Judy Rodgers- Zuni Roast Chicken and Ricotta Gnocchi

Chef Judy Rodgers, owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco was a hero of mine.  And like so many of us in the food world, I was deeply saddened last December to hear of her passing.  Her incredible cookbook, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, changed the way I cook, shop and eat.  Her love for food is infectious and lives on in every single page.

Even now, no trip to San Francisco is complete until I’ve had a meal at Zuni Cafe.  The famous Zuni Roast Chicken is, in my opinion, the most exciting poultry entrée on any menu in the country.

I want to share with my readers two of my favorite recipes from this great culinary icon which you can also find in her book.  Thank you Judy Rodgers for being a mentor to so many of us.  You will be missed.

Zuni Roast Chicken

Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Serves 2 to 4

The recipe is super easy to follow and you can pair it with any side dish or salad, making it a complete meal.  I make this chicken at home at least once a week.


One small chicken, 2-3/4 to 3-1/2-pounds

4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long


3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper


Season the chicken: [1 to 3 days before serving; give a 3-1/4 to 3-1/2-pound chicken at least 2 days]

Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken.  Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out.  Be thorough — a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.

Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets.  Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh.  Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper (use 3/4 teaspoon salt per pound of chicken).  Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings.  Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside.  Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders.  Cover loosely and refrigerate 1-3 days.

To Roast the chicken:

Preheat the oven to 475°F.

Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle.  Preheat the pan over medium heat.  Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan.  It should sizzle.

Place in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes.  If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does.  The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees.  After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking).  Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.  Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.

Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat.  Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate or cutting board.  Let rest for 10 minutes.  The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

Carve and serve chicken.

Zuni Ricotta Gnocchi

Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Serves 4-6 side dish servings

The recipe is a bit more time consuming than my usual postings but totally worth the effort!  A perfect dish for Sunday Supper, it pairs beautifully with the Roast Chicken above.  But I’ve also served it as a main course for my non-meat eating friends.  In my version (pictured), I’ve added some fresh sweet corn kernels and chopped fresh basil to my butter sauce.  See even more fun suggestions at the end of the recipe.


To prepare the gnocchi:

1 pound fresh ricotta (2 cups)

2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 or 3 fresh sage leaves, chopped, or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg, or a few pinches freshly chopped lemon zest (all optional)

1/2 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about 1/4 cup very lightly packed)

About 1/4 teaspoon salt (a little more if using kosher salt)

All-purpose flour, for forming the gnocchi

To sauce the gnocchi:

8 tablespoons butter, sliced

2 teaspoons water


Testing the cheese (the day before you make the gnocchi):

Check the cheese for wetness.  If you are lucky enough to have an individual basket-drained ricotta—you’ll see the basket imprint or dimples on the cheese—it may be sitting in a little whey; in this case, slide it out of the container and wick away the surface moisture with a dry towel.  With any ricotta, place about 2 teaspoons of the cheese on a dry paper towel and wait for about 1 minute.  There will always be a little wet spot under and around the cheese, but if the cheese has thrown a wide ring of moisture, it is too wet to use as is.  Place it in a strainer, or double-wrap in cheesecloth, and suspend over a deeper receptacle to drain for 8 to 24 hours, refrigerated.  Cheesecloth is more efficient, as it also wicks moisture from the cheese while gravity does its job of draining.  You can also speed up the draining operation by cinching the cheesecloth tight and squeezing some of the moisture from the ball of cheese.

Making the batter:

Beat the ricotta vigorously, then smash a little cheese against the side of the bowl with a soft rubber spatula.  If you can still make out firm curds, press the cheese through a strainer to break them up.  Stir in the eggs.  Melt the 1 tablespoon of butter—with the chopped sage, if using—and add to the batter.  Add the nutmeg or lemon zest, if using.  Add the Parmigiano and salt and beat the whole mixture very well.  This is what makes the gnocchi light.  You should have a soft, fluffy batter.

Forming and testing a sample gnocchi:

Make a bed of flour about 1/2 inch deep in a shallow baking dish or on a sheet pan.

