If pasta is morsel celebre, gnocchi is fashionably arcane. Known to relatively few, Italy's answer to dumplings comes in as many colors and flavors as ribbon pasta, but is infinitely easier to make.
Like its bread and more-familiar pasta, gnocchi combines the simplest ingredients for a wonderful dish that takes well to sauce, cheese or herbs. The most common gnocchi adds mashed potatoes to the basic mixture of flour and egg.
It would wilt our tastebuds to recommend prepackaged food for something as easily prepared as gnocchi, but an 83-year-old Italian cook from the heart of "the hill" area in St. Louis used instant mashed potatoes for her gnocchi demonstration before 60 or so food editors.
Of course, it's better to keep a bag of russets handy, because the next "Express Lane" column might call for a baked potato and then you'd have them. Russets also make great french fries.
But back to gnocchi, potato style, with freshly grated parmesan cheese, to serve with Italian-style baked chicken and roasted green peppers. The chicken requires drained canned tomatoes if fresh aren't available, fresh parsley and garlic. Use any available wine (white, red or vermouth) to deglaze the skillet.
While roasted green peppers are not difficult, some consider peeling them a tedious chore. It's easier if the charred peppers are placed inside a paper bag to cool, which steams the skins loose. Haste makes waste when roasting peppers -- they should be charred completely or the skins will cling tenaciously to the meat.
We have chosen to make the peppers lighter than the average. Generally they are bathed in a generous marinade of olive oil, vinegar and garlic, but these peppers require only a brushing of good-quality olive oil and sprinkling of minced garlic. This dish is a real treat for bell pepper lovers. Combine green and red for the most beautiful arrangement, and allow at least one pepper per person.
The usual array of kitchen staples should include flour, sugar, salt, pepper and some kind of oil or butter (this week we call for olive oil and butter).
EXPRESS LANE LIST: chicken, garlic, parsley, tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, cheese and green peppers.
ITALIAN BAKED CHICKEN (4 servings) 4 chicken breast halves, or equivalent dark meat 1 tablespoon olive oil 1/2 cup fresh parsley 2 cloves garlic 1/4 cup white wine, optional 2 cups chopped tomato (if using canned, drain them first; if using fresh, peel them first) Salt and pepper to taste
Brown the chicken breasts in olive oil in large skillet. Remove to shallow casserole. Pour out all but 1 tablespoon of fat and add parsley and garlic. Stir 3 minutes. If using wine, add it now to deglaze the pan, scraping up the brown bits that cling to the bottom of the skillet. Add chopped tomato and cook to heat through. Salt and pepper to taste. Pour this mixture over the chicken and cover the casserole. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, or longer if using dark meat.
POTATO GNOCCHI (4 servings) 1 1/2 cups hot, mashed potatoes 3/4 cup all-purpose flour Salt and pepper to taste 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil 1 egg 1 tablespoon butter, melted 3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Combine hot mashed potatoes with flour, salt and pepper and oil. Blend with a fork. Add egg and blend thoroughly. Turn dough onto a well-floured board and knead gently. The dough will be more pliable than bread dough but should not be sticky. If it is, add a little more flour. Cut off a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball. Roll out into a cord about the thickness of a pencil. With the dull side of a knife, cut the cord into 1-inch long pieces (the dull side of the knife should cause the ends of the pieces to spread, causing the pieces to form bow shapes).
Drop about two dozen gnocchi into simmering water, cover and allow to cook about 5 or 6 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain well, and place in a shallow pan. Mix with melted butter. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi, adding cooked gnocchi to shallow pan and turning gently each time to coat with butter and keeping them warm in a 150-degree oven.
To serve, toss with cheese.
ROASTED PEPPERS (4 servings) 2 green peppers 2 red peppers (substitute green if necessary) Olive oil 2 cloves garlic, minced Salt and pepper to taste
Pierce peppers in stem end and roast them over gas flame until completely charred. If using an electric range, place the peppers on a cookie sheet and broil them about 6 inches from the heat, watching them carefully and turning them often so they turn black all over. Place roasted peppers in paper bag and close tightly, until the peppers are cool enough to handle. With a paring knife, remove skin from peppers. Halve peppers and remove seeds. Using a pastry brush, brush the peppers with a light coating of olive oil. Sprinkle with minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange on serving plate in alternating colors. Serve at room temperature or chilled.