The protagonist of my mystery A Matter of Taste belongs to an Italian-American family in the fishing and restaurant business. The story thus, not surprisingly, centers quite a bit around* food. Since I’m not Italian, and my cooking expertise leans more to the French side of the spectrum, I’ve deemed it prudent to conduct research prior to writing some of the food scenes in the book (e.g., when Nonna prepares “Sunday gravy”). And as the sequels involve the same family—and therefore more Italian food—I consider this research to be ongoing.
So when my friend Robert asked if I wanted to come to his house for a gnocchi-making demo by 90-year old Aurora Leveroni, I readily responded “si, certo!”
yours truly with Aurora and the finished product
(photo: Robert Orrizzi)
(photo: Robert Orrizzi)
The word “gnoccho” (the singular form) most likely derives from either “nocchio” (a knot of wood) or “nocca” (knuckle). These small dumplings have been eaten on the Italian peninsula since at least the days of the Roman Empire, when they were made of semolina and eggs. [See here .] After the potato was brought to Europe from the New World, the Italians incorporated it into their dumplings, creating what we now think of as the traditional potato gnocchi.
Robert’s friend Aurora, who grew up in San Francisco, learned this technique from her mother—née Marie Dell-Era—who was born in the Lake Como region of Northern Italy.
We made a recipe for 30 servings, using five pounds of potatoes, but my directions will cut that amount in half.
Boil 2 ½ pounds of Idaho or Russet potatoes with the skins on, until well done. (Waxy varieties such as Yukon Gold should not be used, as they have too much water content.) Don’t pierce them or cut them in half, because you want as little water as possible to be absorbed into the potatoes (this is why you keep the skins on while boiling). As soon as they’re done, peel them and put them through a ricer while still hot:
Add one whole egg, ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of baking powder, and about ½ tablespoon of olive oil to the riced potatoes, and mix well. Using your hands is best.
Robert gets into it
Slowly mix in unbleached flour.
The amount will vary, depending on the weather, moisture content of the potatoes, type of flour, and other unknowable variables, but you want to keep adding flour until the dough stops being sticky and is easy to work (two to three cups is a good guess).
Transfer the dough to the counter to knead once it’s dry enough to do so.
The next step is to cut off pieces of the dough and roll them into long “snakes,” about ½ inch thick. Work from the center out, as you would if rolling out a baguette, and keep the tube of even thickness:
Next, cut the snakes into ½ inch pieces:
To shape the gnocchi, Aurora uses the fork method, rolling the uncut, rounded sides of the pieces lightly on the back of a fork to make indentations:
Here’s a close-up of what the gnocchi look like after being shaped:
At this point you can either cook the gnocchi or freeze them for later use. If you’re not going to eat them right away, spread them (not touching) on a lightly-floured cookie sheet, sprinkle a little more flour on top, and put the sheet in the freezer. (See photo at top of this post.) After they are frozen, they can be transferred to zip-lock baggies and kept in the freezer until use. (You need to freeze them on the sheet first, so they don’t stick together when bagged.)
bag of frozen gnocchi, ready to cook
Cooking them is easy. Simply drop the frozen gnocchi into boiling, heavily salted water. Stir them once so they don’t stick to the bottom, and then wait until they rise to the top, which means they’re done. Drain them, and they’re ready to eat.
Gnocchi are best served with a simple sauce, so as not to overwhelm their delicate flavor. Last night I cooked up the bag that Aurora and Robert gave me to take home, and served them drizzled with brown butter and topped with crispy sage (fried in the butter) and grated Romano cheese:
One last thing: Reading on line about gnocchi in preparation for this post, I ran across this article and video from the L.A. Times by Tom Colicchio of the Craft restaurant. His method differs greatly from Aurora’s and looks like it might be a lot less labor-intensive, but I haven’t tried it. If any of you do, let me know how your gnocchi turn out.
* For grammar nit-pickers (and you know who you are) offended by the expression “centers around,” please click here.