Valentine’s Day is coming up, and it’s time for us to focus on what we like to call “love food.” I’m talking about the kind of food that makes you feel warm and special when you eat it, because of all the love that went into making it. For Tony, Gio and me, that means gnocchi.
Tony has fond memories of his mother making gnocchi when he was growing up, which she did well and often for their family. He has carried on that tradition for our son, Giovanni, and me, and we feel downright spoiled whenever he makes it for us.
Gnocchi (pronounced NYOH-kee) are little dumplings that can be found all across Italy in one form or another, but our favorite version is the classic potato gnocchi. Dumplings are ubiquitous in nearly every culture’s cuisine, and many are made with potatoes. So what makes gnocchi so special?
The real secret is their texture, which is heavenly, light and airy. There is nothing heavy, chewy or dense about gnocchi; in fact, Tony will tell you that, when made correctly, this simple peasant dish can transform a basic potato into the softest, fluffiest little pillows you’ll ever eat.
According to Tony, a potato ricer or food mill is the tool of choice, as either will gently press the potato without much interference. A masher, blender or food processor should be avoided as they will give the potatoes a gummy texture and make them unworkable. The more you handle a potato, the more moisture it releases, therefore requiring more flour to be used, resulting in a heavy, unappealing dumpling. This is often why gnocchi are (wrongly) perceived as being a heavy dish.
Idaho potatoes are ideal for making gnocchi as they are high in starch and low in moisture, and for this recipe one large potato can yield enough gnocchi for four entrée-sized portions.
Similar to homemade pasta, Tony’s gnocchi are easy to make and the recipe calls for just four ingredients: one large Idaho potato (about 1 pound), one cup all-purpose flour, one large egg and one teaspoon table salt (not kosher).
The potatoes are boiled and then pressed through the ricer or food mill, then combined with the flour, egg and salt. The dough is formed into a ball and then divided into three smaller balls, which are rolled into ropes approximately ¾-inch in diameter. A knife, dough cutter or even pizza cutter is used to cut the rope into 1-inch pieces.
To create the signature grooves along the dumplings we roll each piece down a wooden gnocchi board (available locally at Creative Kitchen in West Acres), but a fork will also work. This step isn’t necessary and can be skipped, but the grooves help create a better taste experience because they hold the sauce to the pasta.
The gnocchi are then transferred to a pot of boiling water to cook for about a minute or two, and are ready as soon as they have floated to the surface.
For this occasion we are serving the gnocchi with a tomato-based sauce, but they are equally good with a pesto. Gnocchi cook quickly, freeze wonderfully and are affordable to make. And when made with love, they’re even memorable.
We are offering a hands-on cooking class to demonstrate how to make Tony’s Gnocchi on Feb. 23 at Sarello’s. For more information, visit us online at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.
Tony’s Gnocchi Recipe
Makes: 4 servings as entrée course (secondo piatto) or 6 servings as first course (primo piatto)
1 pound Idaho or Russet potato (1 big potato), peeled and cut in half
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 teaspoon table salt (not kosher)
Boil the potato halves for approximately 30 to 40 minutes until soft to the touch. Strain the potatoes, return them to the pot and cook for an additional 30 to 60 seconds over low heat to cook off any excess water.
Put each half through a food mill or ricer, using the setting with the smallest holes, allowing the potato shavings to fall onto your work surface.
When finished milling, make a well in the center of the potatoes. Sprinkle the well and potatoes lightly with flour. Break an egg in the center of the well and add salt. Use a fork to stir the egg into the flour and potatoes (as if making pasta).
Once the egg is mixed in, bring the dough together with your hands and mix to combine ingredients, about 1 to 2 minutes, adding flour as needed until a ball is formed. If the dough is sticky, add more flour in small amounts, being careful not to overwork the dough.
Divide the dough into three smaller balls and roll each ball into a ¾-inch diameter rope (about the size of a nickel). Use a knife or dough cutter to cut the rope into 1-inch long pieces. When finished cutting, roll each piece off a wooden gnocchi board or fork to create the traditional grooves in the gnocchi.
Drop each dumpling into boiling water and cook until all pieces have floated to the surface, about 1 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or strainer to remove gnocchi from the boiling water. Transfer immediately to a sauté pan or pot and toss with sauce for about 2-3 minutes over medium heat.
Transfer to serving dishes and Buon Appetito!
Keys to Success
Handle the gnocchi as little as possible, more handling = heavy, dense dumplings.
Always use a food mill or ricer.
The ratio of potato to flour should hover around 2:1. Always use more potato than flour or dumplings will become too thick and heavy.
Gnocchi become feather-light by kneading lightly and using only enough flour to bind the dough together. Getting the right “feel” for the dough is essential to making perfect gnocchi. To master the technique, make gnocchi frequently.
Gnocchi Valentino Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
1 large red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and torn into ½-inch strips (about 16 to 20)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 large garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper (optional – omit or add more, as desired)
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, pureed
¼ cup vodka
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ to ½ cup pine nuts, toasted
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place red pepper on a sheet pan and roast in oven for about 40 to 50 minutes, until skin is charred and mostly black. Remove and cool in a paper bag until just able to handle; use your hands to remove the skin and seeds. Tear into ½-inch strips and set aside.
Begin the sauce as the pepper is roasting. In a medium sauce pot, heat olive oil over medium-low heat and sauté the garlic for about 3-5 minutes, stirring often and being careful not to brown the garlic. Add crushed red peppers and sauté for another minute.
Add the pureed tomatoes and vodka and cook for about 15 minutes over low-medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and cook for another 15-20 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream. Cover the pot but leave a little room to allow steam to escape. When the sauce coats the back of a spoon, it’s ready to serve.
When serving with gnocchi, prepare the sauce first, then transfer to a larger pot to toss with the gnocchi. Add the gnocchi and red peppers to the sauce and toss to evenly coat. Transfer gnocchi to a large platter or individual serving bowls and garnish with toasted pine nuts, freshly grated parmesan cheese and fresh basil leaves or strips.
To store: Refrigerate for up to five days.