Gnocchetti Sardi with Beef, Fennel and Breadcrumbs
Being Sicilian, of course I love to sprinkle "a muddica" as we call it back home, or "la molica" as it is called in Italy, over my pasta. And I am sure you do (or will) too! We are talking about breadcrumbs here... crispy, toasted and flavored with a little garlic, some olive oil, parsley, a hint of grated Grana cheese, this "poor-mans Parmesan" is the perfect addition to many a pasta dish! Including this one!
Back in the old days, where money and food were scarce and much more simple, back in Sicily, some wonderful person came up with the idea of toasting and flavoring bread crumbs to sprinkle on their pasta, in the place of expensive and unaffordable Parmesan cheese. Indeed, they used to grate the hard rinds of the cheese and add them to give bread crumbs that unmistakable flavor. Luckily for us this invention was made! Because even though most all of us can afford Parmesan in this day and age (or something similar), the taste and texture of these crispy bread crumbs is simply delicious!
The crumbs need to be prepared first of course- so this is how I made mine- which I decided to make a little bit more super-delicious than usual this time! For about 1 cup of bread crumbs, heat up about a tablespoon of olive oil, with half a clove of garlic and a wedge of onion to flavor it. Add the bread crumbs and stir. Don't worry that the oil seems to all have been soaked up by one clump of crumbs- just keep stirring and you will find that they soon crumble apart and blend evenly. Add some chopped parsley, a hint of orange zest, salt, pepper and about a teaspoon of finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese. Keep stirring... it seems as though nothing is happening at first- but be careful! As soon as the right temperature has been reached the crumbs will brown very quickly... and that is when you need to set them to one side and get on with the pasta!
I had a left-over piece of thinly sliced steak from last night and cut this first into thin strips, which I then cut cross-ways into a fine dice. I began to fry the beef with a finely chopped clove of garlic, some finely chopped spring onion and a couple of inches of finely chopped celery- just a little! I seasoned with salt, pepper and a little chili, and once the beef was brown, deglazed the pan with a little splash of Sambuca and turned off the heat.
In another little pan, I got a half cup of water boiling and added my little wedges of fennel. I wanted to give it a kick-start and to get it softened quickly before caramelizing it as the topping for my pasta. I added salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar and let the water boil away. As soon as there was no water left, I added a little olive oil and soon enough, the fennel was soft and tender, with a lovely golden brown caramel glaze.
After 8 minutes of cooking time, I drained most of the water from the pasta, but left just about a cupful in there and added it to the beef. Soon enough, a tasty broth formed from all of the good flavors in the pan and I continued to stir and cook the gnocchi. Once they had absorbed the residual water, I added a handful of fresh, diced tomato, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of coarsely-ground black pepper.
I served the pasta up, with a generous sprinkle of bread crumbs and with the caramelized fennel on top... and needless to say it was really delicious! But don't take my word for it... try it yourself now that you know how!