A Simple, Versatile Dish That Adds Variety to Your Menu
I love gnocchi. I've made them twice just in the last couple of weeks. I made Gnocchi alla Sorrentina for dinner one evening. I wound up with more gnocchi than I needed, but they were great with sage butter the next day. Then I did a batch that served as a bed for a Sunday chicken and vegetable plate with a nice pan sauce. Gnocchi are simple and delicious and are just unique enough on the American table to add a little “wow” factor when you serve them.
Let's start with what they are. Basically, gnocchi are Italian dumplings. Like a lot of Italian creations, they have different names in different regions, but the method of preparation is pretty much the same. Like pasta, gnocchi is considered a first course, or primo piatto. You can serve them in a sauce as a stand-alone course, you can put them in soup, or you can use them as a bed, as I did with the chicken and vegetables. Although sometimes seen as a form of pasta, Italians consider gnocchi to be an alternative to pasta and place them in a category by themselves.
The word “gnocchi” is the plural form of “gnocco.” In the same way you can't have a “panini” or a “ravioli,” you can't have a “gnocchi.” You can have a gnocco or you can have a bunch of gnocchi. And the “gn” combination in Italian sounds like the letters “ny” in the English word “canyon.” So, it's not pronounced “NOH-kee.” It's “NYOHK-kee.” Actually, there's a subtle difference in the rendering of the “o” sound that a lot of English-speakers can't get their mouths to make, so “NYOHK-kee” is generally close enough. Italians will know what you mean. Unless you say something silly like “guh-NOH-kee,” in which case they'll just laugh at you.
You can make gnocchi out of a lot of things. You can make it out of flour and water alone, either wheat flour or semolina. You can also use flour and eggs as you would a pasta dough. You can make it with ricotta cheese. You can throw spinach in it. There are lots of variations. But the most common preparation is the classic potato gnocchi, popular in Abruzzo, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and many other parts of Italy. Pre-made potato gnocchi are available in dried, refrigerated, and frozen forms in most supermarkets and Italian specialty shops, but nothing beats the fresh, homemade kind.
To do it right, you do need one special piece of equipment: a ricer. I use my ricer all the time for mashed potatoes, hash browns......every application where potatoes need to be processed in order to be light, fluffy, and dry. A ricer looks kind of like an overgrown garlic press and is fairly inexpensive at most kitchen stores or online suppliers. If you want to be really fancy, you can also buy yourself a gnocchi board for the final forming process. They cost about five bucks and you can find them in kitchen stores and online, too. But a board is not as essential as a ricer. You can use an ordinary table fork to make ridges in your gnocchi.
Okay. Here's la ricetta:
Gnocchi di Patate
1 1/2 lbs russet potatoes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
a pinch of salt
1 or 2 tbsp olive oil
Peel and quarter the potatoes and drop them into a large pot with enough water to cover them by a couple of inches. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until they are soft when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 20 to 30 minutes. Drain. While still warm, pass them through a ricer onto a clean working surface.
Bring 4 or 5 quarts of salted water to boil in a large pot. Set up an ice bath (a large bowl of ice and water) near the boiling water.
Make a well in the center of the riced potatoes and sprinkle all over with flour. Place the egg and the salt in the center of the well and using a fork, stir the egg into the flour and potatoes, just like making regular pasta dough. Once the egg is mixed in, bring the dough together, kneading gently until a large ball is formed. Knead gently for another 4 or 5 minutes or until the ball is fairly dry to the touch. Add extra flour in very small increments if the dough is too wet or tacky and add small amounts of water if it is too dry. Allow the dough to rest for a few minutes.
Cut off a golf ball-sized piece from the main dough ball and, using your palms, roll it into a 3/4-inch diameter dowel about 12 inches long. Cut the dowel into 1-inch long pieces. Roll the pieces down the gnocchi board, if using, or flick them off the tines of a fork, creating a ridged, elongated shell shape.
Drop these formed pieces into the boiling water and cook them just until they float, 1 or 2 minutes. Meanwhile, continue the process with the remaining dough. As the gnocchi float to the surface of the boiling water, use a slotted spoon to remove them to the ice bath. Continue until all the gnocchi have cooled. Drain them from the ice water and place them in a large bowl. Toss the gnocchi with a tablespoon or two of olive oil to lightly coat. The gnocchi can now be stored in the refrigerator in a covered container until you are ready to serve them. (Up to 48 hours.)
To serve, heat whatever sauce you are using in a large pan, then add the gnocchi to the pan for a minute or two, gently stirring occasionally to allow them to warm through and absorb the flavors of the sauce.
Notes: Russet potatoes work best with this recipe because they are a dry, flaky, high-starch potato.
Mario Batali likes to leave his potatoes in the peel when he cooks them. He peels and quarters them after they are cooked. Mario says it adds to the flavor and aids in keeping excess moisture out. He's probably right. But more people do it my way, largely because it's easier and faster. Your choice.
If you absolutely don't have a ricer, you can mash the boiled potatoes with a fork, but make sure they are very dry and don't overmash them. They'll get gluey and make for a very dense finished product.
The dough can get sticky as you work it; to avoid this, roll out the dowels of dough on a lightly-floured surface. But be careful of adding too much flour as you work the dough. It can change the texture and character of the finished product and cause the gnocchi to fall apart in the boiling water.
Don't sweat the shape. They don't have to be machine perfect. The technique takes practice. Just make sure they have ridges and are relatively uniform in size so they'll cook evenly.
You can skip the ice bath if you plan to cook and serve the gnocchi immediately. They can go right from the board (or fork) into boiling water and then directly into whatever preparation you are making. I like to make them up a little in advance because they are easier to handle once they have cooled and set a bit.