Gnocchi are less like Mae West than they are like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When they are good, they are indeed very, very good, but -- well, you know the rest. Early encounters with the horrid kind of gnocchi, usually in the form of gummy, boring little clumps of flour-and-potato paste, are common and can be traumatic. As a result, there are many gnocchi-averse people walking the streets of our towns and cities, unaware that these dumplings have the potential to be delicious and interesting.
There are two keys to realizing that potential. First, for basic potato gnocchi, you need to know the easy process of making them in such a way that they hold together when cooked without becoming either gluey or hard -- there is actually quite a lot of leeway, and I've never really understood why there are so many bad gnocchi out there. Second, again for potato gnocchi, you need to know some good ways of serving them -- another easy matter.
I'm limiting myself here to dumpling-like gnocchi and will mention only in passing the existence of Roman-style semolina gnocchi, which are essentially cookie-cutter disks of congealed porridge oven-baked with a sauce. "Congealed porridge" may not sound very tempting, but it is graphic and, vocabulary aside, this is a good dish. (Another good dish with the same name is the gnocco fritto that is often served with cold cuts in parts of the Emilia-Romagna region. It is a totally different thing: pieces of yeast dough thinly rolled and fried, traditionally in lard.)
The gnocchi (NYOH-kee) I'm thinking of are formed either from little hand-cut pellets of a moderately stiff dough or from a thick batter that is dropped into simmering water by the spoonful. Typically, they are vegetable-based, sometimes with potato and sometimes without. You see them made of various finely chopped leafy greens (spinach is common), winter squash or pumpkin, mushrooms (dried and/or fresh), even nettles. They sometimes have cheese in them, and always flour of some kind. They taste unmistakably of their principal ingredient, whether it be potato or something more striking; this suggests fairly simple treatment, and hence makes life easier for the cook.
(Potato gnocchi is probably the most common and the easiest to make. But just as a suggestion to get you thinking about other ideas of your own, I mention carrot gnocchi, a delicious variation devised by my wife, Jacqueline Mitchell. To emphasize its non-Italian roots, she adds some ground cumin to the mixture and serves the gnocchi with butter and dill. It is important to use really flavorful carrots for this dish.)
On making potato gnocchi: Yes, there is a trick to it, but it is a simple one. The most important thing is to not overwork the dough. You know how mashed potatoes will get gluey if overbeaten? You know how flour mixtures get pully and tough when kneaded? Well this dough is basically potatoes and flour so, on both counts, you need to avoid manhandling it. Another trick isn't a trick so much as an ingredient: I always add an egg yolk per batch. Some -- by no means all -- Italians denounce this and insist that the only good potato gnocchi are eggless potato gnocchi. I reply that I've always had better results using the yolks -- the dough has a more appealing texture and is far easier to work with. Purists will also squawk at the suggestion that you can precook potato gnocchi and then reheat them in whatever you are serving them with; again, it seems to work well, and it makes life easier.
As for how to serve them, you can use a light tomato sauce (not too much, please), or plain melted butter with an herb such as sage. Those are my favorite ways, though I'm always ready for a plate of gnocchi with sauteed mushrooms, ideally and most deliciously fresh porcini.
If you are very careful not to overpower the gnocchi with excessively rich flavors, you can afford to get a little more elaborate. The asparagus and pancetta (or bacon) recipe that follows comes from a chef we might not immediately associate with such plain food: Alain Ducasse. But his principal restaurant, Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, has been half-jokingly described as the best Italian restaurant in the world: Dishes there are built on local produce, of course, and in Monaco "local" means either from the French Cote d'Azur or from the Italian Riviera. This dish, however, is based on one we ate at one of his far less grand establishments, La Bastide de Moustiers, an elegantly simple country inn in Provence.
Oh -- if you happen to have some fresh truffles (white or black) around the house, just serve your gnocchi with melted butter or a splash of cream and liberally grate your truffles over the top. That's probably the best way of all!
(6 first-course or 3 main-course servings)
Gnocchi have two traditional physical characteristics: an indentation and ridges, both of which promote even cooking and provide lots of surface area for butter or sauce to cling to. The formed gnocchi look rather like the butter curls in a fancy hotel restaurant.
For about $4, you can buy a little ridged wooden board on which to shape these gnocchi. Gnocchi boards are available in Italian neighborhood stores and at some specialty stores; I found mine at Fante's Kitchen Wares Shop (fantes.com/pastamakers.htm).
11/2 pounds russet (Idaho) potatoes
1 egg yolk
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more if needed, and for dusting the work surface
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for the cooking water
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
A pinch freshly ground nutmeg
Fit a steamer into a pot or pan and add about 1/2 inch water. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into even-size chunks about 2 inches across. Steam until perfectly tender (mine took 35 minutes). Remove from the heat and set aside until cool enough to handle. Using a ricer or a food mill, process the potatoes into a very large bowl or onto a clean work surface.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and keep it at a simmer as you make the dough.
