Sunday, July 31, 2011

Kitchen Challenge: Gnocchi with Garlic, Bacon, and Kale

Necessity is often the mother of invention. When I first moved back from Columbus to Akron in late 2004, I quickly discovered a lack of good gnocchi in local restaurants and supermarkets. Now, that's not to say it didn't exist, but I didn't have the connections or knowledge to successfully seek it out. Having gotten hooked on the gnocchi served at Monte Carlo Italian Restaurant in Columbus during my five year stay, I knew that I couldn't subsist on the heavy, dense, sit-at-the-bottom-of-my-stomach variety that were available in the area. Thus, I decided to teach myself how to make it from scratch.

Homemade pasta scares a LOT of people. And to be honest, I think I was fairly intimidated by it as well. I had seen it made many times on television, and in theory, it looked simple enough. Depending on the type of pasta one was making, the basics were flour, eggs, sometimes oil, sometime water, and salt. One day, fed up with what was available and craving good gnocchi, I searched around the Internet for several recipes. Over the years, I have honed in on a single recipe that has served me well.

Gnocchi, at its most basic, is an Italian potato-based pasta. It isn't like pierogi, which are a pasta-like dough dough filled with potatoes (much like ravioli). Rather, the potato is actually in the dough itself, no filling necessary. Good gnocchi are ethereally light, almost pillow like. Bad gnocchi ... well, I've already described those to you, so I won't belabor the point. I suppose somehow along the way I've learned to channel a little old Italian grandmother inside of me when I am rolling out the dough, cutting the individual gnocchi and rolling them off the back of a fork to create the ribbed texture.

The recipe for gnocchi is almost stupid simple. In fact, let's get that out of the way right now.

Potato Gnocchi
2 pounds Idaho potatoes, peeled, boiled, and mashed
2 cups of All-Purpose flour, plus additional for kneading
1 egg
Salt and pepper to taste

You can really use any starchy potato for gnocchi, but I would avoid waxy potatoes, such as New or Fingerling, as they tend not to give you the creamy texture you are after. Also, I would stick with All-Purpose flour instead of stronger bread flour. You want the gnocchi to be ultra-tender and using bread flour could create a tougher pasta because of the higher protein content. For a single recipe, I generally don't measure the salt too closely, but if I were pressed to give a measurement, it would probably be a tablespoon of kosher (or coarse) salt. That may seem like a lot, but remember, you are making several pounds of pasta. To be fair, if I salt the dough, I tend not to salt the water in which I cook them.

The first step is to prepare the potatoes. For those really green in the kitchen, I will give a quick primer. First, peel the potatoes. Then cut the potatoes into thirds or quarters so that they cook more quickly. Just make sure to cut all of the potatoes into the same size pieces so that they cook evenly. Fill the pot with COLD water to cover the potatoes by at least an inch or two. Then place on stove and turn the burner on high until the water just starts to boil. Turn the stove down so that the potatoes cook in gently boiling water until a sharp knife easily goes in and comes out of the potato wedges. Drain the water in a colander, return the potatoes to the still hot pan and pull out your potato masher. Without adding anything additional (like milk and butter for regular mashed potatoes), mash away until they are smooth.

The great news is that you can do this step ahead of time (up to one day ahead). If you want to store them for later, place them in a container and place a piece of plastic wrap so that it touches the mashed potatoes before placing a lid on the container. This prevents the outer surface from drying out. Refrigerate until about thirty minutes before you need the potatoes. At that point, remove the container from the refrigerator and set it on the counter to take the chill off. Note that while you will start with two pounds of raw, unpeeled potatoes, after peeling, cooking, and mashing, you will end up with closer to a pound-and-a-half of finished potatoes.

To make the pasta, place the flour in a mound on your work surface. Using a fork, lightly scramble the egg in a small bowl. Using your finger, make a circular motion in the very center of the flour to create a well. Dump the egg into this well, along with the salt and the freshly ground pepper. Using the fork, slowly start to mix the flour from the edges of the well into the liquid egg, being careful not to break through the walls of the well. When enough flour gets mixed into the egg, it will thicken considerably and lose its "runniness." At this point, you can set the fork down and pick up the second most handy tool in the kitchen, the bench scraper. This tool is invaluable for making breads and pastas and at only a couple of dollars, is a multi-tasker that is an excellent investment.

