Supermarket ricotta is fine for certain things — Italian-style cheesecake, for instance, and some kinds of Italian-American pasta dishes — but there’s no ignoring the fact that it is bland and wet. By contrast, the sheep’s milk ricotta that Jackie and I buy at our local farmers market is fluffy, rather than sloppy (it’s sold in a basket-like container, so it is well drained), and has the mild-but-distinct, sinus-filling flavor/aroma of ewe’s milk and pasture.
There was some ricotta left over from a dinner party (blobs of it had garnished a dish of pasta and peas), and we were thinking of having it drizzled with honey and sprinkled with toasted walnuts — a lovely dessert. But one afternoon we took ourselves out for a cocktail and a bite and were suffering from PSAAS (post-snack attenuated appetite syndrome): We’d spoiled our dinner. By around 8 p.m., though, we were ready for something light and easy and delicious, and our thoughts turned to that ricotta.
There were some not-bad tomatoes in the house and some wonderful fresh herbs. It would have been simple enough to mince the herbs, mash them into the ricotta and spoon this into halved cherry tomatoes or spread it on grilled bread and top that with tomatoes. But this would have been perilously close to a salad, which was not enough like cooking to be gratifying.
We’ve had ricotta gnocchi now and then over the years, and they seemed like something that would fit the bill and make use of available ingredients. These dumplings are sometimes nice, sometimes lousy. They can be too fragile to handle or they can be rubbery – and they can all too easily be tasteless. Our good ricotta and careful tasting would take care of the latter; instinct and luck would perhaps yield a pleasing texture.
For about 1 1/2 cups of well-drained ricotta, I vigorously beat in two eggs, a 1/4 cup of grated parmesan, about a 1/4 cup of finely minced herbs (dill and tarragon — a surprising and highly aromatic combination) and salt, pepper and nutmeg. After tasting the mixture, I added flour, a little at a time, until spoonfuls of the mixture held their shape while remaining soft. (On that day, with those ingredients, it took about 2/3 cup of flour.) I poached a sample teaspoon of the mixture: It held together and was tender — and flavorful. The gnocchi mixture was a go, so I spooned it into a disposable plastic pastry bag with the tip cut off (to a generous 1/2-inch diameter) and squeezed one-inch lengths of it into simmering salted water (in a fairly shallow pan), lopping them off with a table knife as they emerged from the bag. They simmered for four minutes once they had all hit the water.
Meanwhile, I had cut up tomatoes — one small “regular” red one, plus half dozen or so cherry tomatoes of various colors — and put them to cook in a skillet with nothing more than olive oil and salt until their flavor was intensified and they’d yielded plenty of juice. A burst of high heat helped the juice form a fragile emulsion with the oil, which gave this sauce some consistency.
When the gnocchi were done, I carefully — carefully — lifted them out of the water, set them into the pan of tomatoes, basted them and served them up in warmed bowls. They needed no further grated cheese.
That sounds like more work than it actually was: Making the gnocchi mixture involved nothing more than combining ingredients that were already around, and the sauce (which, with good tomatoes, could be used for many things such as eggs or pasta) took almost no labor at all and very little time. I doubt that total preparation time was more than five minutes, while the water came to the boil, with another five for cooking and serving.
And what a lot of elegance for the minimal effort: These had an almost ideal texture — soft but not too fragile, and smooth, not grainy. The ricotta’s flavor was clear as a bell; the little bit of acidity from the tomatoes gave the dish a lift, and the tarragon gave it a non-sugary sweetness. Definitely something we’ll serve to guests.