Make sure the potatoes are at room temperature or only slightly warm to the touch. Add the egg yolk, flour, salt and pepper and nutmeg to taste and, using a rubber spatula or a plastic pastry scraper, mix just until combined. Then gently knead the mixture by hand for a matter of seconds, just until everything comes together into a coherent dough. It may feel oddly moist; that is fine, though it should not be actually sticky. (If it is sticky, gently work in a little more flour.)
Divide the dough into 3 equal portions. Cover the dough with a clean towel to prevent it from drying out. Roll 1 portion of dough into a rope about 3/4 inch in diameter. On a lightly floured surface using a knife or the pastry scraper, cut the rope into generous 1/2 inch chunks. Now the chunks must become gnocchi. (Yes, you can cook them as they are, but they will not have the characteristic indentation and ridges.)
To shape the gnocchi, pick up 1 lump of dough; if it seems as though it is going to fall apart (remember, you have not overworked the dough), use the palm of your hand to give it a gentle roll on your work surface, forming an imperfect ball.
Use a gnocchi board or the back of a fork, holding the fork so that the tines are pointing into your work surface, with the convex side of the fork facing up. Using your thumb, gently press a lump of dough onto the gnocchi board or onto the tines of the fork, rolling it downward, until you have somewhat flattened it into a disk. Maintaining that same degree of pressure, roll the lump downward until it curls over itself and falls onto the work surface. The lump is now a gnocco and should have a deep indentation and ridges. Repeat with the remaining chunks from the first portion of dough.
To cook the gnocchi, slip those formed from the first portion of dough into the simmering water and cook, stirring gently occasionally to make sure none of them stick to the bottom of the pot, for 4 to 5 minutes.
While the first batch is cooking, form the second portion of dough, then repeat with the third. If you have an especially large pot of water and are an experienced gnocchi maker, you can form and cook all the gnocchi at once, but if this is your first attempt, I'd recommend doing it in three smaller batches.
When each batch of gnocchi is done, use a skimmer or slotted spoon to transfer them to a skillet containing melted butter or sauce or to an oiled sheet pan and, using a rubber spatula, turn them very gently to coat. Repeat this turning motion once or twice as the gnocchi cool to prevent them from sticking to either the pan or one another.
If you wish to hold the cooked gnocchi for reheating up to an hour or so later, transfer them to a large sheet pan or baking dish smeared with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and reserve until needed. When cool, cover loosely with aluminum foil (a cloth could stick).
Per serving (based on 6): 183 calories, 5 gm protein, 39 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 35 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 782 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Potato Gnocchi With Butter and Sage
(6 first-course servings)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 fresh sage leaves
1 recipe Potato Gnocchi (see first recipe)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese to taste
In a 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium-low heat, heat the butter and sage until the butter melts. Add the cooked gnocchi to the pan (either all at once or as they are ready) and reduce the heat to low. Cook, tossing gently, until you have added all the gnocchi to the skillet and they are warmed through. Season with salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle with cheese. Serve warm.
Per serving: 219 calories, 5 gm protein, 39 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 46 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 783 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Potato Gnocchi With Asparagus Tips
and Pancetta or Bacon
(6 first-course servings)
Adapted from a dish served by Alain Ducasse at La Bastide de Moustiers.
1 recipe Potato Gnocchi (see first recipe)
7 to 8 ounces thinly sliced pancetta or bacon
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
11/2 pounds asparagus, tender tips only (or 2 pounds whole asparagus, peeled from the tip down and cut into 2-inch lengths)
About 1 cup chicken stock or broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 or 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
Place the cooked gnocchi on an oiled sheet pan and set aside as directed in the first recipe.
Cut the sliced pancetta or bacon into about 1-inch pieces.
In a 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium heat, heat the pancetta or bacon with the oil and cook until nicely browned, but not brittle. With a slotted spoon, transfer the pieces to a plate and set aside.
Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the drippings from the skillet and return the skillet to medium heat. Add the asparagus and cook until they begin to turn golden brown. If the stalks are very thin, this should be enough to cook them until almost tender but still crisp, so remove them to the plate with the pancetta; if the stalks are thicker, leave them in the skillet to finish cooking with the stock.
Add 1/2 cup of the stock and cook until it reduces to a glaze. If necessary, test the asparagus for doneness. (If the asparagus is still not done, add a little more stock and continue cooking.) Return the reserved pancetta to the pan (or the pancetta and asparagus if using very thin asparagus) and add the cooked gnocchi. Cook, tossing gently, just until heated through. If necessary, add a little more stock to coat the gnocchi. Season with salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle with parsley. Serve warm.
Per serving: 448 calories, 18 gm protein, 44 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 64 mg cholesterol, 7 gm saturated fat, 1,347 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber
When not making gnocchi or earning his living as an editor, Edward Schneider translates French books on food, cooking and music.