A well-known Italian saying goes like this “Gnocchi on Thursday, fish on Friday and tripe on Saturday”: as an authentic icon of Italian cuisine, homemade gnocchi are so popular that they appear once a week on the tables of any family faithful to tradition. They make a rich and nourishing first course: velvety soft balls of flour and potato dressed with the most colourful and imaginative sauces.
In theory, it is possible to make a dish of homemade gnocchi from any root vegetable that has been mashed to a pulp and mixed with a little flour and an egg. This is why the size of the gnocchi and the type of flours used may vary considerably between the northern and southern regions of Italy: chestnut flour or rice flour with dried bread, semolina, maize flour or pumpkin.
Many food anthropologists even say that gnocchi were probably a sort of “primitive form of pasta” for early mankind: they were made in bite-sized pieces from a mixture of water and the flour of certain cereals such as spelt, millet or wheat coarsely ground with a millstone, before being cooked in a liquid. At the Renaissance courts they used to be prepared for banquets and celebrations. In the area of Emilia Romagna, they are called “malfatti” and consist in a delicately tasting mixture of spinach and ricotta cheese, but if we go further south, they become Roman-style gnocchi, made from durum wheat semolina flour in the shape of small disks. The best known southern recipe, however is that of gnocchi “alla sorrentina”, potato gnocchi topped with a tomato sauce and scattered with pieces of stringy cow’s milk mozzarella cheese and Parmesan, finished off in the oven gratin-style.
Italian gnocchi with a chef's touch
As usual, haute cuisine has borrowed the traditional recipe and personalized it by taking it apart and substituting the basic ingredients: the result is a contemporary and revisited version which, nevertheless, safeguards the original identity of the dish. The homemade gnocchi which appear on the menus of famous chefs have been stuffed with fillings, “blown up” so that they are extremely light on the palate, transformed – with nothing but a liquid wrapping to surprise the taste buds –, multiplied into a myriad of tiny spheres or unified as one large circular disk in the centre of a plate packed with surprises.
Among the most original versions I have ever tasted are the pumpkin gnocchi with Parmesan zabaglione and sage created by chef Filippo Chiappini Dattilo of the Antica Osteria del Teatro in Piacenza, or the mandarin gnocchi with cod tripe and spinach by starred chef Daniele Usai of the Tino restaurant in Ostia. My favourite ones, however, constitute one of Norbert Niederkofler’s signature dishes: beetroot gnocchi, with red and white radish, and beer “soil”. In this case, the gnocchi are no more than an “envelope” filled with cream and horseradish and placed on a dusting of bread, beer and dehydrated vegetable charcoal.
How to make homemade gnocchi
The recipe for home-made gnocchi is not so simple. The tip offered by chef Claudio Sadler is to steam the potatoes for 40 minutes, instead of boiling them in water, and then remove the skins before passing them through a potato masher.
The main difficulty lies in obtaining a mixture with the right consistency: not too dense, which would result in dry tasting gnocchi, and not too soft, which would cause them to fall apart in the boiling water during cooking. With regard to cooking times, seconds can make all the difference so, as soon as the gnocchi start to rise to the surface, they must be removed by lifting them up delicately with a “spider”, a sort of wide mesh skimmer. Without ever forgetting the authentic gourmet rule: the refinement of a dish of gnocchi is inversely proportional to the amount of flour, so the less they contain, the better they will rise.
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