The next step is to add the potatoes to the top of the flour/egg mound. I will tell you that at this point, you will be thinking to yourself, "What in the hell kind of a mess is this?" Trust me, it will all come together with a little love and time. Take the potato out of the container in chunks and run it through your fingers to break it up. If the mashed potatoes are freshly made (you did let them come down to room temperature, right?), you won't need to break them up. It will look like a LOT of potatoes compares to the amount of flour, but that is what makes the resulting gnocchi so tender.

Once the potatoes are on top of the flour, start using the bench scraper to lift and fold the mound onto itself over and over again, pressing down as you fold it over, compacting the dough. Every now and again, you can use the bench scraper to separate the dough from the work surface and simply rotate it or flip it over entirely. Continue doing this for a good five minutes or so, resisting the urge during this time to add more water or flour. The flour is being hydrated during this period and needs a few minutes of adjustment time before you can accurately tell how much adjustment it will need.

Once the dough is holding together (even if there are still visible areas of potato), switch to the best tool in the kitchen: your hands. Begin kneading the dough, using the bench scraper to separate the dough from the work surface as necessary. It is at this stage of the process that you will need to make the judgement call of adding either more flour or a little bit of water. The finished dough should be tacky, but not sticky. In the end, from start to end, it probably takes about ten minutes to make the pasta dough.

Once the dough looks and feels right, you will need to give it time for the gluten that has been activated in the flour to rest and relax. If you are going to roll out the gnocchi right away, mound the dough into a round and cover it with a damp towel or a piece of plastic and let it sit for at least twenty minutes. You could also put the dough into a covered container and refrigerate it overnight. Just make sure that if you refrigerate it, take it out about thirty minutes before you want to roll it to take the chill off the dough.

So, gentle reader, now we've made the dough. Let's take it one step further and make gnocchi.

Using your bench scraper, cut off a hunk of the dough, maybe about 1/2-3/4" thick. Have bench flour available for your work surface in case the dough is still a little sticky, but remember, the less flour used, the more tender the pasta will be, so it's always a balancing act. With the hunk of dough, use your fingertips to roll the dough into a long snake. The length of the snake will depend on how big your hunk of dough started at, but you generally want the cylinder (the snake) to be a thicker than a Tootsie Roll.

With your snake rolled out, use a small knife or the bench scraper (man that thing's gettin' a lot of use, no?) to begin moving from one end to the other cutting out the individual gnocchi, maybe 1/2-3/4" wide. You generally want the width to be less than the width of a fork. Once you've cut the entire snake, the final step is to give each pasta piece their characteristic ridges. Using the backside of a fork, take a single gnocchi and using the thumb of your non-fork-wielding hand, press and roll the dough against the fork. Do this for every dough piece that you cut.

Place the finished gnocchi on a parchment-lined 1/2 sheet pan (or cookie tray), making sure that the gnocchi don't touch each other. Now, simply cut another hunk of pasta dough from the mound and repeat the process until you've run out of dough. Typically, one batch of gnocchi dough will fill about 1 1/2 sheet pans (of the 1/2 sheet variety). If you are going to use the finished gnocchi immediately, now would be a good time to put a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Your other option is to freeze the gnocchi on the sheet pan. Once they are rock hard, scrape the gnocchi off the parchment and put them into a freezer bag. They'll keep in the freezer for quite some time, although they've never been in my freezer for more than a month.

Once the water has come to a boil, if you salted the dough, do not salt the water, too. If you didn't salt the dough, add a couple of tablespoons of kosher salt (or half as much table salt). Working quickly, add about half of the gnocchi to the pot of water and stir gently to make sure they aren't sticking to the bottom or each other. If you have previously frozen the gnocchi, add them straight from the freezer; do not defrost first. When the gnocchi start floating to the top of the pot, you know they are very close to being done. Fresh gnocchi will take just a few minutes to float and add another minute or two if you are boiling them from frozen.

