 inch pieces with a bench knife, toss in a.p. flour lightly to coat, then freeze on a cookie sheet.
- When the gnocchi are completely frozen, transfer them to a tightly sealed container and freeze. The gnocchi, if tightly sealed, will last for months in the freezer. To cook, simply drop them into boiling salted water and cook until they float.
- Once cooked, the gnocchi can be tossed with oil and refrigerated for 5 days, although they will begin to get soft starting from the middle out after time, if they get mushy and soft throw them away.