Before I became enamored of Spanish cooking, like so many American cooks my first "cuisine crush" was Italian. In the early 90s, when I was a vegetarian for 3 years, I felt particularly inspired to pour through the writings of Marcella Hazan and Lorenza de'Medici to glean wisdom that would help me make better risottos, pizza, fresh pasta, and - my personal favorite - gnocchi. Later, during my decade of slaving at Bay Area stoves as a professional, I gathered tips and hints from my fellow cooks and chefs. Like a forager picking mushrooms in a forest, I carefully tucked the tastiest morsels into my basket of tricks.
Although I never pursued my romantic notions to live and cook under the Tuscan sun, it seems virtually every other cook and chef in San Francisco did - so many that it seems as if our city is a colony of some new culinary Roman Empire.*
Perhaps the most successful of this cadre of Italophiles is Delfina's Craig Stoll. In part, I owe my mastery of potato gnocchi to his recipe (which you can find after the jump). The real secret to consistently turning out cloud-like gnocchi, however, I discovered on my own.
Potato gnocchi are made with 2 primary ingredients: potatoes and flour. Sometimes a third ingredient - egg - is added. Because there are so few ingredients, the quality of each cannot be overstated. First, for the potatoes, I prefer organic russet potatoes. I prefer the balance of starch and sweetness found in organic russets, but if organic are unavailable, regular russets are a great second choice.
Through following recipes and my own experimentation, I learned that I prefer the taste of gnocchi made with baked, rather than boiled, potatoes. The (for lack of a better word) potatoey flavor is more pronounced from baked potatoes, because they lose some of their water content through evaporation during the baking process. After baking the potatoes, I let them cool slightly, then I scoop out the insides and press them through a ricer and let the resulting potato cool completely.
The second ingredient is the flour. The less flour you use, the lighter your gnocchi will be. You want to use just enough to bind the potato dumplings together. Initially, I followed Marcella's recipe which consists of just potato and flour, and - occasionally - I made wonderfully fluffy gnocchi. Other times, I made rubber erasers. Then I read Craig Stoll's recipe, which called for an egg to be added. By comparing Craig's recipe with Marcella's, I noticed that using an egg allows you to reduce the amount of flour by nearly half. Craig's gnocchi were nearly perfect.
What kind of flour do you use? All the recipes call for all-purpose flour. From making fresh pasta and pizza dough, I learned that I always get better results when I use Italian all-purpose flour - labeled "00," doppio zero, meaning "double zero." This flour is lower in gluten than American all-purpose flour. The secret discovery that I am sharing with you is to use this Italian "00" flour in making gnocchi as well. With less gluten, there is little chance that you will toughen the dough through over-kneading. It is the key to consistently and reliably turning out fluffy gnocchi.
At some gourmet grocers, you can purchase Italian flour. King Arthur Flour also produces and sells on line a flour they label "Italian Style" which mimics the qualities of doppio zero flour. A more readily available substitute is pastry flour, although I have not yet tried it. Another good experiment would be to blend equal amounts of cake and all-purpose flour, or perhaps even all cake flour. I'd love to know the result if you ever try these experiments.
In addition to Craig Stoll's gnocchi recipe, I have included below my own simple alternative to the springtime sauce of green peas and sage brown butter that he proposes. One of my favorite ways to sauce gnocchi is with pesto, but I associate basil with the (theoretically**) warmer summer months. During the winter, I like making a pesto-like sauce with stinging nettles (pictured above left) sold locally by Star Route and Mariquita. This also makes a great sauce on pasta, especially penne or orecchiette (don't use orecchiette, however, if like Fatemeh, it freaks you out).
On a side note, for those of you stung by the mere mention of Valentine's Day, what better dish could there be to serve yourself than something that features stinging nettles?
Potato Gnocchi with Stinging Nettles and Pine Nuts
If you have never had - or even heard of - nettles, this simple preparation allows you to fully enjoy their unique flavor should you ever be so fortunate to find them. As you gardeners and hikers no doubt are already aware, nettles grow wild. In other words, they are a weed. Nettles have a distinct taste of the forest floor, reminiscent of wild mushrooms crossed with spinach. They are one of the most vitamin and mineral packed greens available. There is no good substitute. If you cannot find them, use a different sauce. Craig Stoll's original recipe called for sage brown butter, peas and tomatoes. This is my adaptation of his recipe, which originally appeared in the July 2001 issue of Food & Wine magazine.
