Tonight, on my dinner table, there will be an Indian Passover chicken dish, the way the Jews in Cochin have been making for generations. A Chinese shrimp stir-fry is planned for Sunday. I grew up snooping around my mother’s very Italian kitchen – with duck a l’orange being one of the very few exceptions – and I didn’t really discover other cuisines until I started travelling. My first forays into the food from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands as a child didn’t me impress me much and even my first French lobster, at age 13, left me baffled. It took a while to train my palate but once different tastes, flavors and combinations were discovered, I was up running. Now, I love researching recipes, from all kinds of sources: vintage cookbooks, magazines, friends and other bloggers.
But, for most of us, comfort food means the flavors of our childhood. Most often when I travel back to Italy, my first request to my mother will be for simple gnocchi in tomato sauce. My mother’s gnocchi are indeed astounding: light, with a melt in your mother quality, it’s so easy to reach for seconds without thinking.
Every tradition, all over the world, has a dumpling recipe, often with potato as its foundation. Ancient Romans were already making gnocchi with semolina and eggs (a variation of this dish, called Gnocchi alla Romana, is still extremely made today) but when potatoes arrived from the New World, the tiny pillows of potato and flour became wildly popular – not to mention cheap and easy.
Making gnocchi is easy but you need a feel for it. This is a typical recipe where strict proportions are impossible to adhere to: it all depends on the potatoes you start with. Starchy potatoes are best and I have gotten into the habit of roasting them instead of boiling them in water, to avoid water logging them – I like my gnocchi extremely light and not the brick size consistency that is served in many restaurants.
Once the potatoes are cooked and put through a vegetable mill, all you have to do is add flour until the dough holds its shape. It’s best to start slow and keep on adding. For novices, it might be easier to boil a little bit of water and dump one or two gnocchi in it to see if they hold their shape – if not, keep on adding more flour.
As to sauces, anything goes: tomato and basil; butter and sage; gorgonzola are the classic ones but you can let your imagination run.
Gnocchi, by the way, probably comes from “nocche”, Italian for knuckle. But if you hear a man talking about a “Bella gnocca”, he will not be referring to anything edible but to an attractive woman. So you know.
RECIPE – Yields 3 to 4 servings
1 1/2 pound Starchy potatoes (such as Russet in the States) 675 g
1 C Flour (or a bit more if needed) 160 g
Pinch of salt
Sauce of your choice
- Place the potatoes in a 400F oven and roast for about an hour or until tender when pricked with a fork. Remove, let cool and peel them.
- Pass the potatoes through a vegetable mill over a lightly floured board. Make a well in the center, add the salt and start incorporating the flour (don’t dump it all at once) working it in with your hands, until you have a soft dough that is no longer sticky.
- Divide it into four portions and roll each into a rope-like shape, about 1” thick. If the dough breaks while doing this, you need to add more flour.
- Cut the rope into 1” segments and gently roll each gnocco on the tines of a fork (this is not indispensable but it will help catch more sauce). If it’s your first time making gnocchi, test some of the dough before you cut it all. Boil a little bit of water and dump one or two gnocchi in: if they fall apart, you will need to incorporate more flour.
- Place them on a baking sheet, so they don’t touch each other and let them rest until ready to cook. If you need to hold them for more than a couple of hours, put them in an oiled bowl, mix them with a bit of olive oil and refrigerate up to a day.
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil. Reduce the heat to reach a gentle boiling and carefully drop the gnocchi in the water, a few at a time. Have your sauce warm and ready to go.
- The gnocchi are cooked when they pop up to the surface. Remove them, a few at a time, with a slotted spoon, so they won’t stick together.
- Place them in a serving bowl, add your sauce and you are done.