For the current edition of Cook the Books, we are reading Heat by Bill Buford. The book's subtitle, An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, aptly describes what the book is about. Before reading Heat, I knew Bill Buford as the editor of Granta (which he relaunched in 1979), a position he held until 1995, and as fiction editor of The New Yorker. I knew that I liked Buford's writing style. My favorite parts of the book are those where he describes himself dealing with the tasks he is given, like when he browns ribs and burns himself with hot oil (pages 72-73). Less interesting, in my opinion, are the parts where he talks about Mario Batali and other mercurial characters.
I see the book mostly as the story of satisfying an obsession or two, so it inspired me not so much to cook anything mentioned in it, but rather to explore an idea I had had for a while — a small, harmless obsession. Ever since I read how Haalo of Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once had made potato gnocchi using pink-fleshed Viking potatoes, I had been hoping to get my hands on the same or a similar kind of potato (patata).
Gnocchi di patate being one of my mother's specialties, the recipe I have been using since I started making them in my kitchen is hers. She gave me the recipe, i.e., the quantity of potatoes and flour she used, and I drew upon my memories of seeing her making gnocchi to produce my own. When I embarked in the adventure of the colorful gnocchi, I knew that not all potatoes work well as an ingredient for the dish, and I expected to have to make adjustments to the pattern that I had learned.
The subject of gnocchi actually comes up in Heat. On pages 138-9, Batali tells the audience of an episode of his TV show how to make gnocchi (tells, as opposed to explains). In particular, he
tells you that the lumpies will be fully cooked not when they float to the top, as most people incorrectly believe (have you held such a belief?), but only when "they're aggressively trying to get out of the pot" (whereupon everyone lifts up slightly from their stools, hoping to get a glimpse of what gnocchi look like when they are behaving like lobsters thrashing for their survival)...
Nobody apparently asked for more details, and this recipe "courtesy of Mario Batali" actually instructs to take the gnocchi out of the water as they float to the top.
This being an obsession, albeit a mild one, I tried several variations in terms of potatoes (all red Red Rose first, then deep-purple Purple Majesty, all from Warren Creek Farms), of cooking method (baked naked, baked wrapped in foil, microwaved) and of amount of flour. The one thing where I did not change was the list of ingredients: potatoes, flour and a bit of salt. (Just to be clear: no eggs.)
I think that a list of all the different variations I tried would be rather boring, so I'll just share with you the last incarnation of my search for the right balance of flour. For the gnocchi in the photo, I cooked 3 Purple Majesty potatoes, weighing 1 lb and 2 oz (500 g). When I make gnocchi for guests, I cook a kilo of potatoes, but when I make experiments, I make half a batch.
As you can also read on this page, water in the potatoes must be balanced with flour, so the less water, the less flour you need, the lighter the gnocchi will be. Adding flour is a bit of a balancing act: not enough and your gnocchi will disintegrate in the water; too much and they will be pasty. I have been baking potatoes to make gnocchi for years. However, I have found that baking can lead to hardened spots that must be removed. The quest for the cooking method that would dry the potato without making hard spots, brought me to try the pre-set potato program on my microwave, whose cooking time is 3'55". Cooking the potatoes in the microwave, one at a time, scrubbed, pierced in a few places with a blade (to avoid explosion), and wrapped in a paper towel, gave me an unexpectedly good result. The potatoes were cooked evenly, without hard spots, without any water added, and in less time than in the oven.
Once the potatoes are cooked, peel them as soon as you can handle them, taking care to remove only the thin skin layer, cut them in half and push one piece at a time through a potato ricer (schiacciapatate) into a bowl — trying to rice a whole potato caused damage to my previous ricer, so I am sharing the lesson I learned. Let the potatoes cool thoroughly, then add 50 g of flour (a bit less than 2 oz.) and a pinch of salt. Mix in the bowl with a fork, then finish on the kneading board (spianatoia), without overworking the dough. Divide the dough into four pieces and let it rest for a while.
Roll each piece of dough into a rope about 3/4" in diameter and use a knife to cut it into 3/4" long pieces. I use my thumb to make an indentation in each piece while I roll it over the back of a flat cheese grater. I have seen boards that help you make lovely gnocchi, but for now, I am attached to what I have seen used as a child.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and add some coarse sea salt. Slide 12 gnocchi or so into the water and wait until they all surface. Keep the water at a nice, though not furious, boil. Wait until they all float steadily on the surface, not bobbing up and down. Use a slotted spoon (schiumarola) to fish the floating gnocchi out of the pot and place them into a bowl covered with a lid to keep them warm. Do not let your attention wander during this phase. Repeat the tossing-waiting-fishing routine until all gnocchi are cooked. Add the chosen dressing, toss lightly with a spoon and serve immediately.
My favorite dressing for gnocchi is a simple tomato sauce with basil, but, based on experience, I know that it does not make for a nice photo when the gnocchi are pink, and I can imagine that with purple gnocchi it would be the same. Hence, for the occasion, I dressed the gnocchi with 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of butter melted in a pan with two leaves of fresh sage and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The balance of flavors was right and the texture of gnocchi was satisfying. That doesn't mean my obsession is over, but only that it has found a momentary satisfaction.
This is my contribution to the current edition of Cook the Books, hosted by Johanna of Food Junkie not Junk Food. You can find the guidelines for participating in the event here, and here is the announcement.
This post has the roundup of the event.
I will neither quote Dante (not my favorite subject in school), nor sing arias from Italian operas (though there are many I love, and we just saw a fabulous production of Aida). However, as usual, you can click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the gnocchi di patate viola audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]