Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gnocchi: like it or lump it

The first time I made gnocchi was a disaster. Wanting desperately to impress a potato-mad paramour, I was left with a disintegrating collection of potato flavoured lumps. To be fair, this is what also happened the first time someone tried to make me gnocchi – a chef, and admittedly a very good one, that I happened to date, sought to impress me with the delicate Italian potato dumpling, and proceeded to produce a glue-textured and glue-flavoured bite-seized failure. (The idea behind that, however, was genius: cooked, and then pan-seared with pan-sweated baby spring-vegetables and French butter – it would have been delicious). Turned out as badly as the romance.

I have attempted gnocchi with and without eggs, flour, ricotta, all to varying degrees of failure.

Until recently I was taught, under pressure conditions, by a master*. And managed to produce something that was both flavourful and beautifully chewy with a light consistency. Turns out you have to fail a few times to get a real feel for the dough. So I tried again, with a recipe from a magazine** (which, as usual, I neglected to read correctly, and omitted the egg) – and succeeded in producing light, fluffy and sticky gnocchi that held their shape and absorbed the surrounding flavours.

And then again, mid week, capitalising on my success, I just whipped up gnocchi with caramelised bitter radicchio and peas and vanilla-and-rose-tea-smoked smoked duck. If I sound a wee bit cocky it’s because of the series of failures (romantic and otherwise) that preceded the triumph.

Moisture is the enemy: all the times I have succeeded, the potatoes have been individually wrapped in foil and oven roasted in their skins. I have pressed the potato through a sieve, without mashing (I do not have a ricer). I have kneaded lightly whilst still warm. I have not used eggs, I have not added liquid. I have been serious about avoiding overworking the potato so as to not stretch the starches too much. I have cooked in boiling water, at first one, tested and tasted, and then the remainder, whilst will slightly warm and soft. I have drizzled with olive oil and cooled, and then pan seared in olive oil and butter until slightly caramelised and hot again. I have snuck mouthfuls of just-cooked gnocchi, spinkled with sea salt, as a pre-dinner snack (quality control!).

Apparently, in Italian, the word gnocchi means ‘lumps’, which at once both accurately describes and deflates this incredibly fickle dumpling. I love their rustic lumpiness, their unevenness and general lack of elegance. And yet, when well-made, there is a velvetness, a simplicity that speaks to the richness of clay and the superiority of learned technique. So sublime a goal, I know I have many more years of romance and practice ahead to master the lump.

* Thank you, Matt Moran. You are a bald genius.
Australian Gourmet Traveller, Annual Cookbook 2010


Serves 4

2 medium sized potatoes, approximately 300 g total
150 gm full fat ricotta cheese
50 g finely grated parmesan cheese
120 g plain flour
Sea salt, optional, to taste.

Pre heat oven to 180ºc. Wrap each potato separately in foil, bake in oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until cooked through. Remove from oven and set aside until just cool enough to handle.

Peel potato and press through a metal sieve. Press ricotta through the sieve, add flour and parmesan, (and salt if using) and mix together with hands until just combined.

Cut into four pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll into a long sausage shape until approximately ½ inch diameter. Cut into 1 inch lengths, pinch slightly. Repeat with remaining peices.

To cook – add batches of gnocchi to rapidly boiling water. The gnocchi will sink to the bottom. As the pieces rise to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on a lightly oiled tray.

You can eat then like this – just add sea salt, cracked pepper and little grated parmesan. Or ...

Sauté one finely sliced onion, two crushed cloves of garlic and one finely minced chilli in a little olive over a medium heat until caramelised. Turn heat to high, add 1 small head of torn raddichio and 1 cup of steamed peas and cook for about 5 minutes until soft. Add 50 g butter, melt until foaming. Add cooked gnocchi and cook, tossing pan occasionally, for 3 ish minutes, until caramelised and warm. Serve, with or without smoked duck.

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