Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce.
Chef Nick Elmi's ricotta gnocchi with white truffles has been a hit at his French-inspired Philadelphia restaurant, Laurel, since the beginning. "It's amazing how many people still geek out over white truffles," Elmi tells us on a visit to the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen—though the dish's consistently glowing reviews have certainly helped, too. When he stops by to walk us through the dish, however, we don't need any truffles; most people don't have them around at home anyway. Instead, Elmi will show us how to riff on his popular ricotta gnocchi in a format that's more doable for home cooking.
Unlike the potato-based pillows that most people might associate with the word gnocchi, Elmi's version follows the Parisian style. Gnocchi à la Parisienne, as they're known, rely on flour, water, and eggs instead of potatoes, which results in lighter puffs of dough. Adding a French cheese like Comté to that might be more common, but Elmi opts for ricotta to keep things fluffy. Making the gnocchi dough is easy: Elmi combines everything in a stand mixer, folds in a dash of chives, and then puts the mixture in a piping bag, so it can cool in the fridge.
While the dough chills, Elmi thinks through what to do with the gnocchi. One thing he likes about this dish is its versatility, he says. "That's what I love about these gnocchi. [At Laurel], we literally do it with truffle butter and water and shave truffles in it," he says. "I make them at home, and my daughter likes them with tomato sauce. Whatever's in the garden, throw it in." At the time of his visit, vegetables are still growing on the MUNCHIES rooftop, so Elmi roots around and grabs a few eggplant, sungold tomatoes, and a bunch of Swiss chard. As the season turns to winter, let the same logic apply to whatever looks good at the store.
As we walk through the garden and make our way back inside, Elmi tells us about Laurel, his small, sophisticated restaurant that celebrated its sixth birthday this month. "I have a picture of my son standing in the restaurant like, the day before we opened and now he looks like a teenager," he says. Now, Laurel still makes the ranks of the city's best restaurants, and its most iconic dishes have been immortalized in Elmi's first cookbook, Laurel: Modern American Flavors in Philadelphia, which was co-written with Adam Erace and hit shelves in September. Elmi didn't always plan to make Philadelphia his long-term home, but now he's got roots; Laurel is joined by a casual sister restaurant, In the Valley, just next door. "I figured I'd go hang out in Philly, and I fell in love with the city," says Elmi, who was raised in Massachusetts.
Back in the kitchen, Elmi gets started on the gnocchi, which cooks quite a bit faster than your standard pasta dinner. After boiling a pot of salted water, he pipes the gnocchi in directly, snipping the dough into half-inch segments using a small offset spatula (a pair of kitchen shears works as well). The gnocchi are done in just about two minutes, and Elmi scoops them out with a slotted spoon and puts them on a lightly-oiled baking sheet, which will keep them from sticking.
On a cold, quiet day, make a big batch of these easy gnocchi: some for now, and the rest for later. "The best part about these is you can cook them and throw them in the fridge and they'll last for four or five days. You can just make a sauce and throw them in the sauce. You can freeze them too," Elmi explains.
After cutting the eggplant into cubes and mincing some garlic, Elmi sautees them with olive oil in a saucepan. Once the eggplant has softened, he removes it from the pan, and then adds water and butter. As the mixture heats up, it will emulsify, and it'll thicken even more once the gnocchi is mixed in. "These [gnocchi] have enough starch in them that they act as their own sauce," he explains. "Most of this stuff is so good that you don't really want to mess with it [too much]." He throws the whole sungold tomatoes and sliced Swiss chard into the butter to cook lightly.
Once the tomatoes have softened and burst, Elmi gently stirs in the gnocchi, followed by the cooked eggplant and a seasoning of salt and pepper. Because the dish is so rich and buttery, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of zest serves as a balancing final touch. Since we had them in the garden, Elmi adds raw okra flowers, which have a surprisingly shellfish-like flavor, and a few sprigs of bronze fennel. This riff on Elmi's gnocchi dish is based on whatever's around, though, so don't fret if they're not available for you.
No matter what time of year it is and no matter what vegetables are in season, keep a batch of Elmi's ricotta and chive gnocchi in the freezer. Cook them up in your favorite pasta sauce or even just butter, and they'll make it to the table faster than any take-out order. Your future self will thank you.