Winter Transformations – Potato, Pumpkin & Spinach

Potatoes, pumpkin and spinach are winter market staples. Each can be used to good effect independently but I’ve brought them together in one delicious dish: sautéed potato gnocchi with roast pumpkin and spinach. Potato gnocchi are easy to make and sautéing the cooked gnocchi in olive oil with a little knob of butter for taste really raises this to restaurant fare. Let’s face it a little sauté treatment makes many foods special, think sautéed potatoes with garlic and rosemary or pan fried gyoza dumplings or French toast. Sautéed gnocchi work best when the cooked gnocchi are drained, spread out on a tray to dry out a little before they land in the buttery fry pan. You want to get rid of some of that moisture trapped after boiling in water and firm the outside a little, making it easy to flip them to brown each side to golden crunchiness. I treat the spinach in the Japanese way by cooking a whole bunch of spinach and then squeezing out all the water when cool and chopping it up. This maximizes the amount of healthy spinach per serve while appearing balanced on the plate. The meager alternative is to toss in a handful of baby spinach leaves at the end but I prefer the Popeye approach. Finished with a little crumbled goats cheese and toasted pine nuts this is definitely going to be a favorite for dinner this winter.

Potato Gnocchi with Roast Pumpkin and Spinach

For Two

  • potato gnocchi made from 3 large Nicola potatoes
  • 1/2 butternut pumpkin cut into 1cm cubes
  • 1 bunch spinach
  • olive oil
  • knob of butter
  • 2 tbs goats cheese
  • toasted pine nuts*

Make the potato gnocchi with half quantities for two people as described in Gnocchi With Slow Roasted Tomatoes.

pushing cooked potato through a potato ricer to make gnocchi

Cook the gnocchi in a large pot of boiling salted water and scoop out the gnocchi when they rise to the surface. Drain the cooked gnocchi in a colander and then spread them out on a tray to cool and dry out a little. Roast the pumpkin cubes in a little olive oil at 180°C until tender, approximately 20 minutes. Remove the stems and wash the spinach well in 2-3 changes of water to remove any grit or mud. Place the washed spinach in a saucepan and wilt it with gentle heat and then drain and cool. Once cool enough to handle squeeze all the water out and chop it coarsely. In a frypan heat 2 tbs olive oil with a knob of butter and gently sauté the gnocchi until golden. Add the roasted pumpkin and the chopped spinach and gently mix. Plate out and top with crumbled goats cheese and toasted pine nuts.

  • I recommend the J C’s Quality Nuts brand. Look for the packet labelled Pine Nuts from New Zealand, available from quality green grocers around Melbourne.

Andean Sunrise Potatoes

Andean Sunrise are a new variety of potato great for roasting and mashing and with exceptional buttery flavour. These yellow fleshed potatoes have a high carotene level. Often spruiked as an heirloom variety, Andean Sunrise or Sunside was actually selectively cross bred from a different potato family called Phureja, originally from the Andean valleys of Peru and a commercial variety by Agrico, Netherlands. I enjoyed them last season and they are available again from Jones Potatoes at farmers markets around Melbourne. Give them a go and enjoy really crispy roast potatoes that actually taste great too.

Lion’s Mane

Would you put something called lion’s mane on your dinner menu? It may look like a large ball of fluff or a lion’s mane but in reality it is quite a meaty textured mushroom. Lion’s mane is one of the new gourmet mushroom varieties available around Melbourne farmers’ markets, along with coloured oyster mushrooms, nameko, shimeji, shiitaki and king mushrooms. I was very intrigued to find the lion’s mane mushroom at the Melbourne Gourmet Mushroom stall at Gasworks on Saturday. Lion’s mane is very high in antioxidants and much is made of its disease averting capabilities but vegans also love the texture which lends itself to meat or fish substitution in various recipes. Think fritters and fish or crab cakes. It is supposed to have a slight flavour of lobster but having recently enjoyed Portland lobster over the summer I found the resemblance a bit too subtle for my taste. However, I did enjoy the adventure of cooking something totally new that was locally and sustainably produced and in all likelihood will be a food on plates in a resource-constrained future. I started with the keep it simple approach and just sauteed thick slices slowly in olive oil and fresh thyme until it was tender and golden and served it with confit cherry tomatoes and salad.

