Saturday, January 28, 2012

I Used to Make Gnocchi All the Time

I used to make gnocchi all the time. Like twice a week. I don't know why, but I fell out of the habit. Feeling a twinge of nostalgia, when H-bomb needed dinner and we had nothing prepared, I made a batch. Gnocchi are an under-appreciated pasta, probably because when they're made badly they're heavy and tough

I've been adding apples to things recently, mostly because I'll see an apple sitting there while I'm making something and think, whatever, maybe that would be good with apple. When I decided to make gnocchi, I noticed an apple sitting there, and nature took its course.

Conventionally, potato gnocchi are made from cold cooked potato, flour and eggs. This requires the foresight to have cooked and cooled a potato in advance, something I do not have. I typically peel and dice the potatoes, boil them and shock them in cold water to make the temperature manageable. If the potato hits the flour and egg while the starch is still hot, the whole mass becomes elastic and gluey and no fun to work with or eat. For this batch, I diced the apple and added it to the potato prior to boiling. On a whim, instead of water I decided to boil the potato and apple in vegetable stock with a pinch of saffron. I love the way saffron brightens otherwise starchy foods and thought it might make the gnocchi a little more interesting on their own.

When the potato was ready, I mushed it up with a whisk since I don't have a ricer,* then added the egg and flour and kneaded it briefly. I don't use the whisk in a beating motion, but like a more conventional potato masher, up-and-down. It's important not to handle the dough too much or the gluten in the flour binds with the starch of the potato and the pasta gets tough and gluey. With a conventional pasta you need to work the dough so the gluten develops, which helps the texture of the finished noodle, not so with gnocchi.

Another difference is that once the gnocchi pasta is formed, I like to cut it quickly and get the gnocchi into boiling water immediately so the gluten in the flour doesn't have time to get rubbery. With a conventional pasta, I'd rest the pasta before rolling to make the dough sturdier. Gnocchi are relatively big on the fork and in the mouth, so they need to be tender and light or they're a drag. I try to get through the process quickly, without using my hands too much**

I rolled the gnocchi pasta into little logs and cut it into lumps, then grooved them with a fork and plopped them in the water. They cook fairly quickly, but not as quick as cut pasta. Once they float, they need about another minute on the boil and they're done. Normally I just dump the pasta pot through a colander to collect the cooked pasta, but gnocchi are fragile enough (when made well) that I usually scoop them out with a wire basket. This also drains them well enough that I can toss them straight into the skillet for finishing.

After boiling, I like to toast gnocchi a little in olive oil or butter. They can be served like that with some herbs, parmigiano, black pepper and salt, or dressed with a sauce. We didn't have much to make a sauce with, but we had some V8 juice, which is pretty tasty, so I thought I'd give that a shot. I've used V8 instead of vegetable stock in other applications and it has proven versatile enough to make me take occasional excursions into the unknown like this.

Once the gnocchi were browned a little, I splashed a glug of V8 into the skillet and tossed the gnocchi, and in no time at all the V8 combined with the olive oil to make a nice thick emulsion that glazed the gnocchi as it intensified. I crushed some dried herbs on them before a final toss, then plated them and grated some Asiago on top. The saffron was a great idea, it made the gnocchi a bright yellow color and gave the body of the gnocchi a delicious whiff of the exotic, and the mineral overtone was balanced by the sweet-sour character of the apple. The glaze was tasty, but the acid in the V8 changed during cooking, leaving a slight chemical undertaste, and made me wish I'd just served these little yellow marvels on their own. I'm sure I could make a reduction of fresh juices that would work better, but I'll still endorse V8 for future experiments.

*My birthday is July 22
**That's what she said