Gnocchi were a mystery to me until I went to Italy. The ones that I had tried before (this was before I moved to London before you roar), were leaden and rubbery and I could never see what the appeal was. I mean, everyone else must be wrong, right?
Wrong. I was just eating crap processed gnocchi.
The joys of gnocchi were revealed to me for the first time at the tender age of 22 on a trip to Naples to stay with a friend, her Neapolitan boyfriend and his family. Andrea’s Dad (the Neapolitan), ex military and the most wonderful and tender home cook, cooked for us every day. 3 courses for lunch with wine, an aperitif, and then us Irish girls had to go to bed for a bit because we were not used to this at all. Lunch in Ireland before then had been one course at lunchtime with no alcohol and back to business.
Everyday, Andrea’s Dad got up early in the morning to head to the shop to get buffalo mozzarella, straight from Campania and fresh every day. The shop owner would depart at 4am to get the best and the freshest and we would have it for lunch, cut thick like steaks and weeping sweet milk. I was in food heaven. Andrea and Shelley said, this is nothing, wait until you try his pumpkin gnocchi. And I did.
The pumpkin gnocchi were tiny, tender and divine. Light as sweet puffs of air, they were so delicate and beautiful to eat. I was determined to make them at home and quickly discovered that these were tricky and took practice (my recipe for them is in Comfort & Spice).
I have since experimented lots, with potato gnocchi, sweet potato gnocchi, and all sort of others. The pumpkin and the potato are traditional and best. Such frugal offerings, 4 potatoes, a little flour and an egg will offer sustenance for days or for lots of people. My sister thought that she didn’t like gnocchi but I made these for her, and she proclaimed them better than those she had in Italy, which is very high praise (or lies). I am going for praise.
The trick here is in the technique. Imagine that you are making the finest pastry and use the lightest hands. Work quickly while the potatoes are still hot. Use floury potatoes only (I am in Ireland and used Golden Wonders which worked very well), and make sure you have a mouli or potato ricer to pass the potatoes through. A potato ricer will cost about £12 and will render the stubborn potato fluffy and soft. For best results pass it through a few times, I passed mine through 3 times, working as quickly as I could. The heat is important.
When cooking the potatoes, be careful not to push them too far. Floury potatoes are guzzlers and once soft, will take in as much water as they can, rendering them a sorry soggy mess. Cook them until you can pierce them with a fork and they still resist a touch without being too hard. Peel immediately, if you don’t have asbestos paws like me use a tea towel.
How to eat them? However you want. Make a gratin with cream and blue cheese and cover with a good melting cheese. Perfect winter fare. Or make a tomato sauce and serve simply with the gnocchi and some parmesan on top. I did this today, making a sauce which started with a sauté of very finely chopped rosemary, garlic and red chilli, then a tin of good chopped tomatoes, a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of sugar. I cooked it for a couple of hours adding water when it got too thick every now and then. The secret to good tomato sauce is good tomatoes, flavour enhancer (chilli and garlic), balance (vinegar and sugar), time, and a good sprinkle of sea salt.
They are worth the effort and don’t be dismayed if you don’t get them right the first time. Once you crack them, you will be thrilled with yourself, and so will your family and friends.
Recipe: Homemade Potato Gnocchi
750g floury potatoes (I used Golden Wonder which are commonly available in Ireland) – approx 4 potatoes
1 egg or 2 egg yolks for a more decadent richer taste, beaten briefly
125g flour, with extra just in case
potato ricer or mouli
Boil the potatoes in their skins until just cooked, a knife or fork should just pierce them but there should still be some resistance. It is very easy to over shoot this so keep an eye on them.
Drain the potatoes and while still hot, peel them quickly before passing them though a mouli or potato ricer. If using a ricer do it at least twice.
Season with a generous pinch of sea salt. Then make a well in the centre and add the egg and about half of the flour. Using your fingers and a very light touch (like you are handling the tiniest millipede or silkworm, or in culinary terms very delicate pastry). Gently bring everything in together, kneading softly. Add more flour if required until the mixture resembles a dough and no longer fluffy potato.
Split the mixture in 3, and one at a time on a floured board, roll into a log, cutting each log into segments about the size of a walnut. If the dough is still too fluffy (it might be once you start to cut it), knead each piece gently, then roll in a ball. Place the ball on the top of your finger and gently press the tines of a fork on it, and drag it slightly across, indenting the bottom with your finger and leaving the trace of the fork tines on top. This will help the gnocchi grip on to the sauce.
Boil a pot of salted water and boil the gnocchi in batches. When they rise to the top they are done. They will bubble about in the middle for a bit, but wait until they rise to the very top. Then remove them with a slotted spoon on to a waiting plate. Do not let them in the water after they have floated to the top as the potato will continue to take in water and they will get fuzzy and soggy.
If you are not going to eat them immediately (they will keep for a few days in the fridge), drizzle them with a little extra virgin olive oil. Do this with all of your gnocchi, and then you are done.
Serve as suggested above: in tomato sauce, as a gratin, al forno, with brown butter and crispy sage. Whatever floats your boat. Most of all enjoy them.