Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Simple Potato Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Peas

My family, despite being about as Italian-American as it gets, never had a tradition of making Gnocchi. They were something I knew existed, but never really paid much attention to until fairly recently. Thanks to the magic of television, and the ascendancy of cooking shows over the past fifteen years or so, Gnocchi gained my attention- these light, savory, pillows of pasta earned my respect quickly. I've had gnocchi out at a few restaurants, either as a main dish with a light, fresh tomato sauce, or sauteed with prosciutto and radicchio as a side dish that outshone the main entree... but I've never made them for myself, never even attempted it. This was a grievous omission that I could not let stand any longer, so tonight's dinner was a simple potato Gnocchi tossed in brown butter with peas.

I've read the Gnocchi are simple in concept, but are terribly difficult to make right. There is, apparently, a fine line between those light, fluffy, pillows of potato-based pasta, and an overly heavy plate of glutinous rocks- or, at the other end of the spectrum, little globs of slimy glue unable to hold their shape. This delicate balance, and stories of Gnocchi gone horribly wrong, were intimidating, and I would have to learn to get past them. A little internet research turned up a recipe belonging to former "Next Iron Chef" contestant, Chef Marco Canora, that contained a wealth of tips and general knowledge about Gnocchi that gave me the boost I needed to feel comfortable attempting them. Using the Canora recipe as my main guideline, I decided to trust my inner Italian, and go for it.

The first thing you will need for potato Gnocchi are, obviously, potatoes. You want nice starchy russet potatoes- the kind best for baking or making mashed potato from. Three to four larger potatoes is about enough for four servings. I had several smaller potatoes in the mix, so I ended up using three medium and four small potatoes. Chef Canora recommends baking them until soft- and based on his other tips, it seems to me that baking the potatoes is a much smarter move than boiling. Once the potatoes are softened- usually about an hour to an hour and a half at 350 degrees, they are ready to be processed.

You'll need to act quickly, and begin your work while the potatoes are still blazing hot. Immediately, split the potatoes open lengthwise and allow the steam to escape, the scoop the flesh out of the skins. You want as much steam to escape as possible, so you want as much surface area exposed as possible. The secret to making light Gnocchi, is controlling the moisture content of the potatoes. The more moisture, the more flour you will need- and the more flour used, the heavier the Gnocchi. We want our potatoes to have as little moisture as possible, so we can limit the amount of flour we'll need to make the dough come together. Letting the potatoes steam out as soon as possible is an opportunity to remove a large amount of moisture using a minimal amount of effort.

Don't let up yet- while the potatoes are still hot and steaming, move on to the next stage of our processing. We'll need to turn this potato into the finest mash we can manage. Some people choose to simply mash their potatoes- which works just fine if you have the patience for it and the right tools. I have patience, but I don't have a masher, so I'd have to go at it with a fork- nor do I have a potato ricer- a more modern contraption that will grind your potatoes through a strainer by tuning a crank handle. I want my potato as fine as possible, so I'll have to improvise a little and use a standard kitchen strainer and the back of a spoon. By mashing the potato chunks into the screen, I can produce a nice mash and release even more pent up moisture at the same time. It's a little labor-heavy so I may invest in a ricer for the next time, but it gets the job done.

Now you can slow down, we want to give the potato a few minutes to cool down enough to handle. Once the potatoes stop steaming and are no longer at nuclear temperatures, season them with a little ground pepper (white pepper is you have it!). There is much debate about the idea of using egg, or at least an egg yolk to help bind your Gnocchi. Some insist on it, others insist on avoiding egg. I opt to skip the egg- part because the sheer simplicity, part because I skimmed the recipe too fast and just missed it. The way I see it, there are arguments for either approach, so choose as you will. Personally, removing the egg makes the recipe as simple as possible- with fewer elements to balance and manage, you reduce the number of things that can go wrong. You also make your food more basic and elemental- which is often a virtue, especially for comfort food.

