Since I couldn’t fit it into a reasonably concise recipe title, I’ll just come out with it first. Not only does this sauce include smoky red peppers and a hint of tangy goat cheese, it also gets a nutrition boost from an entire bunch of Swiss chard thrown in at the end and cooked until wilted. In the (completely acceptable) absence of meat, the greens add bulk and texture–something to chew on, if the fluffy pillows of potato pasta dough aren’t enough.
Why, if my meatless December is over, do I press on with vegetarian recipes? Am I becoming a vegetarian food blog?? A better question: do I have to choose a camp or give myself a label? I don’t think either of those decisions are as important as striving to find and eat the best possible foods for my health. I’m consuming precious little meat these days, and even working on cutting back a bit on dairy. I’m experimenting with a couple non-dairy coffee creamers this week (up first–non-GMO soy creamer, with coconut milk creamer on deck). I’m trying to have a tea either in the morning or before my workout, largely inspired by this video. I just completed The China Study, and I’d have to classify myself as an ignorant punk if I didn’t use the facts presented to make some decisions about, or at least contemplate, how I’ve been eating and if it would be smart to aim for an even higher vibration diet. And now you can call me a weird podcast-listening yogi because I just referred to a diet as “high vibration”.
While all this may appear monumental, it doesn’t actually feel too life-changing or turn my daily routine upside down. I love food. I have favorites (cheese, lentils, doughnuts, anything pickled, cilantro, enchiladas), but mostly I can’t get enough food science, cooking, experimenting, fueling, and serving. Any of those processes need not involve tons of animal products for me to derive intense satisfaction from them. So when I discover reliable evidence that, at worst, it won’t hurt me to remove most animal flesh (sorry-not-sorry to be graphic) from my diet, I’m happy to explore new combinations of plant foods that allow me to eat approximately twice as much as meat before feeling full, without gaining weight. Food enthusiast’s dream come true.
Guess what, though? I still have some meat recipes on my Pinterest boards, and I still made pulled pork (and lots of it) less than two weeks ago for new years. I still had half a plate of dreamy buffalo fried walleye fingers at dinner following Toryn’s wedding last week (happy one week anniversary Hambrights!). I may still post a meat or seafood recipe every now and then. I still advocate balance, and I won’t declare myself an official vegetarian until I have such strong reasons for doing so that I can easily explain them when asked. I just can’t deny the evidence that eating a heavily plant-based diet will help me live happier and better, so I’ll continue to explore it and probably lean that way in my blog posts and recipes. Oh, and more importantly, my guacamole (coming soon!) and veggie chili recipes are far superior to any roast chicken I will ever attempt.
To bring closure to the homemade gnocchi recipe I just shared, here is the sauce I originally designed for it. For a red sauce, it’s fairly quick, especially if you roast the red peppers and prep the chard in advance. When you do so, do me a couple favors. First, do not, as I have done many a time, run the roasted and steamed peppers under cold water to help remove the skins. In the researching of this recipe, I learned the strikingly logical detail that water washes away not only the skins, but also all that delicious smoky flavor–the whole reason I even bothered to roast the peppers. Second, don’t throw away the stems from the chard (but also don’t try to put them in the sauce). Maybe one of your resolutions is to be less wasteful, and here’s your chance. Depending on the type of chard you get (green, rainbow, etc.), I find that the taste of the stems, sauteed in a bit of oil with salt and pepper, isn’t so different from cooked celery. That doesn’t mean I’d go using it in homemade stock or a mirepoix (too strong a flavor), but it’s perfectly delightful and crunchy in a stir fry or nestled into a cheesy gratin.
If you don’t feel inspired (ever) to make gnocchi from scratch, the sauce is just as good with your favorite pasta, store- or farmers’ market-bought gnocchi, or even under some eggs in a modified shakshuka. Don’t let gluten-avoidance keep you from it. I have a quart left over in my freezer right now from my pre-winter break travels cooking extravaganza, and it may find its end over some white beans. If you eat chicken often (or just more than I do) and are still reading, even after my above narrative on meat-eating, I could envision this marinara as a fun twist on traditional chicken parm. Or eggplant parm. So many possibilities, so little time.