One note about boiling the pasta. While it's okay to bring the water to a hard boil before adding the pasta, once the pasta is added and comes back to the boil, adjust the heat level so that it cooks the gnocchi on a gentle boil. Continued hard boiling of the pasta can cause it to break up. Also, make sure to gently stir the gnocchi while they are cooking.

Once the gnocchi is cooked, use a slotted spoon or a strainer to remove them from the boiling water. Depending on how you will be serving them, you can add them straight to a pan of sauce or you can place them into a bowl with just a touch (and I do mean just a touch) of oil to coat them so that they won't stick together. If you have additional gnocchi to cook, continue to do so in batches until they are all finished.

While I love gnocchi that have been finished in a bit of brown butter and sage, you could also do a simple tomato sauce, a spicier puttanesca sauce, or do what I did today at the market demonstration today, and finish the gnocchi in a saute pan with some freshly chopped garlic, pre-rendered bacon, and a tender green of some kind, like spinach, Swiss chard, or kale.

To a heated saute pan, add a bit of oil (I use grapeseed oil, but you could also use a neutral oil like Canola or light olive) and, if you remembered to keep it while cooking the bacon, some of the rendered bacon fat. When the oil is hot, add about a tablespoon of chopped garlic and cook for a minute or so until you smell the garlic and it gets just a hint of color to it. Add your gnocchi to the saute pan and stir (or flip the contents if you know how) to coat the gnocchi in the garlic and oil. In addition to adding flavor to the gnocchi, sauteeing it for a few minutes allows you to add some crispy outer texture to it as well.

If you prefer a little bit of spice to your dish, add just a smidgeon of crushed red pepper to the pan. Not so much that it makes the dish spicy, but just enough so that it gives character to the finished dish. Next, add some of the crumbled bacon. Stir/toss to combine. Finally, add a large handful of fresh greens, and about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water to the pan. Quickly cover the pan with the lid and allow the greens to steam for about forty-five seconds. Remove the lid and toss the pasta one final time before tasting it to make sure it has enough salt and pepper. Adjust accordingly.

To serve, either plate on a family-style platter or in individual servings in a bowl. Sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese on top and serve. This recipe would probably make 8-10 servings as an appetizer, or 4-5 servings as the pasta course.

While I will be the first to admit that making homemade gnocchi can be a time-consuming task, because you can break it down into bite-sized pieces (please pardon the expression), you can make it when you have time and freeze it and when you are ready to serve it for dinner, you need to do no more work than walk to your freezer and retrieve it. At the Howe Meadow Farmers Market where I made this exact dish yesterday for market goers, I made two batches of dough (though to be fair, I made the mashed potatoes the night before) and cooked it in three batches for tasters in roughly two hours. That included mixing the dough, rolling it, cutting it, cooking it and serving it.

And, in one of the best compliments I received all day during my demo, when I told a woman who had approached my tent what I was making, she looked apprehensive and said that while she has tried gnocchi many times, none had ever come close to her Italian Nonna. She watched as I finished the boiled gnocchi in the saute pan and spooned a portion into the small paper cup that the market had provided for me. I handed it to her and watched her expression as she tasted one and then a second of the small hot potato dumplings.

"In all the years I've been eating gnocchi, none has ever lived up to my Nonna's until now. Yours is as good as hers."

High praise, indeed! I hope you give this recipe a try for yourself. Once you learn the basics, it is quite easy to do and the results are really worth it. Even cooked from frozen, this gnocchi blows away anything you could purchase in a local supermarket.


bonnjill said...

Your gnocchi truly is fantastic, and you have every right to be proud! Nice complement, Tom!

Janice said...

You have convinced me. I will be trying this recipe in the very near future.

LSS said...

Tom, made this last week with butter Parmesan and agai. Last night from the freezer. So good and easy to do with your detailed directions (although i admit to Youtubing for help with shaping). Thanks

Beth (marmish)

Tino said...

@LSS: I agree that the shaping lends itself to a visual demonstration. Glad that the Youtube video you found firmed it up in your mind. Sadly, once you've mastered gnocchi at home, I've found very few restaurants that can replicate it well.

Glad it turned out so well!

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