Making Fabulous Gnocchi
I was recently longing for gnocchi but feeling too lazy to make my own. Our local grocery stores offer a pretty surprising assortment of gnocchi, from dried to frozen or “fresh”. My first sample was pretty awful, so I decided to try all I could find. Sadly, none tasted anything like the gnocchi I doted on during my student days in Italy. The dense, heavy, pasty, or chewy store-bought examples convinced me to try my hand at making them again. The gnocchi I remembered were light, almost fluffy, with a tender consistency that set off sauces to perfection. And maybe making them wasn’t really as complicated as I remembered…
In Perugia, where I spent several astonishing years, my Italian cookery mentor was Signora Savino, a grandmotherly woman who lived in an ancient palazzo, her apartment up several flights of stone steps. Once when I came for a lesson, she was toiling up those worn steps ahead of me, carrying a huge bundle of sticks on her back. At her apartment, she dumped them into a capacious woodbox beside a huge stone bread oven built into one kitchen wall. She had a modern stovetop and oven as well, but preferred the wood-fueled oven for slow cooking as well as baking.
Her modest kitchen also contained a long, slender table that had to have been built in place. A slot beneath the top held a cylindrical rolling pin that was as wide as the table. Signora S. used that skinny wand to roll out sheets of pasta thin enough to read through (if the print was big enough). She taught me to make quite a few family favorites, and when she made gnocchi, it looked like a very straight forward process. When I first tried it in America, I bumbled through trying various kinds of potatoes before figuring out that Russets, those classic baking potatoes, resulted in the best texture. Once I got the potatoes right, the actual making was indeed pretty simple. In fact, it’s a good dish to make with kids, who will enjoy giving the dumplings that special little pulling flip, gentle yet firm, that makes them curl up just right.
Perugina Potato Gnocchi
4 pounds Russet or any baking potatoes
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/3-1/2 cup unbleached white flour
Boil the potatoes whole and unpeeled in salted water until fork tender (30-40 minutes). Drain them, peel them, and mash gently with the salt until barely smooth. When room temperature, stir in the egg, then add flour 1-2 tablespoons at a time until a soft dough forms. Take pieces the size of a satsuma and roll them into sticks about as wide as your pointer finger. Chop the sticks into inch-long bits, then working on a lightly floured surface, give each one a tiny tug, pressing down while pulling forward with a flick of your finger, which makes them curl just a bit. Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and drop in gnocchi a handful at a time. First they sink, then they bob up to the top; when they do, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and put them into a buttered dish in a warm oven. When all are cooked, serve them with sauce and grated cheese. Serves 4.
A Faster Pasta Sauce
When you don’t have time to simmer a sauce for hours, try this surprisingly full flavored version. The addition of several umami-rich ingredients give it amazing body and depth. Glossy, savory, and spunky, it’s great with ravioli, gnocchi, or penne, garnished with fresh parsley and grated Asiago or Pecorino cheese. For best flavor, use brined olives, not the canned ones (those are dyed black with iron). Nicoise or Kalamata are both good in this and many other sauces as well. To give this speedy sauce extra bounce, use a jarred puttanesca, arrabiata, or any favorite pasta sauce.
Rich Pasta Sauce
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fennel seed
6-8 pitted Kalamata or Italian olives, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cups sliced brown field mushrooms
5 cups (2 cans) diced fire roasted tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon capers
4 cups puttanesca sauce (or any tomato sauce)
In a large pan, combine oil, garlic, and fennel seed and cook over medium high heat to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Add olives and cook for 2 minutes. Add onions, celery, and mushrooms, cover pan and cook until soft (5-7 minutes). Add diced tomatoes, red wine, capers, and tomato sauce and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve over ravioli, gnocchi, or spaghetti, with grated cheese on the side. Serves 4-6.