To elevate the roasted red pepper sauce to its loftiest capabilities, try using truffled goat cheese. Oh yeah, I went there. I actually wasn’t sure if the delicate truffle flavor (we’re talking about the mushrooms, not chocolate) would crumble amidst the smokiness and hearty greens also present, but I had to try, and it was worth the risk. Turns out the slightly higher cost for the truffled version was not a waste, overcome by the heat of the red pepper flakes. Instead, it adds the desired creaminess, plus a luxurious, earthy truffle aroma. The flavor is definitely there, but the smell might be more than half the experience when indulging in truffle anything. Unlike most other truffle products, Trader Joe’s offers their goat cheese for only a dollar or two more than the unflavored cheese, so it’s an easy, inexpensive way to treat yourself or impress dinner guests. I did both.
- 3 medium red bell peppers
- 1½ T olive oil
- 2 C chopped yellow onion (1½ medium)
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 bunch Swiss chard, stems removed, chopped into 3" pieces, and washed
- ½ t crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ t fresh grated nutmeg (or ¼ t ground)
- 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
- 2 T heavy cream
- 4 oz. goat cheese (truffled, if available), crumbled (keep chilled until ready to use)
- Kosher salt
- Ground black pepper
- ⅓ C raw walnuts
- 1 recipe homemade gnocchi, or enough pre-made for 4 servings (about 80 to 100 gnocchi)
- 4 to 6 T butter
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet, and roast in oven 8 to 10 minutes, stirring halfway through. Cool on a layer of paper towels or a cutting board. Roughly chop and reserve for garnish.
- With ½ tablespoon olive oil, use fingers to coat bell peppers in oil. Broil (low broil setting, if there is more than one) on a foil lined, rimmed baking sheet six inches from heat source, about 13 minutes, until blackened on top. Remove tray from oven and rotate peppers 90 degrees, broiling 5 minutes each on remaining 3 sides, until the peppers are charred and mostly blackened. Place peppers in glass or metal bowl, cover with a dish towel and dinner plate and leave alone for 15 minutes.
- Working on the baking sheet, use hands or small paring knife to remove charred skins from peppers, without rinsing. Remove stems and seeds. Reserve ¼ of 1 pepper for garnish, and roughly chop remaining peppers. Reserve in bowl with juices from the baking sheet. Finely chop the pepper reserved for garnish and set aside.
- Heat remaining tablespoon oil in a large saucepan over medium until hot. Add onion and cook 5 to 8 minutes until soft and slightly brown. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook about a minute, stirring constantly. Add chopped roasted red pepper with juices and nutmeg, and cook another minute. Add tomatoes and increase heat to medium high. Roughly chop tomatoes in the pan with a wooden spoon. Bring sauce to a vigorous simmer, then simmer gently about 30 minutes, until reduced and thickened. Remove from heat and cool 5 minutes.
- Blend sauce with an immersion blender, or carefully in a blender. Return to pan over medium low heat. Add half the chopped chard and cover to steam, for 2 minutes. Stir into sauce until wilted, then repeat with remaining chard. Off of heat, stir in cream and half the goat cheese until melted and combined. Taste and season with salt and pepper, as needed (I didn't use much seasoning given the rich flavor or the sauce). Keep sauce warm over low heat or by covering.
- To cook gnocchi, boil in batches, to avoid crowding the pot, in a pot of water for 90 seconds to 2 minutes, until just after a few gnocchi have floated to the top. Remove from water with a slotted spoon or spider strainer. To skip toasting the gnocchi, drop them into the pan of warm sauce. Otherwise, place boiled gnocchi in a bowl with a little olive oil.
- To toast gnocchi, melt 1 to 2 tablespoons butter at a time in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add as many gnocchi to the pan as will fit without crowding. Brown for a minute or two on each side, then remove to another bowl to keep warm until all gnocchi have been browned. Sprinkle with salt, then serve over bowls or plates of roasted red pepper marinara.
- Garnish either presentation with remaining crumbled goat cheese, reserved finely chopped roasted red pepper, and chopped, toasted walnuts.