It is practically impossible to discuss gnocchi without invoking the p-word. Not potato, historically the main ingredient, but the aspirational pillow.
We've been to Brookstone and Bed Bath & Beyond, so we understand the variations along those lines. Fluffy. With shape-holding density. Heavy enough for combat. Whichever kind you're accustomed to will do just fine, thank you - until the moment you experience the deliciousness of, say, a custom model that costs a grand. The stuff dreams are made on.
Those distinctions are apt for gnocchi, too.
The dumpling derivatives have been made for hundreds of years. Potato gnocchi began as Italian peasant food that required few components, little time, and maybe one hand-powered piece of equipment. It has been universally embraced in its boot-shaped native land, north to south, where provincial gastronomic divisions are the norm.
Gnocchi is so celebrated, in fact, that it has its own day - and I don't mean a head-scratcher like National Almond Buttercrunch Day. Trattorias in Rome serve it up on Gnocchi Thursdays, while Argentina and Uruguay have adopted their own monthly Dia de Noquis.
When you grow up eating the gnocchi your family put on the table, it becomes the gold standard. You might tweak a recipe so that it becomes your own, shaping it into an enviable entrée. Order it at a number of restaurants, and you start to appreciate the better versions.
Then, when you least expect it, a transcendent forkful sends your kitchen brain into overdrive. It can initiate a quest into whys and wherefores that prompts tuberous hoarding and habitual flour dusting.
That is what happened to me. You might not get the opportunity to have close encounters with gnocchi pros, so I'm sharing my journey.
It took one taste of Marjorie Meek-Bradley's potato gnocchi, situated in a springtime mix of lamb shank ragu, peas, pickled ramps and Garrotxa cheese. The dish won best in show at the 2013 D.C. Lamb Jam. There was at least one other gnocchi dish in the May competition, and it was mighty good.
But Meek-Bradley's gnocchi were otherworldly: tender, silky, and light. Patrons won't let her take them off the menu at Ripple in Washington, so she changes sauces for a little variety. How did a California girl come to possess such a gift? She learned from New York chef Jonathan Benno, now at Lincoln Ristorante on the Upper West Side. Meek-Bradley worked with him when he was chef de cuisine at the three-Michelin star Per Se.
"We've all made the gluey, leaden sinkers," says Benno. "Potato gnocchi should be light. Sounds like Marjorie's got the touch."
When asked to describe them, Meek-Bradley says her gnocchi "eats like a pillow."
Potatoes, egg yolks, kosher salt, and all-purpose flour. She e-mailed succinct instructions. Two attempts later, my interpretation was nowhere close to what she'd served - unnerving for my line of work. A 15-minute demonstration in the calm of Ripple's no-lunch-service kitchen cleared things up considerably.
"I thought to myself, 'Of course it makes sense to show you,' " she said, conjuring a "duh" as we waited for hot potatoes to finish in the oven. "That's how technique is best explained."
I was able to feel the potatoes' temperature and that of the dough at key points. I saw how Meek-Bradley incorporated elements with a plastic bench scraper. I discovered why she does not use a fork to create the grooves that make most gnocchi look like mini mountain-bike tires. ("You need a denser dough to do that," she says.)
Each step surrendered its own lesson, enriched by the chef's willingness to answer nitpicky questions. Her main takeaways focused on the potatoes: "Use russets," a baking potato. "Not Yukon Gold. You need more starch than sugar."
6 russet potatoes, 12 to 14 ounces each
2 cups flour, preferably King Arthur all-purpose unbleached, plus more for rolling
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the cooking water
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet; bake until tender. While the potatoes are quite hot, cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh, placing it in a food mill or potato ricer (in batches if necessary).
2. Discard potato skins.
3. Lightly flour a work surface and two rimmed baking sheets.
4. Grind or rice the potatoes directly onto the work surface. Use your hands to form the potatoes into a loose rectangle, creating a well at the center. Add the egg yolks; sprinkle 1 cup of the flour and all of the salt over the potato rectangle.
5. Use a bench scraper to cut the flour into the potato; don't worry too much about incorporating the egg yolks. Sprinkle the remaining cup of flour evenly over the mixture, folding it in with the bench scraper and being careful not to overmix or knead. The dough should just come together, slightly sticky, in the shape of a thick log about 4 inches wide, and should not look completely smooth. Let it sit until it is no longer emitting steam and is barely warm.
6. Use the bench scraper to divide the dough into six equal sections. The dough should no longer be sticky. Working on a lightly floured surface, roll each portion of dough into a log that's about 3/4-inch thick, being careful not to press too hard and starting in the middle, then working out to either end of the log. Cut into inch-long sections, transferring them to the baking sheets. Repeat to use all of the dough.
7. Sprinkle the gnocchi lightly with flour. At this point, the gnocchi can be cooled completely and refrigerated (uncovered) for several hours, or held just long enough to be cooked for the chef's merguez tomato ragu (recipe at right). Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the gnocchi, first brushing off any excess flour. Cook just until about a half-dozen of them rise to the surface, then use a Chinese skimmer or strainer to remove and drain all of them.
Per serving: 460 calories, 11 g protein, 96 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 340 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Makes 6 3/4 cups sauce (6 servings)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound lamb merguez sausage, casings removed
2 cups diced yellow onion
5 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups canned crushed tomatoes, such as San Marzano, plus their juices (from two 28-ounce cans)
1/2 cup torn fresh
basil leaves, plus more for optional garnish
1 cup 1-inch asparagus pieces (woody ends trimmed)
1 batch fresh, uncooked Ripple Potato Gnocchi (see related recipe)
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
2. Add the sausage and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until it loses its raw look, breaking it up with a spoon or spatula. If desired, pour off some of the rendered fat.
3. Stir in the onion and garlic; cook for about 7 minutes, until softened, then stir in the tomatoes and their juices. Once the mixture begins to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low; cook (uncovered) for 30 minutes. Season with salt to taste. If using right away, reduce the heat to the lowest setting to keep warm. Stir in the 1/2 cup of torn basil.
4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt, then the asparagus and gnocchi. Do not stir; as soon as about half a dozen gnocchi bob to the surface, use a Chinese skimmer to transfer all of the asparagus and gnocchi to a colander.
5. Immediately divide the asparagus and gnocchi among individual wide, shallow bowls. Top with the ragu and garnish with basil, if desired. Serve warm.
Note: Ingredients are too varied for a meaningful nutritional analysis