Driving through Europe this past summer, north to south, from Copenhagen, Denmark to Casteil, France (basically Spain) is a long, beautiful trip which takes around ten days. Granted, I made a few stops along the way. One of the stops was at my grandma’s, in Lorraine, France. Grandma is about eighty-nine and still lives alone in her apartment and, oh my, can she cook!
She is Italian by birth and came to France when she was two years old, her parents fleeing the rise of fascism spreading throughout Italy. Long story short, living through World War II and the rest of the 20th century, she became a maestra in cooking, both Italian and French styles alike. She can make a stew that would leave your mouth watering for days, using only a bit of this and that left in some corner of the fridge–stuff that one would think twice before giving to the dog. Or the hog for that matter.
And that one day when I slept at her place on my journey south, she made gnocchi. Is that plural for gnoccho? It does not actually matter at all as one usually doesn’t eat only one, let alone make only one. Like spaghetti I guess.
We had a nice morning together preparing the gnocchi. Actually, she did the preparing. I was sipping coffee, taking pictures, asking silly questions and learning about her youth and all during World War II and such. Eventually we had an equally nice lunch with some family who arrived later.
The Simple Art of Gnocchi
But enough of my blathering and on to the recipe:
- 500 Grams Potatoes (“the good kind” said she, although what the good kind is wasn’t very clear to me, although you would notice when it is not the good kind…)
- One egg
- Wooden Cutting Board
That’s it. When she told me the ingredients I thought, “There must be a trick.” And there is. Apparently the tricky part is to use the correct amount of flour. And she says, the best way to make homemade pasta, gnocchi and such is on a wooden board, not on a plate or plastic or anything like that. And above all you must use your hands!
Now get down to it.
Boil the potatoes whole with the skin, as it does help to keep the potatoes from taking too much water inside them. Anyway it is not too hard to peel them afterward, but do use a fork as they are hot potatoes when they come out of the water (breaking news, huh?) and you need them luke warm to perform the rest of the recipe.
Mash the potatoes with some modern instrument which is more advanced than just a fork (I know, I also make my mashed potatoes with a fork because I like to have a few lumps in them…), but for gnocchi you need them as smooth as possible. Have a look at the pictures to see what I mean.
On the wooden board make a volcano of potatoes and break the egg into the center of it, add a bit of flower and start mixing everything with your hands, yeps, with the hands! I already said that.
Now is the tricky part: progressively add more flower while you mix, as if you were making bread, but do not use too much! Grandma’s typical advice: “Put some of it in, but not too much, just enough.”
When satisfied take some of the dough (can you call that a dough?) and shape it as a long, er, thing with the diameter of your choice, like say your thumb. Then cut this thumb-sized dough in small bits. Put a bit of flour on top to avoid it sticking everywhere.
And now for grandma’s secret: to have the gnocchi shaped and textured properly (the right texture being important for them to keep the sauce on top of them) you need to use a cheese grating device. Who would have thought?! By rolling them inside the cheese grater you’ll create the slug-like shape and the intricate surface features that will capture small amounts of sauce. Of course it requires a bit of training to achieve a suitable size, shape and texture but, hey, you have all morning right? Anyhow if you do things properly your sauce must have been cooking for four to five to six hours, plenty of time to play with the little slugs of dough…
Cooking them is easy, in a very big pot of boiling water (salted) they are ready when they start floating. You can use a “passoire” to get them.
Now serve in a big plate with grated parmesiano, and a healthy glass of Italian or French red wine. Buon appetito!