Now that we have potato with as much moisture steamed out as possible, we will add flour to create a light, airy pasta dough. The key here is to use the minimum amount of flour needed to make the dough come together into a ball, and gain enough body so it is no longer sticky. Start with about a cup and a quarter of flour- fold and cut the flour into the potato until it is combined well. It should turn into a crumbles first, which will come together into an actual dough ball if you begin to knead them with your hands. Once you have a coherent ball of dough, add and work in small amounts of flour until the ball is no longer sticky. Try to use as little flour as possible to get to this stage.

The dough ball will need to rest for about five to ten minutes. This gives the flour a chance to absorb as much moisture as it can and "bloom." While waiting for this to happen, you can catch up on some of the other tasks you'll need to do. This is a very good time to set a large pot of salted water on the stove over high heat- it should be just about boiling by the time you finish working on your dough. If you intend to have a vegetable or sauce with your Gnocchi, this is a good time to start that as well (in my case, I'm simply boiling/steaming some peas and making a very simple dressing/sauce).

For a sauce, I'm going for the most simple thing possible- the classic dressing for things like Gnocchi or ravioli is brown butter, flavored with a little sage. This is as simple as it gets, just melt enough butter in a pan to coat your Gnocchi- about 1/4 stick should be more than enough. When the butter is melted, add in some fresh sage (or use powdered sage if you forget to buy the good stuff). Let the butter cook for several minutes over medium heat until it begins to change from yellow to brown. When our Gnocchi are done, we'll top them with a little of this butter and toss them. We're not really using an extravagant amount of butter- just enough to have a nice coating. If butter seems too fattening to you, a little olive oil, warmed up over low heat infused with whatever herbs/spices suits you will work as well.

Now we are ready to continue to form our Gnocchi. You'll want a flat surface to work with, and have a few handfuls of bench flour on hand. As you work, keep your hands, and your work surface dusted with flour- this will help prevent the dough from sticking to your hands, and the excess flour on the bench will help firm up the outside of your Gnocchi- preventing them from sticking to each other. Break off a chunk of the dough and gently roll it out into a rope about the width of your finger. The dough should feel very light and supple,and it should only take a light pressure to work it.

Once your dough is rolled out, take a sharp knife, and gently cut the rope into squares- they should look like little pillows at this point. Many traditionalists will take another step and shape them into ridged bean shapes by rolling each Gnocchi over the back of a fork so they look more attractive. I've also seen many people simply leave them as freshly cut pillows for a more rustic feel- either way works, and I've seen restaurant quality Gnocchi done both ways. Personally, I have a family to feed that's already getting annoyed that I'm stopping to take photos, so I'm opting for the rustic style- which I also happen to like. Repeat the process with a new chunk of dough until you've transformed all of your blob of dough into little Gnocchi.

By now, your salted water should be boiling rapidly. Working in small batches, drop a handful or two of Gnocchi in the water. This is the moment of truth- if your Gnocchi are too light, they may stick together int he water, or completely fall apart. If they are too heavy/dense, they will stay on the bottom and overcook. If they are just right, after about two minutes, they should separate and float to the top. When all the Gnocchi in your batch are floating, they are just about ready to be removed. Using a strainer, gently remove the finished Gnocchi, and gently shake off the excess water. Set the Gnocchi aside, and work on the next batch. When you have finished, gently toss the Gnocchi in the brown butter until coated.

For my meal, I am serving my brown butter coated Gnocchi with a handful of peas, and topping them with a little basil, grated parmesan cheese, and a little crushed chili flakes. In general, you can feel free to use just about any sauces or toppings you would use on just about any pasta dish- even in a baked pasta dish, or sauteed so they develop a little bit of a crust. You can go as simple, or as complex as you like, however, as I've come to learn, often the most simple approach end up with the most memorable and/or comforting results.


  1. My 13 year old daughter is a gnocchi fanatic. I make her potato gnocchi with peas and proscuitto in a cream sauce. I put eggs in the dough but I might try it without now that I have read your recipe. Thanks!

  2. How many gnocchi (individual pieces) are made in this recipe? How much basil, parmesan cheese, and crushed chili flakes do you recommend?