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Consuming the Work of Our Hands: Brown Butter-Sage Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Posted by Theology of Home on
Consuming the Work of Our Hands: Brown Butter-Sage Sweet Potato Gnocchi

By Emily Malloy

Echoes of laughter and whirring kitchen tools enveloped the space of the church kitchen basement of my youth, spilling out beyond the doorway. Floured hands betrayed the age of their owners as they kneaded and rolled. These same hands prepared endless meals out of love for decades. As they shared humorous stories and profound wisdom over piles of flour and dough, all I could do as an impressionable teenager was to sit and absorb.

In retrospect, the fond memories of making gołąbki and nut rolls with these sweet, old ladies built a strong foundation. It impressed upon me the tangible love of handmade food, reinforcing the actions of my own mother in the kitchen. These actions satisfy longings in a unique way -- the longing of the giver to pour love out and the longing of the receiver to be loved. The physical nourishment in the process is a delightful by-product. 

The time-old tradition of making food by hand provides a unique invitation to children. They are incredibly eager to work alongside their parents, taking part in the tasks that help keep the household running. Welcoming them into these actions not only lightens our load, but provides them with lessons for life. 

Gnocchi is perhaps the most non-prohibitive pasta to create, as the lone tool used is the fork. Having many hands to roll the gnocchi into shape greatly reduces the work while also satisfying that desire of young ones to have tactile work and be with the main objects of their affection: mom and dad (and it is much less messy than play-dough). What it imparts is something richly rewarding: the ability to consume the work of their hands.

There is a cathartic nature to working with our hands. Kneading -- even while nagging thoughts pre-occupy our minds -- seems to work out a great deal of tension. Though we may be momentarily pre-occupied, we remain rooted in the present, as our hands shape bread, biscuits, or pasta. 

The sharing and preparing of a meal has the possibility of producing so much more than food, as I have written before on the importance of reclaiming the dinner table on the formation of culture. Like sharing a meal, cooking alongside another provides a particular opportunity for relationship. Similar to the tender memories of my childhood, one of my recently treasured memories is working with friends to process the fruits of deer season together. Unique barriers are broken down in the process of working toward a shared goal. 

We all must eat. Why not utilize an opportunity to build a culture around this daily activity?

Now, about the dish at hand. Sage possesses a unique flavor among herbs. It has the earthiest of all herb aromas. A great many plants have their own version of "earthiness" or deep richness in flavor, but few can easily serve as a fitting substitute with the same depth as sage. Many of us have it bursting at the seams in our gardens, but seldom use it after Thanksgiving.  

Sage is an herb that I enjoy the entire year through, not only in the autumnal and winter seasons. I encourage you to cook with it more often! 

Sweet potatoes are a root vegetable prevalent in the south. We pass neatly and lovingly planted rows of sweet potatoes in our town. 

Sweet potatoes in gnocchi adds a unique and subtle sweetness. Its rich color adds visual appeal. Pairing sweet potatoes with the earthiness of sage and garlic, topped with a rich brown butter and sharp bite of arugula is a feast for the senses. If you like a subtle bite of heat, I recommend finishing off with a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. 

Brown Butter-Sage Sweet Potato Gnocchi
Yields: 8-10 servings
Time: Preparation 30+ minutes / Cook: 15-20 minutes

For the gnocchi--
6-7 medium-sized sweet potatoes, baked until soft, skins removed, and mashed
3/4 cup whole milk ricotta
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
2-3 cups all-purpose flour, separated
Salt to add to pasta water
1 tablespoon of butter
1 1/2 cups fresh arugula
3/4 cup shredded asiago cheese

For the brown butter sauce--
1/2 cup butter, unsalted
6-7 fresh sage leaves, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
Crushed red pepper flakes, optional


1. In a large bowl, combine the mashed sweet potatoes, ricotta, salt, and cheese. Begin to slowly add flour, starting with 1 cup, and adding in 1/2 cup increments as you knead. Knead on a well-floured surface until dough is smooth, approximately 5-10 minutes. The amount of flour used will fluctuate, so continue to add while kneading until the dough is no longer sticky. If you require more than 3 cups, that is fine, you might just live in a humid climate (like me!). 

2. Remove about 1/2 cup of dough and roll it into the shape of a snake. Cut the rope into smaller bite sizes. To shape the gnocchi, lightly flour the small piece of dough, using your thumb, press and roll the dough down an upside-down fork from the top of the prongs down to the bottom. It will almost curl around your finger during the process. Repeat these steps until all the dough is shaped (or you can wrap some dough in plastic to refrigerate and save it for another night). 

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with a tablespoon or so of salt. Add the shaped gnocchi and cook until they float (that is how you know they are finished). I like to cook in batches of about 2-3 cups of gnocchi each. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place into a bowl with a tablespoon of butter at the bottom. Toss the gnocchi in the butter (and after each new cooked batch) to make sure they do not stick together. Be sure to reserve a few tablespoons of pasta water. 

4. In a large skillet, melt the butter. Whisk constantly and cook until it begins to brown and develops a nutty aroma. Add the sage and garlic and cook for an additional minute or two. 

5. Pour the Brown Butter-Sage sauce over the gnocchi and toss to coat. Add a few tablespoons of the water from the pasta. Salt and pepper to taste. Toss in arugula to slightly wilt and top with asiago cheese. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Printable recipe can be found here.

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