Makes 4 servings
For the gnocchi:
2-3 medium baking potatoes, preferably organic (about 1½ pounds total)
1 large egg, beaten
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
½ t Kosher salt
¾ c flour, Italian "00" or pastry (see text above), plus extra for dusting
For the stinging nettles:
¾-1 pound nettles
4-5 T extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 T pine nuts, toasted
4-6 T parmigiana reggiano, freshly grated
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400˚F (205˚C). Prick the skins of the potatoes with a fork. Place in oven on rack and bake for a little over an hour, depending on size, until tender.
Allow the potatoes to become cool to the touch. Cut each potato in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out the flesh. Use a potato ricer and press the flesh into a bowl or Pyrex-style glass measuring pitcher. You will only need 2 cups, loosely packed, of the riced potatoes for this recipe. Save the rest for another use. Allow the potatoes to cool to room temperature.
Place the 2 cups potatoes in a bowl. Add the egg, nutmeg and salt. Use a handheld electric mixture set to low speed to just combine the ingredients. Add the flour and mix just until mixture becomes a soft dough. Do not overmix.
Dust your table or cutting board with flour. Gently knead the dough for just a minute or two, until it becomes smooth. Add flour as necessary if the dough is too sticky. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Applying gentle even pressure, roll each piece of dough into a ½-inch thick rope about 18-24 inches long. This takes some patience and you can't rush this part.
Set up a baking sheet to place the finished gnocchi. Line it with wax paper and then dust it with flour. Use a knife to cut the ropes into 1-inch pieces on a bias (diagonal). Use your thumb to press and roll each gnocchi (I wonder what the singular form of gnocchi is. Gnoccho?) against the tines of a fork. One side will end up slightly concave and the other will have a few grooves on it. You should end up with about 80 gnocchi.
Put a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Salt the water well so that you can taste the salt. While the water is coming to a boil, make your sauce.
Be careful not to touch the nettles. There is a good reason they are called "stinging nettles." Wearing latex or rubber gloves, carefully remove the larger woody stems from the nettles. Wash them in a basin of cold water and then spin dry in a salad spinner.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the nettles. Cook for a few minutes, until tender. Season with salt. Remove the nettles to a cutting board and chop coarsely.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the same pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about a minute. Return the chopped nettles to the pan, stir and taste for seasoning.
When the sauce is ready, cook the gnocchi. Add the gnocchi to the water and cover the pot. When the water comes back to a boil, remove the cover. Use a large spoon to gently stir the pot once so that no gnocchi stick to the bottom. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the gnocchi for about 1 minute, or until tender. Use a slotted spoon to lift the gnocchi into a strainer and drain.
Add the gnocchi to the pan with the nettles. Toss with pine nuts, half the cheese, ground pepper to taste and remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Place into serving bowls and serve with the rest of the cheese sprinkled on top.
*<rant>For the purposes of this post, I have set aside my boredom and exasperation with the Bay Area (and every American) diner's continued love affair with everything Italian (and French!). While I appreciate and even adore the best local Italian trattorias - like Delfina, Incanto, Oliveto, Quince, A16, Pizzaiolo and Picco - can we not have a new restaurant that is satisfyingly rustic and sincerely product-driven without being based on the cuisine of Italy? We are swimming in a sea of new pizza and pasta restaurants. Many of them are admittedly tasty - what diner (and restaurateur) doesn't like the safety and predictability of pizzas and pastas on occasion? Who doesn't love to fantasize about living la dolce vita? But really, when is enough enough? Of course, I am aware this is entirely self-serving, because I am (still!) hoping to open a restaurant based on the cuisine of Spain. But, putting my self-interest aside, I am curious as a restaurant-goer. Am I the only one who is bored with Italian trattorias (and French bistros)? Or did I just eat too many stinging nettles with my gnocchi last night?</rant>
**I say theoretically, because in San Francisco the mercury rarely arises above the mid sixties during the summer, while yesterday we enjoyed temperatures in the mid seventies!