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Cooking Off the Cuff: Dinner for the Evening After a Three-Star Feast

03/25/2015 09:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

When we're traveling, Jackie and I inevitably eat out every night - and look forward to it - but when we're back home in New York we cross the threshold of a restaurant maybe once every four or five weeks. A lot of the time, it is the same threshold: that of Restaurant Jean-Georges. For us, it's the best fancy restaurant in town, and we're not alone in thinking that.

What to eat the day after a generous restaurant meal is almost always a puzzle. We want something light (whatever that means) and not too big. We'll have eggs and toast; we'll have leftovers; we'll have a simple pasta dish: rarely Earth-shaking but always good, so as not to break the spell cast the night before. Following our most recent meal there, nearly a month ago, we took the leftover route, but I added some new elements to yield a dish that was simple (or at least simpler than it might appear to be), light and flavorful - even elegant.

It formed a complete meal for us in post-banquet mode; in normal circumstances and with a normal appetite - and possibly slightly reduced in size - it would make a nice first course for a dinner party if the main dish weren't going to be really massive.

The leftovers were a couple of dozen potato gnocchi (frozen uncooked) and a cup and a half (350 ml, not that the exact quantity really matters) of saffron-infused vegetable stock (extra from risotto-making). The new elements were slices taken from the upper, near-cylindrical part of a butternut squash, which I'd roasted that afternoon with no particular plan in mind; and some extra flavorings for the stock.

The peeled and seeded squash I'd cut into generous one-inch (2.5-cm) slices and roasted in the normal way: salted, peppered and olive-oiled, set onto a sheet pan and put into a 375-degree F (190 C) oven for about 45 minutes, turning them half way through. They were tender and nicely caramelized.

To stand on its own as a broth, the vegetable stock needed additional flavor and intensity. The latter was easily attained by boiling it down by about a third, and the former with the addition of half a smoky dried chipotle chili and a small clove of garlic as the stock reduced. When I tasted it, it still lacked backbone, so I added a small piece of dried kombu seaweed and let it steep for five minutes: magical stuff, that kombu - you should keep some in the house even if you never cook in Japanese style. If I'd used chicken stock, the kombu probably would have been unnecessary.

To assemble our dinner, I reheated the two nicest-looking slices of roasted squash, then boiled the gnocchi straight from the freezer; they took about six minutes, but I started checking them after four. I removed them from the salted water and set them on a wire rack to dry before browning them in olive oil over medium-low heat.

I put a slice of squash in the middle of each soup plate, surrounded it with browned gnocchi straight from the skillet, and poured broth (strained and reheated) over the top.

In part because the squash and the gnocchi had been browned, each retained its character. But the pairing was harmonious and the textures interesting. Though spicy and savory, the broth was light and was a refreshing complement to the denser vegetables (gnocchi are vegetables, aren't they?). It was delicious, the whole thing.

When I hit upon this, was I thinking of the lobster and noodle dish we'd just had at Jean-Georges, with its far more complex spicy broth? I suppose I was, unwittingly, though the two dishes - and the cooks who devised and made them - were hardly on the same planet. In that way, our more modest dinner could be viewed as a prolongation of the previous night's meal. And prolonging such pleasures is a worthy enterprise if ever there was one.

  • Butternut squash peeled, seeded and roasted
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Chipotle pepper and garlic infusing in vegetable stock; a piece of kombu seaweed was added later
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Potato gnocchi, boiled from frozen and set out to dry before browning
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • The gnocchi, browned
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Squash reheated and surrounded by gnocchi
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • The finished dish - topped with strained broth
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.