Monday, 9 December 2013

Gnocchi

Given the Irish love affair with the potato, I have always been very curious about how other food cultures use the humble spud.
 
Gnocchi, which hail from Italy, are little dumplings usually made with potato, but also frequently made with other vegetables, ricotta cheese, stale bread – essentially a way of using up whatever is close to hand. In this sense, they are a true “peasant food”.
 
Until fairly recently, my only experience of eating gnocchi were ones that I had bought in vacuum packs from the supermarket. And to be honest, I really could not see what the appeal was! The few times that I had eaten them, I found them to be leaden, stodgy lumps which sat in the stomach. No disguising with a variety of sauces managed to change my opinion. The London-based Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli states that gnocchi are one of his favourite dishes in the world. Other well-known and respected cooks wax lyrical about their “lightness”, “the comforting, melt-in-the-mouth texture”. WHAT were they all talking about??? That had not been my experience!
 
But that all changed recently!


A good friend and an amazing cook, recently invited a couple of us to dinner. As an accompaniment to the rabbit dish that he had prepared for us, he had made little potato gnocchi with a chestnut velouté. The gnocchi were unbelievable. They were light, yet comforting to eat and so so moreish!
 
Armed with advice on how to make them, I did further research and what follows is my recipe. The great thing about gnocchi is that they are a fabulous vehicle for other flavours. Herbs can be included in the mixture itself or other tastes can be introduced by way of sauces. I have kept it simple here and made potato gnocchi with a butter and sage sauce. Simple… Cheap… Tasty!
 
Tips: In my opinion, the key to success with gnocchi lies with the potato that is used. A very starchy, floury potato is vital. I used Roosters and found them to be very successful.  Also, although many recipes advocate boiling the potatoes, I found that baking them produced a far, dryer result and a more intense potato taste.
 
Make the gnocchi dough whilst the potatoes are still hot, but watch your hands because the potatoes will be very hot when just out of the oven! Use a potato ricer to break up the potato. A lightness of touch when handling the dough is preferable as you do not want to overwork the gluten in the flour that is included.
 
Some recipes use eggs to bind the dough together, others don’t. To use eggs or not can be a highly contentious issue, but I found the egg yolks helped bind the mixture together and had the added advantage of adding a luxurious richness to the finished dish.
 
Finally, remember to season the dough well as otherwise they can taste very bland.

Ingredients:

3-4 large Rooster potatoes
Olive oil
Rock salt
50g plain flour
2 egg yolks
Salt & Pepper to season
2-3 tablespoons of polenta
50g clarified butter
A handful of sage leaves

Method:

1. Preheat the oven to 190C/Fan Oven 170C/Gas Mark 5. Wash the potatoes to remove any dirt and then dry them well. Rub a small amount of olive oil on the skin of each potato before sprinkling with rock salt. Wrap each potato individually in tin foil and place in the oven for about one hour to cook through fully.
2. Remove from the oven. As soon as they are cool enough to safely handle, scoop out the potato flesh and discard the skins. Push the potato flesh through a potato ricer or fine metal sieve. Sieve the flour over the potato and season well with salt and pepper. Add the egg yolks and cheese and mix to bring the dough together.
3. Sprinkle your work surface with a little flour and divide the dough into four. Roll each piece into a long thin sausage shape about 1½cms wide. Cut the sausage of dough into 2cm long pieces. Each individual dumpling can then be gently rolled with a fork to create the characteristic grooves on the gnocchi. Place the gnocchi on a tray dusted with fine polenta, while you make more gnocchi with the remaining dough.
4. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and then turn down to a simmer. Tip in half the gnocchi. While they are simmering melt the clarified butter in a medium sized frying pan until hot.
5. Check the gnocchi. When they start to rise to the top of the water, cook them for about another twenty seconds before removing with a slotted smooth straight into the hot butter. Once they start to colour, turn them in the pan and add a few sage leaves. Allow the sage leaves to crisp up but not burn.
6. Serve in bowls.

Serves 4-6.