Earlier this week, I spotted a woman getting out of a car, wearing a familiar Gucci logo emblazoned on her black t-shirt. But after blinking and rubbing my eyes, I realized that the word under the emblem most certainly wasn't "Gucci."
Instead, there in bold, white letters, the word "Gnocchi" was scrawled across the shirt — the same one, I might add, that was once sported by Joe Gorga of "Real Housewives of New Jersey" fame — proud and brazen. As someone who was born and raised in a predominantly Italian-American area, I understood the appeal.
Unlike other Italian-American mainstays like chicken parmesan and spaghetti and meatballs, I didn't grow up with gnocchi. Instead, I developed an appreciation for the labor-intensive nature of the gnocchi-making process in the years before entering culinary school and made it a point to master the dish while in school.
Without tooting my own horn too much, I'd say it's safe to say that I did just that. (Commence horn blowing now)
Akin to puffy, light clouds and landing halfway between a toothsome noodle and a soft, doughy dumpling, gnocchi is a familiar yet unique offering in the Italian American culinary landscape lexicon. They pair beautifully with practically anything, from heavier sauces like Bolognese or pesto cream, to the simplicity of a basic marinara, to the richness of browned butter with sage and a bit of lemon.
This adaptability makes them a particularly wonderful "pasta" choice, and there's a pliant, gentle familiarity of the food that makes them particularly ideal when feeling under the weather, down in the dumps, or your preferred phrase or idiom for just not feeling your best. Gnocchi's pillowy, airy nature is a perfect panacea.
As I've mentioned before, culinary school was one of the first times that I felt pride in my half-Italian heritage. As I began embracing this aspect of my nationality more and more as the program continued, I knew that I wanted to craft an Italian-focused dish for my upcoming practical examinations.
For one of them, we had to make a composed dish that featured a protein, a starch, a vegetable and a sauce. I think I overshot the mark, but I aimed for a sauteed chicken dish with a carrot puree, crisped pancetta, a simple beurre blanc and (you guessed it) — gnocchi.
I thought it'd be an interesting way to show that I was game for more challenging approaches and would take the time and effort to make gnocchi from scratch, as opposed to just hitting the "starch" mark by mashing potatoes or serving some rice pilaf.
I got my sauce together, I cooked my chicken perfectly, I roasted some fennel with gruyere and I mastered my silky, rich carrot puree. The gnocchi, on the other hand, was a debacle.
I repeatedly roasted Idaho potatoes until they became crisp and strikingly hot, then waited a bit until they could be handled with my gloved hands, but for some reason, the "dough" just wasn't coming together. I scrapped it, tried again, and had the same result. I took a breather and ran through my mental rolodex, trying to come up with what the issue was, deciding that I wouldn't pivot away from gnocchi as my "starch" and that I'd commit to resolve the problem before the clock ran out.
Amazingly, the third round went perfectly. The potatoes were tender, the eggs and cheeses blended in perfectly, I took pride in rolling out the dough, using my bench scraper to portion the gnocchi before marking them with the tines of a fork. Then I opted to pan-sear the gnocchi instead of boiling them.
This is 100% a personal choice, by the way. The classic dish is almost always cooked in boiling, salted water. I just find that it can be very easy to overcook and wind up with bloated, waterlogged potato balls as opposed to the perfect pillowy, airy gnocchi.
Then came the time to plate the dish. I began by smearing the puree and topping it with gnocchi and pancetta, before serving the fennel and gruyere frico-topped chicken alongside. I then drizzled the beurre blanc over the top.
I presented it to my chef-instructor and got the highest marks in the class during that practical. I'm still pretty proud of myself for that one. I remember thinking that I could be the burgeoning "gnocchi king" — Nina Compton was competing on Top Chef at that same time and was known as the "gnocchi queen," so the moniker seemed to be fun and potentially fitting. Regardless, something about the variability of the dough, the tactile nature of rolling out and hurriedly cutting the dough, and proudly plating a dish of my own making was immensely satisfying.
I like to use baked potatoes, usually russet or Idaho, with the skin-on and cooked in a high-heat oven. However, feel free to peel, dice, and boil in salted water. You just want to ensure you don't over-boil them or the dough won't come together.
I always use lots of ricotta and Parmesan, but ricotta is not mandatory. Adding the ricotta makes these gnocchi a bit of a "quasi-gnudi," so embrace the mash-up.
