Gnocchi with Browned Butter and Caramelized Onions

I love to cook on week-ends, usually some sort of brunch.

This may have to do with my having had to be at work at 0-dark-30 during the week for years (I left home between 3:00 and 4:00 am), or just simply that I like the sort of things that one usually has for brunch.

Years ago, when I used to do a flight school’s books to help pay for my flying time, there was a terrific little bistro-ish restaurant just across the street from the airport. The guy who owned it had some sort of association with the flight school – I think his girlfriend was one of our pilots, but I don’t really remember – and the crowd started going there because of that. It was also convenient to my home, and I’d go there on Saturday mornings sometimes, just because.

My favorite dish was the Gnocchi With Browned Butter and Caramelized Onions. I would have it at the restaurant with a couple of lovely big sausages in natural casings, with fresh orange juice and hot black coffee. (This was way before we all started drinking cappuccinos and lattes, which I think would be excellent with it.) Over the years, I have remembered that breakfast/brunch fondly, but I moved away and don’t even know if the restaurant is still there – frankly I would guess it’s not; it’s been that long.

And somehow, in all that time, I never got around to trying to make it myself.

But I was in the store one Saturday morning, to pick up some stuff for what I was planning for dinner, and my eye fell upon a package of Whole-wheat Gnocchi in a vacuum pack, imported from Italy. I knew there were onions and butter at home, and I was hungry… (You know what they say about shopping when you’re hungry!)

So I grabbed a couple of packages and used one of them to make my version of that long-ago food memory.

And I nailed it! It was so good that the-college-kid-home-for-the-week-end-and-laundry insisted I make it again for Sunday supper so that a friend from high school, who was hanging out with her, could taste it.

We didn’t have the sausages, nor did I dig out the espresso machine, but ordinary drip coffee and fresh orange juice still complement it nicely. This makes small-adequate servings for three or ginormous ones for two, and neither batch had any leftovers.

Ingredients

2 large yellow onions, or 1 yellow and 1 red

about 1 oz thinly sliced pancetta (5 – 6 slices)

5 Tbsp unsalted butter

1 tsp kosher salt

2 – 3 large cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves

500g package gnocchi (about 1 lb, frozen or vacuum-sealed)

¼ cup pine nuts

Grated Parmesan cheese

Technique

Cut off the ends of the onions, peel them, halve them top to bottom, and slice thinly. It will look like a lot, but it cooks down.

Melt 1 Tbsp of the butter in a large, heavy skillet or sauté pan and add the pancetta. Cook until the meat is crisp. Remove the meat, drain on paper towels, and set aside. Leave the melted butter and rendered fat in the pan.

Add the sliced onions to the pan and toss to coat in the fat. Sprinkle with salt and cook slowly over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally. The onions should soften and release their moisture before even starting to brown. Stir more frequently as they cook down. When the onions are just starting to brown, sprinkle in the minced garlic. Continue to cook until the onions are a rich caramel brown. They will have developed an amazing sweetness from the concentration of their natural sugars, particularly if you have used a red onion. Remove them from the pot and set aside.

Cook the gnocchi according to package directions (generally just until they float). Drain but don’t rinse.

Melt the remaining butter in the same pan you used for the onions. Watch – and sniff – carefully and cook until the butter is lightly browned and smells deliciously nutty. It is perilously easy to burn butter instead of browning it, so constant attention is essential. When the butter is ready, throw in the thyme leaves (stand back – they’ll spatter!) and cook for just a moment. Add the pine nuts and toast for a moment more; watch carefully, as they also are easy to burn.

Add the cooked gnocchi to the pan and toss them in the browned butter sauce. Add the onions. Crumble the crisp pancetta into the mess. Cook over low heat just until everything is evenly warmed.

Serve sprinkled with Parmesan cheese to taste. (Personally, I don’t think it needs much.)

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