It was very pleasant but with no obvious mushroom flavour and no, it wasn’t a bit furry. A bit like a mass produced chicken breast I think a lion’s mane mushroom is a chef’s delight, lending itself to added flavours and chefy tricks. I plan to maintain my explorations with lion’s mane and other exotic mushrooms and will keep you posted. These exotics are grown in the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir, so local that food miles hardly count, and are freshly harvested a couple of hours before they appear at market stalls. $5 for 100 grams.

Asparagus Appreciation

Asparagus season is in full swing again. You can enjoy them in a myriad of ways but simply blanching them until just tender is the nicest way to enjoy their flavour and texture. Asparagus lends itself to any cuisine, their sculptural look making a visual impact on platters as shown here where I paired them with a Japanese omelette. Skinny asparagus spears grilled on the barbecue make a great crunchy, smokey green vegetable to serve with meat and fish but are also wonderful slipped into ham or cheese filled baguettes as an tasty alternative to lettuce. Best of all is the breakfast treat of asparagus dipped into a boiled egg; it is a great carb-free start to the day. If you love asparagus then there are lots of ways to enjoy it at every meal of the day and now is the time.

Asparagus Tips: Buy asparagus from green grocers or farmers markets to ensure freshness and eat it within a day or two of purchase for maximum enjoyment. If buying from the supermarket give the tips a sniff for freshness, they shouldn’t smell dank nor should the tips be dry and yellowed. Cover asparagus in the fridge, especially the tips. Peeling thick asparagus spears helps to speed the cooking of the stem while not overcooking the delicate tips.

Producers supplying local Farmers Markets: Bridge Farm Asparagus; Jonella Farm


Poached Pears A Timeless Classic

It’s well and truly pear season now and a nice way to enjoy them when they are still a bit firm and crisp is sliced in salads or with cheese. Once ripe, pears do not travel well but you can still enjoy a juicy pear at work if you wrap it in paper and transport it a small plastic container.  Pears are  luscious in sweet pies, tarts and tea cakes and can be quite a classy dessert when poached in red or white wine. Poached pears are perhaps viewed as an old fashioned dessert but I think of them as the little black dress of desserts; a timeless classic, simple yet elegant.  I particularly enjoy the aroma of sweet spices that fills the house when poaching. I like to use star anise as well as cinnamon and cloves but you can use other spices or include some fresh or ground ginger for a bit of warmth. Serve the poached pears with thick cream or the best vanilla bean ice cream you can find.

drained poached pears

To Poach pears:

you will need enough small Josephine pears to fill a deep saucepan so that they all remain standing upright once the wine is added. You can use other varieties but they are often quite large and not as neatly compact as the Josephine pear. Choose pears that are still slightly firm to the touch.

  • 1 bottle of light, fruity red wine
  • 250 g caster sugar
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 cinnamon quill
  • 6 whole cloves
  • lemon or orange peel (optional)

Combine the wine, sugar and spices and bring to boil, stiring until the sugar is dissolved. Peel the pears, leaving the stem intact and once peeled gently rub the outside with the flesh side of half a lemon to stop browning. Reduce to the heat on the spiced wine and add the pears. Poach with a very gently simmer, at the lowest heat setting. You should just see small bubbles rising, no obvious bubbling of the liquid. Add a little water if the wine does not quite cover the pears. Poach for approximately 30-40 minutes, checking for tenderness with a fine skewer. Remove the pears with a slotted spoon to cool. Raise the heat on the spiced wine and reduce the liquid by about half, until it is thick and syrupy. Poached pears can be prepared a day in advance. Serve whole with the wine syrup or halve and segment the pears, fanning out the slices on top of the sauce on a  plate. Serve with thick cream or vanilla ice cream.