A European Delight: Gnocchi
Gnocchi. These delicate, fluffy Italian dumplings probably originated in Italy’s Veneto region, but they’re traditional throughout Europe. In Germany and Poland, they’re known as kopytka (little hooves). The Italian word gnocchi translates as “small lumps” and originates from the Old Italian word for knuckle (nocca), describing the shape of this special pasta. Here in the United States, these simple dumplings are popular fare in Italian restaurants — distinct from ubiquitous pasta, risotto or polenta.
Traditionally made from potatoes and semolina flour, gnocchi pre-date the arrival of potatoes in the 16th century. They were made with flour and eggs; sometimes, ricotta cheese and herbs or greens (like spinach) were added for flavor.
Today, many types of gnocchi are popular. Gluten free? Use rice flour in place of semolina. You can replace the potatoes with other vegetables like winter squash, pumpkin or sweet potatoes. Spinach-ricotta gnocchi are another variation. Try using other greens in place of spinach, like chard, collards or kale. Fresh herbs like parsley, basil or tarragon can be added to flavor the dough. The variations are only up to your imagination!
Specialty stores carry fresh gnocchi and supermarkets stock frozen and dried products. But they’re easily made at home with common ingredients: potatoes, flour, eggs, salt and pepper. The ratio of potatoes to flour depends on where the recipe comes from. The ingredients combine to form a stiff dough, which is kneaded, rolled, cut into little pillows, then cooked in boiling salted water to make light, fluffy, delicate dumplings. It’s much easier than making pasta, and a great activity that can involve the kids on rainy indoor days. Making gnocchi is easy and fun!
For the best gnocchi, use old potatoes — they have more starch. If you’re not using leftover potatoes, baking makes a drier potato than boiling, resulting in lighter, fluffier gnocchi. Let the potatoes come to room temperature before you add flour. Don’t use a food processor; it makes the dough gummy, soft and difficult to work with. Instead, use a potato masher or ricer.
Add flour, salt and beaten eggs to the potatoes to form a dough. Then roll into long ropes and cut into bite-sized morsels. They don’t store well, because the dough becomes too soft. Use immediately or freeze for later use.
To cook the gnocchi, drop the dumplings gently into rapidly boiling water. In just 2-3 minutes, they’ll float to the top, and you can scoop them out.
There are many ways to serve them. They love contrast, so they’re best with hefty, robust sauces, from cheese or pesto to Bolognese sauce. Just like gnocchi can be made with leftover mashed potatoes, leftover stew or soup can make a good gnocchi sauce. For a healthy skillet supper, toss cooked gnocchi with dark leafy greens (like chard or kale), diced tomatoes and white beans. Top with gooey mozzarella and serve with a salad of mixed greens dressed with a light vinaigrette.
Basic Potato Gnocchi
2 – 3 medium russet potatoes
1 teaspoon salt, divided
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
Olive oil or butter and a little garlic or basil or both (optional, for serving)
If you’re baking potatoes for another meal, add a couple extra. Otherwise, bake or boil potatoes, peel, place in a medium bowl, mash with potato masher, and set aside to cool to room temperature. It takes potatoes about 45-50 minutes to bake at 350, about 20 minutes to boil (cut them up). Potatoes are done when easily pierced with a fork.
Beat egg with a half teaspoon of salt. Make a well in the potatoes, add and mix in. Add the flour, working from the center out to the sides of the bowl. Knead the mixture with your hands. When it begins to hold together, turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and well blended. Add more flour as needed. Divide dough into 4 pieces. The dough should be soft and not very sticky.
Set aside to rest for about a half hour.
Set a pot of water with salt to boil. It should be about 1/3 full.
Roll 1 piece out to a rope to about 1/2-3/4 inch in diameter. Cut on the diagonal into 3/4 or 1 inch segments. To make the characteristic fork pattern, roll each piece of dough inside the tines of a fork to mark it. This is optional; it won’t affect the flavor of the gnocchi. The ridges help the sauce stick to the gnocchi.
When water begins to boil, drop a few gnocchi into the pot — don’t crowd. When gnocchi float to the top (this takes just a couple minutes) remove them with a serving spoon to serving platter. Saut some garlic and / or basil in a little butter or olive oil and pour it over the gnocchi (this helps them not stick together) and serve. Or, serve topped with a sauce.
Repeat steps with the remaining 3 ropes of dough. It helps at this point if you have 2 or more people — one can cut the gnocchi while another puts them in the pot and someone else brushes them with oil. If you’re doing it alone, you can put the cut gnocchi in the fridge until you’re ready to cook them. Gnocchi goes well with soft cooked or roasted vegetables.
Serves 2 to 3.
Options: use sweet baked potatoes in place of russets for sweet potato gnocchi, or use an equal amount of mashed pumpkin or winter squash (do NOT use sweetened pie filling). Add a little shredded sharp parmesan to the dough. Or add finely chopped fresh herbs to the potatoes before mixing with remaining ingredients.
Gnocchi Greens and Beans Skillet
1/2 pound homemade or store-bought gnocchi
1 1/2 cups white beans (home-cooked or canned)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion (about 1 cup, diced)
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 or 5 portobello mushrooms (about 1 cup, diced)
1 bunch Swiss chard, stems and greens
1 head garlic (about 4 cloves)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup broth
1 Tablespoon potato starch, corn starch or flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook gnocchi and beans. Set aside.
Heat oil in large skillet. Peel and dice onion; add, sprinkle with salt and cook on low 2 to 3 minutes.
Clean and dice the mushrooms, cover skillet and continue cooking while you wash and chop the chard.
Wash chard; slice stems about half-inch across and add to the skillet. Chop greens coarsely, add, and cook until wilted. If the skillet gets too dry, add a splash of broth or water.
Peel and mince the garlic and add to the cooking chard.
In a small saucepan, combine olive oil, broth, wine, potato starch, salt and pepper. Cook on low heat, stirring, until thickened. Stir into skillet, along with the cooked beans and cooked gnocchi.
Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.
Serve with freshly shredded Parmesan cheese, for topping.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.