November 17, 2010
Most times, it’s a hard knock life for a vegan out to dinner with other, non-vegan friends. Empty bellies, ‘steada full, you know? So, say you’ve got some friends in town and you’re rolling deep in Cobble Hill, peeps got a thirst on for some top-shelf whiskey, next thing you know, you’re walking into Char no.4, fully expecting to enjoy a robust dinner of spiced peanuts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hatin.’ Just sayin,’ lovely atmosphere and REALLY lovely whiskeys is a given walking into Char, but you don’t exactly expect a whole lotta empathy for the vegans.
Alas! Katie and I were totally shocked to find out, upon asking, that they’ve currently got a supremely kick-ass totally vegan, gluten-free entrée on their menu—crispy sweet potato gnocchi with sautéed hen of the woods mushrooms & wilted spinach. And it was truly amazing. We totally get that it’s important to support totally vegan/veg restuarants, but we’re also very into supporting non-vegetarian restaurants consistently including vegan options on their menu too, so we’re more than happy to sing the praises of this dish from the mountaintops. Brownstone-tops, maybe?
In fact, we enjoyed it so much that, the Sunday after this lovely, whiskey-fueled meal, we hot-footed it over to our local farmers’ market, procured ourselves some insanely fresh sweet potatoes, spinach, and maitake mushrooms (AKA hen of the woods) and whipped up a slightly altered version of the dish at home. The result—awesomeness. Especially using the amazingly tasty mushrooms from our new favorite farm stand, Madura Farms of Orange Co, NY. The recipe leans to the side of simplicity rather than overly spiced or sauced and dry-sears the gnocchi rather than flash frying them, but we really, really enjoyed it. And, unlike most of the other recipes online, it’s totally free of flour or egg-replacers. Plus it’s a snap. Check it:
Char(red) Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maitake + Wilted Spinach
• 1 Large Sweet Potato (dense, orange to ruby tubers work well), carefully chopped into large chunks
• 1 Bunch of Spinach, washed well and chopped
• .75 lbs. of Maitake (Hen of the Woods) Muchrooms, washed, air-dried, and chopped
• 2 Large Shallots, peeled and finely chopped
• 4 Cloves of Garlic, peeled, smashed, and diced
• 2 tbs. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• 1 tbs. Nutritional Yeast
• 1 tsp. Ground White Pepper (totally optional)
• Salt to taste
Alright, first order of business: steam your un-peeled sweet potato with a couple cups of water. When we did it, we actually just threw a steamer basket on top of a large pot which we had cooking up some vegetable broth. But the main idea is that you should steam the potatoes without having them come into contact with the liquid, so they cook and stay dry. You could probably even microwave them. Stovetop though, cover and steam for 15-25 minutes, depending on the density of your sweet potatoes. Essentially, you want them to get to a point where they’re very soft to the touch of a fork and offer little to no resistance, ideally to the point where the skin starts to pull away from the ‘meat’ of the potato. Once you get to that point, uncover the potato and let it cool a bit so you can easily handle it. Peel the skin off by hand and either discard or, if you want to get all fancy pants, throw them on a baking sheet and make some nice baked sweet potato skin garnishes. Transfer the sweet potatoes to a large bowl, add the nutritional yeast, white pepper, and a little bit of salt and mash with a fork or masher until you’ve got a smooth, consistent mix. Let it cool for another ten minutes or so.
Now set aside a large plate or platter and start to form small, rounded shapes with the sweet potato mixture, rolling them in your hand and then setting them on the plate with enough room that they don’t touch. It should be pretty thick and easy to manipulate, but, if you run into any problem or it ends up too liquidy, you could always add a little flour or some other binding agent. Once you’ve got your gnocchi ready, you can move on to the rest of the meal, which comes together pretty quickly.
Add your chopped shallots to 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, warmed, iron skillet over medium-low heat. Allow the shallots to turn translucent, cooking for about five minutes, and then add your chopped garlic. Cook this for about another ten minutes, browning but not burning the edges of the shallots and garlic. Not throw in your maitake, chopped into pieces that are a couple or a few inches long. Raise the heat to medium or so, stir, cover and allow the maitake to brown and cook down for five to ten minutes, depending on how fresh your mushrooms are how much they break down. Then add your spinach, chopped to about the same size as the mushrooms, and cover. Let it steam for about two minutes and then stir the cooked-down spinach together with everything. Cook for another couple minutes, until the spinach is cooked down to a desired degree but retains its greenness. Once you’re done, remove from heat and carefully mix the gnocchi in with the other ingredients. Since it’s gluten-/binder-free, the gnocchi’s going to be more delicate…but the whole dish really showcases the individual vegetable tastes and the way they combine to create a local farmers’ market ho-down in your mouth. Yeehaw!
Enjoy! And, if you’re feeling a little lazy and looking to be more pampered than peppered (….I don’t know….), head over to Char no.4 and tell ’em how much you like their vegan dish.