This is the post I’ve been looking forward to writing ever since I started this blog. Not because gnocchi are the perfect marathon training food (they’re not), but because they’re the food I’d choose to have if I were to hypothetically contract Swine Flu and be quarantined, a la Serious Eats and relishments. Gnocchi are the food that turned me into a cook after I first tasted them in Italy with a glass of Chianti and was compelled to recreate the experience at home. But after my first attempt at them, it’s a wonder I remained a cook. Not only did they take all afternoon; they were terrible.
Mario Batali puts it best when he says gnocchi are “excellent when executed perfectly, heinous any other way.” Overwork the dough and they come out heavy and gummy. Underwork it, or don’t use enough flour, and they’ll dissolve in the boiling water while cooking. I’m sure more than one Italian grandmother (nonna, right?) has said something like “Good gnocchi melt in your mouth, not in the pot,” before disciplining her young protege on the insert-Italian-word-for-ass with a wooden spoon or rolling pin.
For those who don’t know, gnocchi are little potato-pasta dumplings, and the most comforting food I know of. The irony is that such a heavenly food was probably born out of necessity, when potatoes were cheaper than the flour used in most other pastas. For such a luxurious food, gnocchi aren’t unhealthy at all; the main ingredients are potatoes and a little flour, and (optionally) egg. I only say that they’re not the perfect fuel for marathon training because I generally try to get a little more nutrition in each meal than gnocchi can offer. And gnocchi are one food I don’t dare desecrate with whole wheat flour.
I served these gnocchi with a simple tomato sauce made with olive oil infused with garlic and basil. In the past I’ve tried fresh pesto, a smoked mozzarella and olive sauce, lamb ragout and Rachael Ray mini-meatballs (before seeing the no-meat light), and most famously, a cauliflower-gorgonzola cream sauce. Not really famously, just most famously. And all of them have been outstanding.
This was the first time I’d ever made gnocchi without eggs. A friend of mine recently explained to me that since the eggs we eat are unfertilized, my likening their consumption to chicken abortion was completely idiotic. That’s how informed a vegetarian I am. So I’m no longer opposed to eating eggs, but I had already done some research and found that some people think gnocchi are even lighter when cooked without eggs, so I gave it a try. And though I had to work the dough a little longer to get it to stop crumbling, there really wasn’t any appreciable difference in the finished product.
I don’t see any need to rate gnocchi in terms of cows. For me gnocchi are a 5 out of 5 anything. I guess the sauce dictates whether the meal will be divine or just really good. This one was a solid 4.5. I’m not going to give the tomato sauce recipe here since it still needs some tinkering; to try your own just remove and discard as much liquid as you can from some ripe or canned tomatoes, cook them over medium heat until they soften and break down (30 minutes to an hour plus), and add some olive oil that you’ve flavored with whatever you like and cook until the sauce becomes whole. But I will do my best to describe in detail how I make the gnocchi. I really recommend that you try it, just be willing to make a few mediocre batches before they get really good.
By the way, I first learned to make gnocchi from what is now my favorite cookbook, The Greatest Dishes by Anya Von Bremzen. It features 80 recipes for the most classic dishes from around the world, and it’s my absolute go-to when I’m looking to try something new or cook something really special. I’ve made incredible lasagna, risotto, and pesto dishes from it (can ya tell I love Italian cooking?), and they’ve become my sort of “signature” dishes, as far as my friends and family are concerned!
Ingredients (for about 6 starter servings, 3 main courses)
- 2 pounds organic russet potatoes, scrubbed
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus some for dusting and kneading (I don’t dare try whole wheat, but you can)
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 egg yolk, beaten (optionally replace with another tablespoon olive oil or melted butter)
- 2 tsp salt
- 4 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese
- pepper and/or whole nutmeg, both optional
- a potato ricer (I got mine at Bed Bath and Beyond for 10-15 bucks)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Poke holes in the potatoes with a fork and stick them in the oven on a baking pan. They are finished when a fork or skewer goes through easily, about an hour for me.
As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half and scoop the flesh out. (Bonus: top the skins with a little cheese, oil, leeks, and salt and broil; that’s what I’m eating as I write this!) Run the flesh through the ricer into a large bowl. Make a well in the middle, pour in the egg yolk (if using). Sprinkle everything with salt, cheese, some pepper and/or a few pinches grated nutmeg (the nutmeg is best for cream sauces), oil, and about 1/2 cup flour. Work the dough extremely gently with the tips of your fingers until the flour is barely incorporated, then add the other 1/2 cup of the flour and repeat, again extremely gently.
Turn the dough out onto a board dusted with flour. Gently work for another minute or two with your fingers, adding a little more flour if necessary, until the dough stays together and isn’t very sticky. It should feel more like dough than mashed potatoes. The goal is to work the dough as little as possible, adding as little flour as possible, but so that is dry enough that it doesn’t stick to everything. To test the dough, break off a small piece and roll it into a 3/4 inch thick rope, then cut into 1/2 inch pieces and drop these into a pot of boiling water. If they float after a few minutes you’re good; if they break up, add more flour to your dough. Cover the dough in plastic and let sit for 20-30 minutes.
Clean the dried bits off the board and dust with flour. Break or cut off about an eighth of the dough and roll into a 3/4 inch thick rope, cut into 1/2 inch pieces. You may need to redust the board in between each rope. Move the pieces to a cookie tray, dusted with flour. Press each gnocco lightly with a small fork to create some ridges for sauce to cling to. Use immediately or freeze (I like to just stick the whole tray in the freezer, then break the frozen pieces off the tray to use or store in a container).
To cook the gnocchi, bring a large pot of water to boil; salt until it tastes like seawater. Add about half the gnocchi (frozen is fine) and stir the pot to make sure nothing sticks. They should float to the surface after a few minutes; give them another 3o seconds or so, then remove with a slotted spoon. Repeat with rest of gnocchi, and toss gently with whatever sauce you’re using.