Scrape the sides of the bowl, mass the batter, and smooth its surface.  Use a spoon held at an angle to shallow-scoop out 2 to 3 teaspoons of batter.  Use your fingertip to push the almond-shaped scoop of batter cleanly from the bowl of the spoon onto the bed of flour.  Shimmy the pan gently to coat the sides, then flip the gnocchi with your fingertip to coat the top.  Lift from the flour and cradle and rock it in your palm.  Don’t squeeze it.  You should have a dusty oval pod.  As long as the general shape is uniform and rotund, don’t worry that the gnocchi has a few wrinkles, dimples, and bumps.

To check the batter, poach this first gnocchi in a small pot of simmering well-salted water.  It will initially sink, but will then swell, roll, and bob to the surface.  Maintaining the quiet simmer, cook until the gnocchi is just firm, usually 3 to 5 minutes from the time it floats, depending on the cheese and the size of the gnocchi.  Don’t boil hard, or the gnocchi may explode.  If, even at a gentle simmer, the gnocchi spreads or starts to decompose, the cheese was probably too wet.  This can usually be corrected by beating a teaspoon or so of egg white into the remaining batter.  If the batter was very fluffy, but the sample seems heavy, beat in about 1 teaspoon beaten egg.  In either case, poach another sample to make sure the fix is successful.

Taste the sample for salt, and adjust the batter if needed.

Forming the remaining gnocchi:

Use the same spoon-and-finger technique to form the rest of the gnocchi.  I usually form them in groups of 4 to 6, placing them all at the same angle, and a few inches apart, in the bed of flour, then shimmy the pan to coat all of them at once; don’t leave them sitting too long in the flour, or they will absorb too much.  Keep scraping the bowl and smoothing the surface of the batter to permit smooth scoops.  As with the sample, roll each gnocchi in your hand.  Arrange them on a sheet pan lined with a flour-dusted sheet of parchment paper or wax paper.  Be sure that the individual gnocchi are not touching one another.

You can poach the gnocchi right away, but if you refrigerate them uncovered for about an hour, they will firm up, making them easier to cook and handle.  (They will keep for up to 8 hours that way.)

Cooking the gnocchi:

Place the 8 tablespoons of butter and the 2 teaspoons of water in a 12-inch skillet; set aside.

Bring 2 to 3 quarts water to a simmer in a wide pan, 10 or more inches in diameter, so the gnocchi won’t crush each other too much as they push to the surface.  A sauté pan, flared brasier, or saucier pan will work, as long as it is at least 2 inches deep.  Salt the water liberally—about 1 teaspoon per quart.  Add the gnocchi one by one, adjusting the heat to maintain the simmer.  Dip your fingertips in water if you find they are sticking to the gnocchi, but don’t fret if the gnocchi stick a little to the paper.  Do avoid holding the tray of gnocchi in the steam.  Cook the gnocchi as you did the sample, until just firm, 3 to 5 minutes from the time they float.

Meanwhile, as soon as the gnocchi float to the surface, place the pan of butter and water over medium heat.  Swirl the pan as the butter melts and begins to seethe.  As soon as the butter is completely melted and has turned into an opaque pale yellow sauce, turn off the heat.  Swirl the pan a few more times.

Lift the gnocchi out with a slotted spoon or skimmer, slide into the ready skillet, and roll in the warm butter sauce.  Serve instantly in warm bowls.

Serving Suggestions:

The mild flavor of the ricotta marries well with many other flavors and ingredients, especially sweet, subtle, or nutty ones.  Whatever the companion, it should be tender and delicate—like the gnocchi themselves.

Try serving the dumplings with a few leaves of sage, arugula, or spinach wilted in butter, or roll in melted butter with just-cooked baby carrots and fresh chervil.  Or pair with tender flageolets finished with extra-virgin olive oil and black pepper.  Or fold in matchsticks of just-cooked zucchini; its subtle flavor becomes clearer next to these gnocchi.  In the spring, we offer them with barely cooked peas, tiny favas, or finely slivered asparagus, or all three.  During summer, we match them with fresh white corn kernels cooked in butter with basil, or scatter them with chopped nasturtium blossoms.  When tender-skinned Sungold Sweet 100 tomatoes are at their sweetest, we halve them, warm them in extra-virgin olive oil with basil, and toss them over the gnocchi.  In the fall, fresh wild mushrooms slivered, stewed, and finished with white truffle oil are delicious with the gnocchi, and in the winter, whenever we have black truffles in house, we shave some generously over the dish.

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