As our thoughts turn once again to starchy sides – as they are wont to do – can’t we for once have some dadblasted gnocchi?
As good as it is, gnocchi’s like that crazy Uncle Shadrach you’re always meaning to invite for the holidays but can’t ever seem to remember because – well, you haven’t really got a reason. Today, then, let’s call old Uncle Shadrach and have him over for some fresh, delicious gnocchi.
Why you need to learn this
Like their kissing cousin, pasta, Italy’s diminutive dumplings pair well with a thousand sauces. Tomato, cream, pesto, even a simple butter melted with fresh sage all pair perfectly well. And, like so many other things, once you get the hang of it, you’ll never look back.
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The steps you take
First of all, if you’re new to gnocchi, they’re light little things, smaller than the tip of your thumb (and twice as tender). They’re often described as having a “pillowy” texture, and indeed, I can imagine a tiny mouse resting its itty-bitty noggin on one of these plush creations.
There are heaps and piles of gnocchi styles out there in the great big world. For the time being, though, we’ll stick with potato gnocchi, as that seems to be the most common variety and it makes a good entry point. As with anything containing just a few ingredients, the type and quality of those ingredients have increased importance. Let’s take a look.
▪ The potato. If you fancy yourself a potato enthusiast, you know that there’s a potato spectrum that leads from the starchy (like a russet) to the waxy (like a new red). As a rule, we want starchier, rather than waxier, potatoes. This is because the waxier the potato, the more moisture it contains, and the more moisture there is, the more flour we’re going to need to get the dough to hold together.
Now, we’ve got nothing against flour. It’s just that, the more flour you have in your gnocchi, the denser and doughier it’s going to be. And good gnocchi should be so light they practically float off your plate, like the yeasty, buckwheat blini of an orbiting Soviet cosmonaut. (Note to self: Find more current cultural references.)
▪ The flour. All-purpose is fine. The question is, how much? If you look at 10 gnocchi recipes, you’ll find 10 different potato/flour ratios. Three-quarters of a cup per pound of potatoes is reasonable to start. As you make gnocchi more and more frequently and get used to the process of making the dough, you can gradually lower the amount of flour. And less flour means more potato-ey flavor.
▪ The salt. You’ve got to season your dough. Otherwise your gnocchi will be blander than a Lawrence Welk Christmas special. (Note to self: Reread previous note to self.) A good amount would be about 1/2 teaspoon per pound of dough.
▪ The egg. The egg adds moisture and structure, making the dough easier to handle and the gnocchi less likely to disintegrate in the water. It also makes it denser, which is why lots of cooks leave it out altogether.
I say leave it in, though, at least your first few times making gnocchi. Then, as with lessening the flour, you can gradually eliminate the egg as well.
The amounts used below will make 4 to 8 servings. Two easy sauces are included.
Serves 8 as appetizer or 4 as main course
Recipe from the Chicago Tribune.
2 pounds russet potatoes
1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for surface and kneaded
1 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks or 1 egg, beaten
Remember, the idea is to keep the moisture out, so baking works really well. Bake the russets in a 400-degree oven until they can be easily pierced with a skewer or knife, 40 to 60 minutes. Let cool slightly, then peel and pass through a ricer or food mill onto a floured surface.
While potatoes are still warm, add flour,salt and egg yolks or egg. Cut ingredients together with a bench scraper or mix by hand until dough comes together.
Knead the dough briefly, keeping it dusted in flour to prevent sticking. The finished dough should be as soft and smooth as the freshly talcumed rump of a newborn baby.
(Tip: To test if the gnocchi will hold together while cooking, pinch off one bite-size piece. Drop it into boiling water. If it breaks up, mix a little more flour into the dough.)
Cut the dough into four pieces and cover three while you work with the first piece.
Smoosh the dough into a generally oblong shape. Place both palms on the dough and, moving your hands forward and back while at the same time moving them away from each other, roll the dough into a long rope about the thickness of your thumb. Cut them into lengths of about 3/4 inch, and place on a floured sheet pan while you roll the remaining dough.
Roll each gnocco (singular of gnocchi) down the tines of a floured fork to make the little ridges that are characteristic of gnocchi and that help the sauce cling to them.
Boil the gnocchi in lots of salted water. When they float to the top, remove them to a colander with a slotted spoon, then toss with your favorite pasta sauce and serve immediately.
Tomatoes, butter and Parmigiano sauce
Serves 4 to 6
This simple, quick recipe is from “Spaghetti Sauces” by Sacramento restaurateur Biba Caggiano, who says she often used to cook it for her daughters when they were young.
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
One 28-ounce can whole Italian plum tomatoes, with juice, put through a food mill to remove seeds
Salt, to taste
Pasta (about 1 pound) or gnocchi (recipe at right)
1 to 1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and cook, stirring, until sauce has a medium-thick consistency, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook pasta or gnocchi in plenty of boiling salted water.
Drain pasta or gnocchi and place in a large warm serving bowl. Add remaining butter, sauce and half of the Parmigiano. Mix until all are well combined. Taste, adjust the seasoning; top with a generous sprinkle of Parmigiano.
Sautéed mixed mushrooms
Serves 4 to 6
Recipe from “Spaghetti Sauces” by Biba Caggiano. She says to choose a variety of mushrooms, such as porcini, shiitake, oyster and chanterelle.
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound mixed mushrooms, wiped clean and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Pasta (1 pound) or gnocchi (recipe at right)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced sage
Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until they are golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and stir a few times. Taste and adjust the seasoning and turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, cook pasta or gnocchi in plenty of salted boiling water.
Drain pasta or gnocchi and add to the skillet. Add butter, parsley and sage and quickly mix everything over low heat until well combined. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.