Thursday, April 12, 2007

gnocchi with a grater

toasted gnocchi salad

Do you ever feel like a kitchen incompetent? That despite what seems like The Entire Rest of the World being able to cook something flawlessly, even going so far as to boast, “This is so EASY to make!” each and every time you try it, you fail? Believe me, it’s not just you.

Before this past weekend, nothing made me feel more unskilled and less deserving of your readership than gnocchi, which was a damned shame because it’s probably my favorite pasta in the entire world. After reading countless accounts by others about what a “cinch” gnocchi is to make and how you will “never buy it frozen again,” I tried to make it about a year ago and it was a complete and total disaster. I am not mincing words.

gnocchi pillows

I’ll own up to this from the outset: it’s my fault. I don’t own a potato ricer or a food mill, but chose to make gnocchi even though I knew having one was a requirement. Potatoes, no matter solid they may seem, are about 85 percent water. What you dice into hash browns or thinly slice into a gratin dish are actually tightly clustered, thinly walled microscopic water capsules. This is why you “mash” potatoes with something clumsy rather than puree them with an immersion blender. And this is why when you make gnocchi, you need to get your potatoes into a fine mush without touching them with a water-releasing blade.

gnocchi

You hear all that? I *get* potatoes; they make sense to me. And with all of that arrogance, I decided that although I didn’t have a food mill–I mean, really, lord knows I don’t have any issue buying food-related gadgets, but I first need to be convinced that I’d use it more than once each year–I would simply press the potatoes through a small-meshed strainer, bringing them to the proper consistency. [Man, if there’s any sign that a kitchen disaster is imminent it’s got to be when you think you’ve out-smarted a recipe that The Entire Rest of the World has pretty much agreed on, and also, you’re making the recipe for the very first time.] I ended up with mush, and no matter how much flour I added–I quit when I was nearly two cups beyond the recipe’s suggestion–I could not work that potato batter into a moldable dough.

gnocchi

So, if I know what went wrong and why, why didn’t I get a potato ricer and try it again? Well, I have a reason, and his name is the Amateur Gourmet. Really! Just a few days after my disaster, Adam mentioned that he’d gone out and bought a ricer for the express purpose of making gnocchi but was still disappointed in the results! Surely, I rationalized, there was no reason for me to try again and only set myself up for further failure.

But last week, I saw a technique on About.com that was so cunningly ingenious, I was unable to resist trying again. Get this: you grate the potatoes. No food mill or ricer purchase required! (Which is great because you don’t have room for one anyway!) After grating the baked and peeled potatoes, you knead in some flour, salt and an egg, and your dough is complete! And people, these are some killer gnocchi, with a lightness that I’ve only had before at top-notch Italian restaurants. The secret is to use as little flour as you need, and with this method, you’ll need a lot less. I haven’t quite mastered the little shapes you make with a fork, but rest assured that this has no effect on the final dish.

first round, pesto

For Sunday night’s Soprano premiere, I mixed freshly-boiled gnocchi with homemade pesto, which was crazy delicious but with a fairly low originality quotient. But on Monday, oh Monday, I browned them in a frying pan and tossed them with blanched haricot vert, quartered grape tomatoes, fresh cranberry beans, olive oil and parmesan for, seriously, the best pasta salad I’ve ever eaten. This dish was entirely inspired by Heidi at 101 Cookbooks, who opts for chanterelle mushrooms instead of green beans. I vote for mixing in any ingredients that strike your fancy. For us, the fresh cranberry beans and haricot vert in our store were too pretty to pass up, but I can imagine equally-stellar mixtures of white beans, chopped radicchio and bits of broccoli; black olives, sundried tomatoes and feta; or asparagus, fresh peas and lemon zest. Go wild with it, but only if you can accept that you may never boil gnocchi again. I sure won’t.

toasted gnocchi salad

Gnocchi
Adapted from About.com

2 pounds Russet potatoes
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F. Prick the potatoes all over with a fork, and bake them on a baking sheet for 45 minutes to one hour, or until they are fork-tender. For best results, turn the potatoes over halfway through the baking time. Let the potatoes cool slightly.
  2. Peel the potatoes, and then pass them through a potato ricer, food mill or grate them over the large holes of a box grater into a large bowl. Add the lightly beaten egg and the salt to the potatoes and mix well with a wooden spoon.
  3. Add the flour to the potatoes a little at a time, using only as much as you need so that the dough will not stick to your hands. When the flour has been incorporated, bring the dough together with your fingertips.
  4. Dump the dough and any remaining floury bits onto a slightly floured surface. Knead the dough as you would bread dough. Press down and away with the heel of your hand, fold the dough over, make a quarter turn, and repeat the process. Knead for about three or four minutes.
  5. Form the dough into a ball and then divide it into 6 smaller balls. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one of the six pieces using your fingertips into a long rope about 3/4 inch thick. Cut the dough into 1 inch pieces.
  6. You can cook the gnocchi as it is now, but traditional gnocchi has ridges. To create the ridges, press each piece of dough against the tines of a fork. With your finger, gently roll the pressed dough back off the fork. This takes a little practice. If you find the dough sticking to the fork, dip the fork in flour before you press the dough against it.
  7. Place the gnocchi in a single layer on a lightly floured or parchment-lined dish. If you’d like to freeze them for later use, do so on this tray and once they are frozen, drop them into a freezer bag. This ensures that you won’t have one enormous gnocchi mass when you are ready to cook them.
  8. To cook the gnocchi, place them into a pot of boiling and well-salted water. After a few minutes the gnocchi will float to the top. Continue to cook for one minute then remove and set aside.


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