11 October 2010

the secret gnocchi society

I'm not really sure where to start. I was going to compare the perfect gnocchi to pinot noir. In that it's really simple, you can hear church bells when it's just right, but it's also really easy to fuck up. And then, like most pinot, it's just dismal. But then a food-wine comparison seems trite and pretentious. Particularly since Jimi's live version of Little Wing is on in the background and there it is - distilled beauty, casual, seemingly effortless, just enough and no more.

gnocchi di patata

And then I have to weave in the story of how I discovered Perfect Gnocchi. And many years later, learned to replicate the recipe. But I should probably start where I started with gnocchi - from cookbooks and in restaurants. They sounded so good in theory: tender morsels of tasty starchiness that could be adapted as the perfect foil for anything from light and classic pomodoro to creamy, blue vein cheesy goodness. But in multitudes of restaurants and from every cookbook I got variations on the same theme. It was as if a squad of riot police had just been through: "On the menu tonight sir, rubber bullets, but only the finest, fired from small calibre weapons". After many tries I finally decided that it was a hopeless quest. Then, fortunately while I was still young enough to have an ounce of hope left, I was taken to a little restaurant in the back streets.Well OK, it was main road Kenilworth - middle suburbia for those of you not from here -  but I don't know how to make that sound good. Anyway, this hole in the wall was run by a young Italian surfer who drifted away only a couple of years later. And there, I had my First Good Potato Gnocchi. Tender but with bite. The flavour of potato a gentle bedspread for some hot tomato oregano garlic loving. Sadly, my considerable charms could not part him from his grandmother's recipe. Begging did not work either, and I was about to try tears when I was dragged away protesting.

Some two or three years after this momentous event, I was undertaking my third favourite pastime, trawling a secondhand bookstore in an actual back street, when an only slightly overweight little paperback squealed loudly to let me know to heave off the pile of instant microwave and freezer books and rescue it. And a great light blazed down from above (Alright, alright, the cheap fluorescent strip flickered, but I'll take it) and The Book fell open to page 203. And there it was. The Secret of Perfect Potato Gnocchi. The Book of course is a begrimed 1978 Penguin paperback reprint of Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking Volume 1. Some other time I will tell the story of how I found the matching New Testament... I mean Volume 2, in an entirely different dingy secondhand bookstore in an entirely different area, and came to know that I was the Appointed One.

But back to Perfect Potato Gnocchi. Who would have thought that Italian happiness would be found in a book devoted to classic French food and techniques, but I just knew. And so it was. Just as I remembered. Tender but with bite, the flavour of potatoes  only just present, transformed into something delicate and light and wonderful. So what is the secret? Choux. Yes, the stuff of eclairs and profiteroles. The heart of quenelles.

Now most recipes for gnocchi are variations on this theme: Mix your  base ingredient (e.g. potato or ricotta) with flour in an approximate 3:1 or 4:1 ratio by volume, often with around 2 eggs per 2lb/1kg of dough. Some even go so far as to mention that you better take it easy with the mixing/kneading if you don't want them to be too tough. Giorgio Locatelli (in Made in Italy: Food and Stories) admittedly finesses this approach to the point where it just might yield something wonderful, and I will report back once I have tried his way. But most don't, and their pictures tell the rest of the story. Don't have the feather touch of Locatelli? Care for pomodoro on a bed of gristle? No? Then we will let Mastering the Art teach us to cheat a little, and achieve perfection every time. Like any good foodie, I have of course cut a couple of corners and made a few changes to make it my own.

Serves 4 as a main, 6 as a starter, or 2 gourmands with some left over for midnight snacking:
Start by boiling 4-5 medium sized floury potatoes - around 600g or 1-1.5lb.. I specify floury in case I develop a huge following in civilised countries where you can actually get waxy potatoes.
While the potatoes are cooking, get going with the choux. It sounds fancy, but really it's a complete doddle:

250ml (1 cup) water
90g (3 oz.) butter cut into pieces
1 tsp salt
110g (4oz.) sifted soft/cake flour
4 eggs

equipment: wooden spoon and a heavy bottomed saucepan, preferably with rounded bottom.

