Sunday, April 29, 2012

Potato Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Cream Sauce and Fresh Peas

There was unfortunate sauce breakage, but other than that, the gnocchi were perfect pillows of  deliciousness.

 My long-held desire to make homemade gnocchi has been balanced by the spectre of gnocchi dissolving as the little dumplings hit the boiling water or ending up as a gummy, tooth-sticking mess, but for my (belated) birthday dinner with Lynn, my ever-ready amico in la cocina (Lynn had never eaten gnocchi - what? Impossible! Really?), we decided to give it a shot.

Fresh peas!

 "Gnocchi", derived from the Italian word "nocchio" (a knot in wood, or knuckle), is considered to have been introduced in Italy by the Romans who based their dumplings on a semolina porridge dough mixed with eggs. Potatoes didn't come into the mix until the 16th century. Gnocchi derivatives are geographically widespread and diverse in ingredients (bread crumbs, eggs, no eggs, etc.). As with many dishes, a dish of gnocchi (cheap-ish carbs or left-overs + liquid and a binder) is economical and filling the world over.

They take well to nearly any sauce, but a light hand with other ingredients is encouraged. These are delicate pillows that you don't want to crush (literally or as it applies to flavor). You can cut them and cook them without rolling to get the ridges, but those ridges - as with pasta shapes other than flat noodles - are certified sauce delivery systems.
This is the last picture before the one where the rolled gnocchi are in the pan. Dough-crusted hands are not a good choice to handle a camera.

In Lidia, We Trust

We have both watched Lidia Bastianich make gnocchi countless times on her cooking shows and didn't think of  looking elsewhere for a recipe. We looked around and found the same or very similar recipes from a variety of sources, but always held them up against Lidia's as the standard from which we wanted to start. We did  mine the internet for some videos and tips and found the following useful:
  • We chose to boil our potatoes although there are some methods that specify baking the potatoes (at 425F on a bed of kosher salt on a baking sheet). Start cooking the (skin on!) potatoes in cold, salted water and cook until a sharp paring knife or skewer slides in and out of the thickest part without resistance. Do not overcook and if the skins split, this will not bode well. Cooking time will vary with the size of your potatoes so start checking at 30 minutes.
  • Peel the potatoes while they're hot. Hold them in a clean, folded kitchen towel and use a sharp paring knife to gently peel off the skin.
  • I can't imagine making these without a potato ricer or a food mill. Some tips included substituting a grater, but YMMV.  You could even push the potatoes through the holes of a colander (as with spaetzle).  You want them fluffy! The riced potatoes need to be a cooled (so as not to cook the egg) and be a fluffy, airy mound when you start to incorporate the egg and then the flour.
  • Once you start mixing your dough  and until you are finished rolling and cutting the gnocchi do not stop. Work as fast as you can, over time the sitting dough gets moister as it absorbs the liquid from the potatoes.
  • Don't overwork the dough. This isn't pasta, these are dumplings. Work the dough a little more than you would biscuits. Lidia's recipe specifies that it should take about 3 minutes to incorporate the flour and that worked beautifully for us. Your hands are the right tool for this job.
  • When you cook the gnocchi, do not add them to boiling water, add them to water that is at a righteous simmer in small batches of a couple of handfuls at a time. If you are not serving them immediately, shock each cooked batch in ice water and set aside in a colander once cooled. I would classify "immediately" as 15 minutes. To reheat, saute them briefly in a little butter or add them to the sauce for just a minute before you serve.
  • If you want to make them further ahead of time or make them to be used on another day, place each dumpling on a clean, floured kitchen towel on top of a baking sheet - not touching - or a piece of floured wax paper or parchment and freeze. Once completely frozen, put the dumplings in a seal-able freezer bag, removing all possible air. They should last up to 2 months. Do not defrost the frozen gnocchi when you add them to the water. Add a scant 1 minute to the cooking time after the gnocchi rise. 
...and probably most importantly, do this with one (or more) people, especially if you're rolling the cut dumpling pillows to form ridges. The first ones will look awful, but soon you'll be rolling them like the Italian nonna you may never have had. You can see a couple of different methods here, or follow the directions in Lidia's recipe here

Even with all of the possible 'gotchas', this recipe isn't at all difficult. Just give yourself the luxury of time.

The one minor fail  was with the sauce. We made a reduced cream sauce with aged gorgonzola and peas. This type of sauce, with nothing to stabilize it, has a shelf life of approximately a blink of an eye before it breaks. If I hadn't added the peas, I could have re-emulsified it before serving. If we make this again, I'd follow the steps listed in the recipe (after the jump) for the final preparation rather than how we handled it last night.

Potato Gnocchi 
Lidia Bastianich from Lidia's Italian Table - an awesome book, by the way.
Serves: A lot.  Probably 4 as a main, or 6 (maybe 8?) as a side.

