Autumn has arrived, ushering in evenings that are cool enough to finally switch on the oven and light the stove after a summer of salads and outdoor grilling.
I am a big fan of dishes that make the most of the late summer produce yet pack enough heartiness to preview fall. Cherry tomatoes are the gift that keeps giving until November and they are so versatile. My preference is to slow simmer them whole with lots of olive oil and garlic and serve them over semolina-based Gnocchi alla Romana. A few simple ingredients and a lot of stirring are required, but not the exacting methodology of ricotta or potato gnocchi. Later in the season these cheesy nuggets will pair well with a sauté of wild mushrooms or a short rib ragu.
Fresh figs are here for a short, sweet moment. Purple figs from California are available at the market and if you are lucky enough to find them at a local farm stand, be sure to purchase a couple of pints. Oysterponds farm in Orient has a limited supply of their home-grown green figs in late August and early September. I must confess most of last year’s haul were devoured in the car, with a scant few making it home to roast and serve atop ricotta sourdough toasts. For a simple dessert, I have paired port and honey roasted figs with a lightly sweetened mascarpone cream.
Gnocchi alla Romana
1. Confit of Cherry Tomatoes
1 quart ripe cherry tomatoes, washed and dried
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large shallot finely minced
2 cloves garlic finely minced
8 large basil leaves for sauce
Fresh basil sprigs for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
I always make a large batch, as leftovers are delicious spooned over a piece of grilled fish or chicken and make an excellent pasta sauce. When the fresh basil crop is over, I substitute a few fresh thyme sprigs. A mixture of red and yellow tomatoes works best. Ripe tomatoes are ideal, but the slow cooking makes even the last fall tomato taste sweeter.
Gently heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium/low heat. Add the shallots and stir gently until translucent, before adding the garlic and cooking for a further two minutes. At no time should the mixture brown. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes before adding ½ tsp salt.
Continue to simmer the mixture over low heat for about 20 minutes, giving an occasional gentle stir. Add the basil leaves about 10 minutes before the end. The tomatoes should have softened but still hold their shape.
Add more salt to taste and a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper. Sauce can be refrigerated for up to two days and freezes well.
2. Semolina Gnocchi
3 cups whole milk
1 1/4 cups Semolina
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
Freshly ground black pepper
To make my gnocchi I use Bob’s Red Mill No. 1 durum wheat semolina flour (not to be confused with polenta), which is available locally in the supermarkets.
Place the milk in a heavy 6-quart saucepan. Heat gently until small bubbles form around the sides of the pan. Do not boil the milk. Slowly add the semolina in a steady stream until it is well combined, stirring continuously to prevent lumps forming.
Once all the semolina is added, continue to stir over a low heat. I use a wooden spoon for the early stages and switch to a heavy plastic spatula as the mixture gets thicker.
After about 15 minutes the mixture should begin to firm up and get drier. Once it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan (up to 20 minutes), remove from heat and stir in 3 tbsps. of the butter and 1/3 cup of parmesan cheese. Beat in the egg yolks and add salt and black pepper to taste. Moisten a heavy sheet pan with cold water. Pour the semolina on to the pan and smooth with a spatula into an even layer about ¾ inch thick. Place in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to 6 hours.
Grease a shallow baking dish with softened butter. Cut the semolina into 1 ½ inches rounds using a metal cookie cutter. Arrange in the baking dish with the slices overlapping slightly. Melt the remaining butter in a small pan and drizzle over the gnocchi.
Sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese over the top and bake in a 400-degree oven for about 25-30 minutes until the tops are lightly browned and the gnocchi are slightly puffed up.
While the gnocchi are cooking, gently reheat the tomato confit. Remove the cooked gnocchi from the oven. Set aside at room temperature for about five minutes. To serve, place a few slices onto warmed individual plates and spoon over the tomato confit. Garnish each serving with a fresh basil sprig.
Honey & Port Roasted Figs
1. Roasted Figs
1 pint purple or green figs, tough ends removed and halved lengthwise
2 tbsp. good quality extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup of port
2 Tbsp. of clear honey
¼ tsp salt
Place the halved figs in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss gently to combine. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish and arrange the figs in a single layer cut side down, pouring over all of the remaining juices. Roast in a 350-degree oven until figs are just tender and juices are bubbling. Set aside to cool and serve at room temperature with a dollop of mascarpone cream.
2. Mascarpone Cream
1 cup Mascarpone cheese
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsps. superfine sugar
Place the mascarpone and cream together in a bowl and whisk until thick with an electric mixer. Slowly beat in the cream and sugar. Refrigerate until ready to use for up to 12 hours.
Alison Boyd-Savage worked in advertising before running a catering business in her native London. After moving to Long Island, she first settled in Bridgehampton, where she worked as a private chef. Five years later, the quiet beauty of the North Fork prompted a move to Southold. On weekends she loves to entertain, and can be found scouting the local farm stands for seasonal produce and visiting the markets for local fish, meat and eggs. Each month, she now shares some of these dishes on the back page of the East End Beacon.