As mentioned, you can boil the gnocchi. Don't just throw them in a pot of boiling water, though — they're quite tender and delicate and can easily break apart in the pot, especially if the water is at a rolling boil. You want to tenderly spoon the gnocchi into the water. They're done as soon as they float. Again, be careful.
Don't just empty the boiling water and cooked gnocchi into a colander as that might damage some of the gnocchi's structural integrity (leaving you with a sink full of gnocchi mush). I know using a slotted spoon or spider to extract the gnocchi may seem fussy, but it's worth it.
Pan-searing the gnocchi is fun, easy, and adds another textural level that can help differentiate the mouthfeel and consistency of the finished dish.
Do not forget the egg. I once did this, and the dough literally just didn't ever materialize. It's such an important binder, especially if you forego the ricotta.
I love herb-infused gnocchi or even gnocchi with a vegetable puree incorporated into the dough (i.e., a spinach gnocchi, bright and verdant and green), but adding that step can make the whole process seem even longer and more laborious. If you have lots of time on a weekend or something, though, try it out! It's outrageously delicious.
I like to add a crispy element — a fried vegetable, a crisped piece of protein, some sort of nut, seed, or grain — to help differentiate between the pillowy, soft gnocchi and the soft sauce. This crisp component to offset the softness of the gnocchi and sauce, tying the whole dish together and offering an alluring textural composition.
Be sure to make lots of space. Rolling out the dough, portioning it into "ropes," and cutting it with a knife or bench scraper takes up more kitchen real estate than your typical pasta dinner. Be sure to clean your work surface really, really, well, too — it'd be frustrating to have perfect, unblemished gnocchi and then realize that a bunch actually have an errant poppy seed wedged inside the tiny dumpling (trust me).
2 to 3 baking potatoes, scrubbed clean
2 large eggs
Kosher salt, to taste
1/3 cup full-fat ricotta (the uber-dense Italian ricotta in the white-and-red can is unbeatable)
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 to 4 tablespoons sundried tomato in oil, roughly chopped
1/3 cup breadcrumbs (ideally Panko)
Palmful of fresh rosemary, freshly chopped
1 lemon, juiced and zested
Preheat oven to 450 degrees and place potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to oven and cook for about an hour, or until the skins have crisped and slightly shrunken and the insides are tender. Let cool thoroughly (the interiors will be outrageously, unbelievably hot and must be cooled in their entirety prior to handling the dough with your hands, so that the eggs won't scramble.)
In a large bowl, scoop out the cooked potatoes and set skins aside (save for a delicious potato skin appetizer or double baked potato for some other time). Using a potato masher, mash the potatoes well. Conversely, run them through a food mill or a ricer.
Add eggs, salt, ricotta and parmesan to bowl and mix until just combined. Do not overmix. Note: if the mixture isn't coming together well or there is too much moisture, add a tablespoon of flour one at a time until the dough becomes smooth, supple and clumps together. Cover and let dough rehydrate for a few minutes as you prepare your workstation.
On a clean, clear, wide workspace, dust flour. Pull about a quarter of the dough out of the bowl and roll in between hands until it elongates and creates a "rope" of dough. Repeat with remaining dough.
Prepare a large platter or baking sheet with another dusting of flour. This will be your gnocchi "landing zone."
Using a sharp paring knife or a bench scraper, begin cutting your "gnocchi ropes" into stout, short pieces (ideally just under an inch), transferring to your landing zone as you run through the rope. After finishing each rope, make ridges by gently pressing the tines of a fork against the gnocchi. Repeat with remaining ropes.
Over medium-heat, warm olive oil in a large skillet. Once slightly rippled, add gnocchi directly to the pan, cooking for 2 to 3 minutes in total, flipping them often. Use a slotted spoon to remove to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with remaining gnocchi and cook in batches.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in the same pan. Add sundried tomatoes and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until deeply fragrant. Add breadcrumbs and toss often, until they darken, and finish with chopped rosemary. Add lemon zest and season with salt. Transfer to a bowl.
Add remaining butter to the pan, along with the lemon juice. Add cooked gnocchi to the pan, stirring constantly, and add tablespoons of water if the pan is too dry.
Transfer gnocchi and lemon-butter sauce to plate and top with breadcrumb-sundried tomato mixture. Finish with more lemon or more grated parm and serve immediately.
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