  • 1 1/2 - 13/4 lbs of baking potatoes (Russets), scrubbed to remove any dirt
 (Note: we used 4 'medium' russets. Three very large bakers would probably suffice. Lynn doesn't have a scale so we eyeballed this. Scales are good things.)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon of salt (table salt, or the equivalent amount of kosher salt) plus additional
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons of freshly ground pepper (black or white)
  • 1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg (optional)
  • 1 1/2 - 2 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour, divided + additional
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or other aged, hard cheese (optional)
Add the potatoes to a dutch oven (4-5 quarts) with water and 2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until the potatoes are tender and a paring knife can be slipped in and out of the thickest part without resistance. Remove the potatoes to a cutting board. If you are going to cook the gnocchi as soon as it's ready, just turn off the heat under the pan - you can use it to cook the gnocchi.

Place a potato in a clean, folded kitchen towel in your hand and gently scrape off the skin. Repeat for each potato. Using a potato ricer or food mill, rice the potatoes onto the counter or a large cutting board or into a large, wide bowl. As you finish, gently spread them out and allow them to cool completely. We did not have enough counter or board space so we used a very large mixing bowl.

When the riced potatoes have cooled, form them into a mound and make a hole in the center - kind of like a volcano. Gently whisk the egg, salt, pepper and nutmeg together in a bowl. Pour the egg mixture into the middle of the potato 'volcano' and mix it and the potato together gently with your hands making sure the egg mixture is incorporated thoroughly.

If you are planning to cook the gnocchi immediately, turn up the heat under the pot in which you boiled the potatoes - adding water to about 2-3 inches form the top. Cover and bring to a strong simmer.

When you start adding the flour, sprinkle about 3/4 cup over the potato and egg mixture and work it in gently with your hands. If you're using the finely grated aged cheese, repeat the process and finally sprinkle the another 3/4 cup of flour over and work that in. The dough should come completely together, but it should be slightly tacky and just a touch shaggy looking. If you think you need to add more flour, add just 1/4 cup at a time. This part of the process should take no more than 3 minutes.

If you're already working on the counter or a board, scrape up the dough  and flour your surface with 1/4 cup flour - spreading it out so that most of the flour is to the side, but your surface is well dusted. If you used a bowl to mix the dough, prepare your board or counter as above. Form the dough into a rough rectangle and cut it into six pieces.

Take the first piece and roll it briefly between your floured hands (over the board - I dropped one of the pieces on the floor. FAIL!) and then roll it on the board, using a light touch as you move your hands out towards the edges of the rope until it is about 1/2 inch thick. A little variation is fine. Cut the rope into 1/2 inch pieces and place them onto a baking sheet lined with a generously dusted clean kitchen towel or parchment or wax paper. Now's the time to press your cooking partner(s) into action if you're rolling the pillows to create ridges (links to Lidia's instructions and a video showing a slightly different method can be found here, and here).

When you are ready to cook the gnocchi, remove the cover from the dutch oven, turn the heat up to bring the water to a boil. Add 2 teaspoons of salt to the water, stir and turn the heat down until the water is at a strong simmer. Carefully add the gnocchi to the pan (about the equivalent of two generous handfuls) and stir once or twice. When the gnocchi have risen, cook them for no longer than a minute and remove from the pan with a slotted spoon or spider (Chinese skimmer), sauce and serve immediately.

(Note: don't toss the water in which you cooked the gnocchi. Leave it on the stove at a low simmer. You can use a small amount to add to the cream sauce if necessary)

Gorgonzola Cream Sauce with Fresh Peas
Serves 4 as a side

  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 2-4 ounces of aged, but still creamy gorgonzola (depending on how strong you want your sauce - taste it after 2 ounces)
  • 3 tablespoons of finely grated  Parmigiano-Reggiano or other aged, hard cheese
  • Freshly ground pepper (I prefer black)
  • 1 cup freshly shelled peas (or frozen if fresh aren't available)
  • salt for seasoning the peas' cooking water
  • 1/3 cup gnocchi cooking liquid, kept warm
  • cold water and ice cubes for shocking the peas

In a 2-quart saucepan, bring water to a boil and add a teaspoon of salt and stir. .Reduce the heat to low boil and add the peas. Cook them for 3 minutes (if fresh - 2 minutes if frozen). Remove the peas with a slotted spoon to a bowl with water chilled with ice cubes to shock them. After a minute, remove the peas to a colander to drain and set aside. Pour out the water you used to cook the peas and return the pan to the stove to start the sauce.

In the saucepan, bring the 2 cups of cream to a boil on medium high heat. Reduce the heat to a strong simmer and cook the cream until it has thickened to the consistency of a cream sauce.  Season to taste with freshly ground pepper.

Place a wide (10" - 12" - not non-stick) skillet on heat (medium low) to warm up with 1/3 cup of the gnocchi cooking water and bring to a simmer. Take the saucepan with the cream off of the heat and add the gorgonzola cheese in small clumps, whisking to help them melt. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and whisk until melted.

Add the gnocchi, the reserved peas and the sliced green onions to the simmering cooking water in the skillet and cook for about a minute. Pour the cheese sauce over the gnocchi in the skillet. Stir to combine and serve immediately.

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