A couple of weeks ago, I took a deep breath and decided to go boldly where (in a culinary sense) I had never been before. As I have mentioned previously, my sister-in-law Paola is Italian and is a fantastic cook – which is great if you love Italian food as much as I do! Paola always does things in the kitchen which I classify as “ambitious” (read “this won’t happen in my kitchen”!) – she makes her own pasta for a start and I am ashamed to say that the thought has never even crossed my mind. Or if it has crossed my mind, it was quickly run over by the large juggernaut of convenience cooking. Own pasta making is not like baking a cake where the ready-mix version and the from-scratch versions aren’t very different in terms of effort – it involves a lot more effort and I have never been a great believer in unnecessary effort, hence no home-made pasta has ever emerged from my kitchen.
Now my favourite type of pasta is gnocchi (OK – pseudo-pasta. I know it’s actually a dumpling!!) – so warm & satisfying and so open to interpretation (flavoured gnocchi, flavoured sauces etc etc). But I have always figured that if making plain old spaghetti is such a performance, surely gnocchi would be even more difficult and require some special machinery or outlandish technique. But that was before I read Owen from Tomatilla‘s fab submission for Is My Blog Burning VII - he made it all look so easy! A few weeks ago we spent a Sunday afternoon in the wilds of Essex, driving around checking out garden centres, and decided to pop into Ashlyn’s Organic Farm Store, a wonderful place to visit if you’re ever in the area. Apart from finding some huge black mushrooms (later to be grilled with garlic butter, breadcrumbs and Parmesan), I also found a bunch of fresh sage which finally prodded me into action to try Owen’s recipe for sage and Parmesan gnocchi in a browned butter and chilli sauce.
But first, a little background.
According to most dictionaries and encyclopedias, the word “gnocco” derives from the Venetian “gnoco”, which in turn is thought to come from an old Lombard term “knohha”, meaning nodo (knot), and also nocca (knuckle). Lazio and Tuscany tend to get most of the credit for the dish, though variations of the doughy, bean-shaped pasta occur all over Italy, often by other names, but substantially the same thing. As I mentioned above, there is some debate over when a dish is gnocchi and when it is pasta – the dividing line seems to be that if they are made with flour and water, they are pasta but if made with one of many other ingredients (potatoes, semolina flour, bread) they are properly called gnocchi. In fact, before potatoes were brought back to the Old World from America, all gnocchi were made with flour and water. Even after the potato was introduced to Italy, gnocchi eaters shied away from them because potatoes were thought to carry leprosy!! But once this idea was dismissed it became traditional to make gnocchi by combining mashed potatoes with flour, rolling the dough into a long tube and chopping the tube into bite-sized chunks before dunking them in boiling water. Because of the essential blandness of gnocchi, they lend themselves perfectly to a variety of flavourings, both in the dumplings themselves and in the sauce – my personal favourite has always been gnocchi quattro formaggi. Mmmmm.
Apparently one of the key factors in making good gnocchi (which I only learned after my recent attempt at Owen’s recipe) is using the right potatoes (floury and not waxy) and I have also found a couple of other hints that you may want to bear in mind if you embark on gnocchi-making:
- Choose your type of potato carefully. The best are old Russet potatoes, low in water and high in starch. Round (white or red) or Yukon potatoes would be too waxy, which would make the gnocchi either too heavy or too gummy, or would cause them to break apart in the boiling water.
- Choose potatoes free from “eyes”, sprouts and green spots. Remove them if neccessary.
- Boil the potatoes with their skin on to minimise moisture absorption and peel them while still hot.
- Egg may be added if the potato/flour mixture is too crumbly but if the right potatoes are used, this is unecessary.
- Don’t add too much flour or overwork the dough.
- Cook (or freeze) the gnocchi as soon as possibel after making, otherwise they absorb moisture and become sticky.
Back to my kitchen. I must say that the recipe was pretty much just as easy as Owen had indicated and making the dough took almost no time at all. The breaking of the dough into bite-sized chunks was a bit fiddly and I must admit that I would hesitate to make this for more than about four people! I found the dumping in boiling water to be the most nerve-wracking part. Would they ever float? Would they disintegrate?? Well, the first two batches worked just like magic. By the third batch, I suspect the water may have been boiling too enthusiastically, because about half of the gnocchi simply disintegrated while they boiled (or maybe my potatoes were the wrong type?? ). Cue tossing out the soupy water and starting with a fresh pot for the last few, but generally the whole process went off without incident. The sauce was even easier – butter, chilli flakes and sage leaves. I must add that I have never been any sort of fan of chilli. Nick eats the stuff like candy – he would drink Tabasco neat out of the bottle if he could – but I steer well clear. The only chilli items I like are the garlic Tabasco sauce on fresh oysters (one drop per oyster!!) and sweet Thai chilli sauce in moderation, so I was rather wary of the chilli flakes that this recipe called for. But at the same time I reckoned that they were there for a reason and I was willing to give them a chance. Nick nearly fell down in a dead faint when I came home with a voluntarily purchased bottle of dried chilli flakes and was even more surprised that I actually used them as directed in the recipe…
Soon we were sitting down to bowls of steaming gnocchi from which the most heavenly smells were rising – and the smell was nothing compared with the taste! The gnocchi themselves could probably have been lighter (I blame the wrong potatoes and lack of practice!), but they tasted great, especially with their chopped sage bits. But I think it was the sauce that made the dish. The decadent fattiness of the melted butter. The surprisingly and delicious crispiness of the whole sage leaves. And even more surprising, the zing of the chilli! I loved it. In fact, I have taken to adding chilli flakes to (gasp!) a variety of dishes! What I like about them is that they add a bite without substantially changing the flavour of the dish (which, in my opinion, smoky Tabasco does) – and if I use them in miniscule quantities I can keep the burn just where I want it. A whole new world discovered – thanks Owen!!