Even when I read novels, I get hungry.
“Back home, I told the cook girl to boil enough pots of water and to chop enough pork and vegetables to make a thousand dumplings, both steamed and boiled, with plenty of fresh ginger, good soy sauce and sweet vinegar for dipping.” From “The Kitchen God’s Wife” by Amy Tan.
Little wonder that I taught myself to make pot stickers. (Thank you to cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo.)
In the “The Fault in Our Stars,” John Green’s passage about green-garlic gnocchi drove me right to my recipe collection.
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Little wonder both these dumpling passages entice the cook in me. At once, dumplings sound comforting, somewhat mysterious and exotic. For example, the tender dough that defies nature by encasing rich broth and other goodies in the soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai in New York. Even the traditional Bavarian leberknodelsuppe (liver dumplings in rich broth) offers filling warmth and unusual flavor. Italian gnocchi, with their signature plump, ridge-back shape practically beg sauce to cling.
Gnocchi (aka dumplings) can be found throughout Italy in various shapes and flavors. I’m partial to the variety lightened (if you can believe it) with potato. These take readily to all manner of seasonings and sauce.
I started making gnocchi at home when chef Paul Bertolli published his recipe in a 1999 issue of Fine Cooking magazine. I’m happy to report that his recipe remains my favorite. Six simple ingredients meld into light-as-a-feather dumplings begging for melted butter or a simple tomato sauce.
Make homemade gnocchi when there’s time to enjoy your kitchen and the company of some Italian opera. Start by squishing baked potatoes with cream, egg, salt and pepper. Then gently work in flour with delicate motions into a light dough. You can roll small nuggets of this dough and tattoo them with the tines of a fork into their classic gnocchi shape. Or simply cut the dough into miniature Tootsie-roll shapes.
The gnocchi can be cooked the same day or frozen for several weeks. They cook beautifully straight from the freezer.
The tomato, pancetta and orange sauce that follows is a riff on a pal’s favorite spaghetti recipe from the Sunshine Tavern in Portland. At first, the addition of prunes seems odd, but they melt into the tomatoes, adding a mysterious sweetness that tastes terrific with the rich pancetta and delicate leeks.
The good news is that store-bought gnocchi puts this recipe squarely in my weeknight repertoire. Look for the best gnocchi in the refrigerated section of large supermarkets or Italian specialty markets. Select gluten-free prepared gnocchi (made from potatoes, corn flour and potato starch) when you need to avoid gluten.
For Green’s green-garlic gnocchi, I sauté chopped green garlic in unsalted butter when it’s in season at the farmers market. At this time of the year, green onions and minced fresh garlic sautéed in butter taste just fine.
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 20 minutes
Adapted from Paul Bertolli’s recipe published in Fine Cooking, May 1999. An old-fashioned ricer tool keeps the cooked potatoes very light in texture compared to a masher. If you don’t have a ricer, use a medium mesh metal sieve and push the potatoes through it with a rubber scraper or wooden spoon.
2 medium russet potatoes, about 1 pound total
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
2 1/2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
6 ounces (about 1 1/3 cups) flour
Pierce potatoes with a fork in several places. Microwave on high (100 percent power) until fork-tender, about 6 to 8 minutes. Let cool just enough that you can handle them but they are still warm.
Peel the warm potatoes, and push them through a ricer (or a medium-mesh metal sieve) into a bowl. Stir in the egg, cream, salt and nutmeg.
Put the flour onto your work surface, and make a well in the center. Add the potato mixture to the well. Use a pastry scraper, or your clean hands, to cut the flour into the potato mixture. Keep working until the dough comes together and is soft, supple and a little elastic.
Roll the dough into a large log and then cut into 3 equal sections. Working on a floured surface, roll 1 section of the dough out into a long rope about 3/4 inch in diameter. Use a knife to cut the rope into 1/2-inch long nuggets. Dip the tines of a fork in flour; roll each nugget against the tines to score the nugget and create a rough oval. Use your thumb to create a dimple in the oval. Drop the oval onto a floured baking sheet. Repeat to roll and shape all the dough. At this point you can refrigerate the gnocchi for several hours. Or, freeze the gnocchi on the baking sheet until they are solid. Then put them into a plastic freezer bag to freeze up to several weeks.
When ready to cook, heat a large pot of well-salted water to the boil over high heat. Drop the refrigerated or still-frozen gnocchi into the water and cook until they float, 2 to 4 minutes.
Serve immediately, topped with tomato sauce or melted butter and cheese.
Per serving: 298 calories, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 55 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 8 g protein, 458 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Gnocchi with tomato-pancetta sauce
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Mild or spicy Italian sausage, removed from the casing, can be used in place of the pancetta; increase cooking time in step 2 to 10 minutes.
Tomato pancetta sauce:
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for serving
4 ounces pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 small leeks, root end trimmed, white and light-green portion only
1 large or 2 small shallots, halved, thinly sliced
1 small or half large red or orange bell pepper, seeded, diced
1 cup diced fire-roasted tomatoes with juices
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup pitted prunes, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or to taste
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
1 recipe homemade gnocchi or 1 package (16 to 17 ounces) refrigerated gnocchi
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons each, fresh chopped: chives, flat-leaf parsley
For sauce, heat 1/4 cup oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta, and cook until slightly crisp but still tender, 6 to 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut leeks lengthwise in half, and rinse under cool running water to remove any grit between the leaves. Pat dry, and cut crosswise into thin slices.
Add leeks, shallot and bell pepper to skillet. Cook until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and boil hard, 1 minute. Add chicken broth, prunes, red pepper flakes, and orange zest and juice. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until sauce is slightly reduced, about 4 minutes. Season with salt (about 1/4 teaspoon) and pepper. (Sauce can be made up to several days in advance and refrigerated covered. Rewarm before serving.)
Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Cook gnocchi until tender but still toothsome at the center (al dente), usually 2 to 3 minutes. Scoop out and reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Drain the gnocchi.
Rewarm the sauce in the skillet if necessary. Add cooked gnocchi, 1/4 cup of the cooking water and 1/4 cup Parmesan to sauce. Toss to coat. Drizzle in some of the remaining cooking water if needed. Season again with salt and pepper to taste. To serve, sprinkle with herbs and more Parmesan and drizzle with a little bit of olive oil.
Per serving: 606 calories, 24 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 83 g carbohydrates, 15 g sugar, 15 g protein, 1,018 mg sodium, 8 g fiber
Mixed greens with red wine vinaigrette
Prep time: 5 minutes
Serves 4, with leftover dressing
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of sugar
1 bag (5 ounces) baby lettuce mix
3 cups baby arugula
For vinaigrette, put oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and sugar into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well to mix. (Store at room temperature for several hours or refrigerate for up to a week; use at room temperature.)
For salad, put lettuce mix and arugula into a large serving bowl. Cover with a damp paper towel and refrigerate for a few hours to chill.
To serve, remove towel. Drizzle 2 or 3 tablespoons of the dressing over salad and use tongs to coat lettuces with the dressing. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 94 calories, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 1 g protein, 71 mg sodium, 1 g fiber