Put the water, butter and salt into the saucepan and bring to the boil. Once the butter has melted, turn down the heat. Shoot in all the flour and beat vigorously with the wooden spoon until it forms a smooth mass that pulls away from the sides of the saucepan.

Then, remove from the heat, and one by one, beat in the eggs until they are completely blended and the dough is smooth and glossy. Voila! You've just made choux.

Poke your potatoes to make sure they are done, then peel. I prefer to peel after boiling as this keeps them from getting mushy or absorbing extra moisture, but you could peel first if you haven't got asbestos fingers or the patience to let them cool. Now either sieve or just mash really thoroughly to get them light and fluffy with no lumps.

I specified a little less water in the choux than normal, to avoid the awful tedium of having to dry your sieved/mashed potato in a pot, and the worse tedium of having to then scrub the tenacious film of potato stuck to the bottom of the pot, but if you went the peel before boiling route, you might want to do this to avoid a soggy final product.

Choux rapidly loses much of it's ability to puff once it cools and stands around, so while everything is still hot, beat the now fluffy potato into the choux. You can also mix in a little grated cheese if you want as per the original recipe, but personally I think that messes with the angelic purity of the potato-only version. By now the timing is getting critical, so yell at your sous chef/partner to get a pot of water to simmering point while you work. If you're serving guests and need to cook the whole lot all at once, make sure it's nice wide pot with at least 3-5l of water. Sprinkle your work surface with a good dusting of flour, take a handful of dough and quickly roll into a sausage about as thick as a man's forefinger. Well my forefinger. Um.... that's about 1in./3cm diameter - remember they will swell when cooked so make them smaller rather than fatter if in doubt. Chop into little oblongs with a knife and press with the back of a fork if you want little corrugations to hold onto a little more sauce when served. It helps enormously to have a clean tea towel ready to hold the gnocchi in a single layer while you work, since they tend to stick together if piled, except where this is done quickly for photographs to simulate careless abandon.

Make sure your water is just simmering, and as gently as possible, drop in enough gnocchi for a serving. Rather cook two batches if you want to provide a second helping. Now remember, these are delicate animals - anything more than the gentlest shiver of movement in the water is courting disaster, and careless temperature control and boiling will result in rather bland potato soup. Don't ask how I know. At a gentle simmer, they will float at the surface within a minute or so. I once had a vicious argument with a lady of Italian descent, who claimed that gnocchi are ready as soon as they rise to the surface and must not be cooked even a moment longer. When she alluded to her heritage, I dared to point out that to the best of my knowledge, gnocchi technique is not genetically encoded, and discovered that shouting and waving arms however, apparently is. But, unless you relish the taste of raw flour, I would recommend that you leave them to poach for 10-15 minutes, by which time these choux-based versions will have swelled to nearly double their original size and be perfectly al dente. I do think that Ms. Beck et al's 20 minutes is too long however. They also neglect to mention a vital tool - if you are having seconds, and I assure you that you will, leave the water simmering, fish out the cooked gnocchi with a slotted spoon and gently shake off excess water.

I think they're best just like that - pop straight onto pre-warmed plates and serve with a simple sauce of very ripe tomato (you of course already know that canned is usually better than fresh, unless you grow your own), quickly stewed with a generous splash of olive oil, 2 or 3 cloves of crushed garlic and  a couple of tablespoons of chopped fresh oregano or a teaspoon of dried. But if it's winter or you're looking to experiment, the poached gnocchi can at this point also be brushed with a little butter or olive oil, and perhaps sprinkled with a cheese, then grilled under a moderately hot grill.
potato gnocchi with tomato sauce
So what makes this potato gnocchi so special? Of course the choux gives a lightness and texture that is just glorious and can't be achieved with just flour and egg mixtures. But perhaps we should not ignore the butter in the choux - while it might not be completely authentic, it does add something without actually being detectable as butter. Vive la revolution!

You can apparently freeze the dough and gently reheat after defrosting, but then the final product loses much of it's lightness. Once you've prepared this a couple of times, the gnocchi can actually be made in less than 30 minutes, so I would rather halve the quantities if the portions given here are too large. And since the cooked gnocchi reheat very nicely the next day, I'd really recommend that you just make the full amount and get two days of happiness for the price of one.