The list of Italian dishes and food products that have enriched the world of food and achieved international renown is a long one. A short list would have to include polenta, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto crudo, tartufo bianco - (seductive white Alba truffles), pancetta, risotto and sun dried tomatoes.
Perhaps one of the most popular of these regional delights - following a close second behind pasta, is gnocchi.
Gnocchi are in the simplest sense dumplings. In Italy they are invariably cooked quickly and served simply. They are robust, yet delicate - firm, yet light; they have no place for intricate, overworked and complex sauces and dressings.
Most people immediately think of gnocchi based on potato - or gnocchi di patate, and indeed they are the most famous variety of this dish, eaten throughout Italy, and now across the world. However, potatoes are a fairly recent addition to the Italian diet and were not widely available as a food crop until the middle of the Nineteenth century. Gnocchi are most certainly more than 150 years old. The first gnocchi were simply made from flour, salt and water.
Apart from the wonderful potato gnocchi there are numerous regional variations, that while not as famous, possess special touches that make them unique and worthy of our attention to ensure that they survive.
Around the town of Torre Annunziata, near Napoli in Camapania, there is gnocchi made to this day that is almost identical to the ancient version. Its ingredients include farina 00 or doppio zero flour (sold in English speaking countries as continental flour), salt and water. Doppio zero flour is coarse ground and high in gluten, making it perfect for pasta and gnocchi.
Gnocchi alla Romana is the most unique type of gnocchi, due both to its ingredients and cooking method. A specialty of Rome, it is a thick porridge made of semolina, milk, salt and cheese. Once cooked, it is spread out to a thin layer and allowed to cool until solid - much the same as some polenta preparations. Large squares or rounds are cut from the cool gnocchi, layered in a baking dish, and dotted with butter and parmigiano. The gnocchi are then baked, the delicious dairy concoction atop melting down through the layers. There is a recipe here if you would like to try it.
Gnocchi alla bava is a dish particular to the Piedmont region of Italy. Just like gnocchi alla Romana they are baked, but these gnocchi are first boiled. Alla bava refers to the strings of cheese that stretch tantalizingly from the fork. Gnocchi alla bava is based on a blend of doppio zero and buckwheat flours and is unusual due to the inclusion of eggs - normally sacrilege in gnocchi. Once the gnocchi have been boiled, they are topped with butter and a mixture of beautiful melting cheeses - fontina, toma and parmigiano before being baked. I have a © recipe for gnocchi alla bava - if you would like to try it, send me a /msg.
Potato Gnocchi Gnocchi di Patate
Seeing that potato gnocchi is the most popular variant, a recipe is in order. Before we proceed to the kitchen, there are a few key points to remember when making gnocchi di patate.
Gnocchi is really easy to make to a pleasantly edible state, but quite difficult to make to perfection. The perfect potato gnocchi should have a firm, resilient texture on one hand, and a cloud-like lightness on the other. This is not easy to achieve, but follow these simple steps, and you will most likely get very close.
The first consideration is the potatoes. Use the wrong type, and your gnocchi will end up a gluey disaster. In Australia I would suggest desiree potatoes. If you can't find these just use the spuds you would normally choose for mashed potatoes. They should boil well, that is hold their shape once cooked and not collapse, yet they need to have nice and floury flesh, not at all waxy.
The main key to good, light gnocchi is speed. Work quickly, assuredly and lightly when mixing the flour and potatoes, rolling out the dough and cutting the gnocchi. Overwork the mixture and you will end up with bullets. Unfortunately, the only way to make your gnocchi quickly and with a light hand is with practice - so have a few trial runs before you attempt to impress your family and friends.
Many people cut their gnocchi too large. Remember that they will increase in size once boiled. If you cut your gnocchi a little larger than your thumbnail you are on the right track - baffo's size comparison with a thimble is even better.
Gnocchi should have a textured surface so as to greedily hog as much sauce as possible. The almost ubiquitous method is to roll the gnocchi across the tines of a fork. A friend of mine from Naples recently showed me an even better method that involves flicking the gnocchi with your thumb. This introduces a little fun into an otherwise tedious task, and more importantly creates a nice big dimple in which to trap sauce. They end up looking a little like orecchiette pasta, which translates to English as little ears.
- 500 gm (1 lb) desiree potatoes (or good mashing potatoes)
- 150 gm (5 oz) flour (preferably doppio zero or continental flour)
- Sea salt
- A little extra flour, for dusting
Place the potatoes, unpeeled and uncut, into a large pot and cover with cold water. A cold-water start will ensure that they cook evenly, and keeping the skins on reduces water absorption. Place the pot - without a lid - onto high heat and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn down the heat to a good simmer until the spuds are cooked through. Depending on the size of the potatoes this can take anywhere from 20 - 40 minutes. Test them with a skewer, which will penetrate to the middle with ease when done.
Drain the potatoes and working quickly, peel them (use gloves if they are too hot). Mash the potatoes, using either a potato ricer, a hand cranked mouli, or a garden-variety hand masher. Add plenty of salt to the spuds as you mash them. A little more than you think they will need is a good rule of thumb.
Still working quickly (are you sensing a theme here?) spread a generous amount of flour onto a workbench and tip the warm potatoes on top. Make a small well in the potatoes and add a handful of flour. Roll the dough up LIGHTLY. Remember, you are not kneading the dough, just incorporating the flour. When the first batch of flour is just about worked in, add another handful - continuing until you have used all 150 gm of flour. This is the most crucial step. Be quick, yet extremely gentle as you work in the flour.
Cut the dough into quarters, then each quarter in half. Sprinkle well with flour and set aside. Take one piece of dough and roll it into a long cigar shape - about the width of your index finger. Using a small, sharp knife cut the dough into gnocchi, about thimble in size.
Prepare a large flat tray by dusting generously with flour. Add a little more flour to the workbench. Place a single gnocco in the middle of the bench and press it lightly with your thumb. In a sharp and firm fashion, flick the gnocchi away from your body and set it on the floured tray. It should have a nice dimple in the centre. Practice this as it takes a few times to get it right. Continue until you have used up all the dough.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add a goodly amount of sea salt. Add the gnocchi in batches (around 20 or so) and cook until they JUST rise to the surface - this will only take a matter of seconds. Immediately scoop them out to a waiting bowl and keep warm. Continue until all the gnocchi are cooked.
Serve these little beauties simply - with a burnt butter and sage sauce, parmigiano reggiano on top; or a simple tomato and basil sauce, topped with pecorino cheese. A simple rocket salad and a glass of pinot grigio will complete the picture.
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