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Gnocchi with Creamy Leeks and Fennel

Cooking Off the Cuff: leeks and potatoes - a classic pairing in a new form

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly paired potato gnocchi with leeks, a logical progression from the excellent classic leek and potato soup, a.k.a. vichyssoise in its chilled version. I’ve also brought fennel together with leeks – to harmonious effect – and have sometimes included other ingredients such as Italian-style sausage. Recently, however, Jackie and I had a purified version that could hardly have been more delightful. It was essentially gnocchi with creamed leeks and fennel, which already sounds appetizing, don’t you think?

If you omit what would seem to be the central element – the gnocchi – and use a little less cream, this leek and fennel mixture stands on its own as an accompaniment to, say, roast chicken or a veal or pork chop.

It isn’t hard to find recipes for gnocchi; some are good, some are disastrously bad. As a starting point for the somewhat firm gnocchi that I favor, I use the British food writer Felicity Cloake’s recipe; I’m fond of the way she explains exactly how she arrived at it.

Note that pepper is used (and optionally at that) only to add aromatic sparkle at the table: It would contribute nothing to the dish as it cooks. This is part of my new campaign to back away from the unconsidered use of pepper in everything we eat apart from dessert: Let’s save it for recipes that really benefit from it.

Ingredients

  • 1 batch gnocchi made with 1 to 1-1/4 pounds russet (baking) potatoes
  • 1 small to medium leek, white and palest green parts only
  • 1/3 bulb fennel, core removed
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 3 sage leaves, slivered, or a small handful chopped parsley
  • 1/2 Cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice held in reserve in case it is needed
  • Salt
  • Grated parmesan and (optional) fresh-ground black pepper to serve

Directions

Prepare your gnocchi dough and form the gnocchi in accordance with your favorite recipe; boil them either after the sauce is finished for immediate serving or in advance, chilling them in ice water and draining them, then reheating in a skillet with a little butter before adding the sauce.

Cut the leek in half lengthwise and inspect for any soil or sand; if you see even one speck, there will probably be more, so rinse thoroughly in at least two changes of cold water, fanning out the layers to let the water in and the sand out. Pat reasonably dry, then slice on the bias into thin but not super-thin strips – say, 1/4 inch (6 mm) or so. Slice the fennel, lengthwise, into slightly finer strips.

In a medium sauté pan or skillet, melt the butter over medium-low heat; add the sliced leek and fennel, the sage and a sprinkling of salt, and cook, stirring frequently but not constantly until the leeks are soft and the fennel tender but with some crunch, three to five minutes, depending on heat and on the fennel.

Add the cream and simmer for half a minute. Check for salt. Set aside until the gnocchi have been cooked – or reheated, depending on your logistics. The mixture may taste monochromatic at this stage, and you may think it needs a tablespoonful of lemon juice. But wait until it is combined with the gnocchi before any making irrevocable adjustments: it should be fine without the lemon juice.

When the gnocchi are nearly ready, reheat the sauce. Add the gnocchi and gently stir to combine; this is best done in a large skillet (in which you can also reheat the gnocchi if cooked in advance). Simmer for 15 seconds before serving. A little hot water may be needed if the sauce grows too dense.

Serve with grated parmesan and, if you like, an enlivening grind of black pepper.