Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gnocchi: Not As Italian As You'd Think (+ Pesto)

There's a very simple rule for eating pasta: thin pasta, thick sauce; thick pasta, thin sauce.  You eat gnocchi with a thin sauce, even though it's not pasta.  Gnocchi are little dumplings, not noodles.  They're usually listed with the pasta on the menu at Italian restaurants and sold with pasta in grocery store, which creates some confusion.

There really isn't a stereotypical "Italian" dinner any more than there is an "American" dinner.  Sure, some Americans really do eat green bean casserole made with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and hamburgers for dinner in the same way that some Italians really do eat tomatoes and mozzarella and chicken cacciatore with tiramisu for dessert.  But there is considerable regional differences in both American and Italian cooking which makes it difficult to say what Americans or Italians "eat for dinner".  Most cookbooks and travel magazines do the best they can, writing very broad descriptions that aren't wrong but aren't really right, either.

In these descriptions, an Italian dinner has a lighter first course which is usually some kind of pasta/gnocchi/soup and a heavier main course which is a meat dish.  Gnocchi may not be pasta but it is cooked similarly and used interchangeably with pasta in the first course.

Most people know the potato version of gnocchi, but they can be made with lots of ingredients, including ricotta, flour, and pumpkin.  Tuscany has a version of gnocchi called malfatti, which are ricotta and spinach dumplings.  The idea of small dumplings made from flour was spread across Europe by the Roman empire and most European countries have some version of them. If you've ever had spätzle, then you know what I'm talking about.

Although potato gnocchi are the most commonly made version of gnocchi, potatoes are not indigenous to Italy and weren't introduced until the 16th century.  Many of the food items that we consider to be historically Italian are actually made with foods from the New World, like tomatoes and potatoes.  When new food items became available, Italians worked them into their older recipes which is how we get pizza with tomato sauce or potato gnocchi.

When Twin and I were 14 years old, our mother decided that it was time for us to learn about our heritage and to meet our Italian relatives.  We spent a month in Italy, just the two of us with our mother.  My mother speaks Italian and Twin speaks French but I only know non-Romance languages.  I got bored very quickly.  As a reward at the end of the month, we went up to Lake Como (Lago di Como), an alpine lake near the northern border in Lombardy. 

It really does look like that.
 The youth hostel we stayed in was selling a cookbook with local recipes for almost nothing (I think it was 1000 lire).  It was an amazing bargain, about a dollar for 20+ recipes.  The gnocchi and pesto recipes have not failed me over the years, even though they can be a bit messy to make.  The most basic potato gnocchi recipes don't have cheese in them, but I think that it adds a little something extra to the flavor.

Tips: cooked potatoes are very sticky because they are so starchy.  This is a messy recipe.  Your kitchen will have flour and potato all over it when you're done.  The good news is that it cleans up easily.

Sauces for gnocchi should be thin (liquidy without chunks of vegetables or meats).  Common sauces are butter and sage, tomato, and pesto.  You can fry the gnocchi in whatever sauce you're using to make the sauce taste more intense, or just pour the sauce over the gnocchi.

I prefer a creamier pesto to the more traditional recipe, so there are two pesto recipes following the gnocchi recipes.  You should be able to get pine nuts at Whole Foods or a health food store if you can't get them at your local grocery.

Some people will say that you shouldn't use a food processor to make either gnocchi or pesto because the results are too homogeneous.  I don't have the time to be fooling around with a mezzaluna when I've got two jobs, so I do it all in the food processor for pesto.  You can make gnocchi in a food processor but I don't recommend it - it's too sticky and difficult to get everything out when you're done.

The creamy pesto recipe needs whole milk ricotta.  If you are worried about fat or calories, just put less pesto on whatever you're eating.

Gnocchi (potato dumplings)
 from the youth hostel at Lago di Como, conversion by me

900 grams potatoes (about 2 to 2 1/4 pounds)
1 large egg
50 grams (2 ounces) grated parmesan cheese
275 grams of all-purpose flour (2.15 cups or 9.5 ounces) - start from 250 grams (2.05 cups or 9 ounces) and add more as needed 
salt to taste

Boil the potatoes whole.  When cooked, peel them.  Puree them, either by hand with a masher or food mill or in a food processor.  Let the potatoes cool.  They will be very sticky!  Mix in the egg, cheese, salt, and half of the flour.

Place the mixture on a well-floured surface.  Slowly mix in the rest of the flour.  You can use your hand to mix in the last of the flour.  You want the dough to have lost some of its stickiness, so that you can move it from hand to hand without leaving large chunks of it behind.  Slowly continue to add flour until you reach this consistency.

On a well-floured board, pinch of medium chunks of dough and roll them by hand (like playing with clay) into strips until they are the width of your thumb.  Cut the strip into pieces that are the length of your thumb from the tip to the first joint.  Roll the tines of a fork against the pieces to make stripes.

You can immediately cook the gnocchi, or dry or freeze them for later.  They're much better fresh.  To dry the gnocchi, leave them out overnight, turn them over, and leave them out one more night.

To cook the gnocchi, boil a large pot of water and throw the gnocchi in when it's boiling.  When the gnocchi float to the surface of the water (about 1-2 minutes), they're done.  Take them out and rinse them in cold water.  If you're making a sauce, throw the gnocchi into the pan with the sauce to cover them.

You can also fry gnocchi instead of boiling them.  Place several tablespoons of olive oil in a pan and heat it up until it's hot but not spitting.  Cook the gnocchi until they are browned on one side, then flip them over and fry the other side.

When pesto gets cold from being stored in the refrigerator, the oil separates and floats to the top.  You can just mix it in again.  If you're having difficulty getting the oil to reincorporate, put the pesto in the microwave for 10-20 seconds to warm it up slightly.

Traditional Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
3 garlic cloves, finely minced

Blend the ingredients together in a food processor, in this order: basil, garlic, cheese, nuts, oil.  Do not add the oil all at once, but pour it in slowly in a thin stream while the processor is running.  Before the oil is poured, the other ingredients will chunk up and not look like a sauce.  The oil will thin them out and bind them.  If you want to do this by hand, chop up the ingredients and mix them together in the same order.

Creamy Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
3 tablespoons whole milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste 

Blend the ingredients together in a food processor, following this order: basil, garlic, parmesan, and ricotta.  When blended, start pouring the oil in.  Do not add the oil all at once, but pour it in slowly in a thin stream while the processor is running.  Before the oil is poured, the other ingredients will chunk up and not look like a sauce.  Let the processor run for 3 to 5 minutes once the oil has been added.  The pesto will lighten in color and the texture will become much smoother.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

The freshly made gnocchi, drying.
Running the cuisinart to blend the creamy pesto recipe.
Fresh gnocchi with creamy pesto sauce.

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