Here’s the question: How can you eat a proper meal in this heat? Meals are too important to skip. They’re part of the rhythm of life and an occasion to sit with family and friends, to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. Whether it’s a quick stop at a falafel stand or a four-course meal around a table set with white tablecloth and fine silver, we need to eat – for body and soul.
It’s easier on cold and dreary days, since we tend to stay inside and have more time to slice, fry, boil and bake, and to bring hot meals to the table. But in the summer, when a heat wave strikes, all you want is to find a bit of shade and some water. No one has much energy for cooking elaborate meals.
Luckily, the Italians created gnocchi. These dumplings are easily picked up by the fork and quickly absorb the flavor of whatever sauce you care to add. A little butter or fresh tomato, some basil leaves or shredded olives will do the trick. Add a glass of chilled white wine and a crisp green salad, and you’ve got a delicious light meal that won’t weigh you down in the heat.
If this dish had been created recently by some celebrity chef, it would surely have been given a suitably lofty name. But gnocchi literally just means “lumps” or “pieces.” This is what the Italians call these soft and airy little dumplings made of potato and a little flour, which cook very briefly in boiling water and are then coated with, perhaps, a tomato and cream sauce, or just a bit of sage butter.
Gnocchi are best eaten immediately after being cooked and mixed with their sauce. Nothing is sadder than dried-out or reheated gnocchi. The potatoes used to make the gnocchi should first be baked in the oven (or even a campfire). If boiled, they’ll be too moist, absorb too much of the flour and become overly heavy.
The potatoes should also be mashed by hand and not with an electric appliance, which will break down the starch and create a sticky paste rather than soft and airy dough. The amount of flour in the recipe will never be precise, since different varieties of potato absorb flour differently. But try it a couple of times and you’ll soon get the hang of it.
If you’re worried that the dough won’t cohere and will come apart when cooked, perform an experiment – shape a small bit of the dough into a ball and put it in the pot of boiling water before you commence making all the gnocchi. If it maintains its shape after cooking, there is enough flour in the dough.
Classic potato gnocchi (serves 4-6)
1 kg. potatoes with red peel
0.5 kg. coarse salt
2 egg yolks
200-250 gr. white flour
3 liters water
1 tbsp. sea salt
3 tbsp. vegetable oil
Rinse and dry the potatoes well. Sprinkle a baking pan all over with the coarse salt and place the potatoes in the center of the pan. Put in a preheated 250 degrees Celsius (480 degrees Fahrenheit) oven and bake for an hour, until the potatoes are soft when poked with a sharp knife. The baking time may be a bit longer – it depends on the freshness of the potatoes.
Remove the pan from the oven, scrape off the salt that has stuck to the peel and let the potatoes cool a bit. Peel the potatoes and mash in a bowl using a fork or vegetable masher. Do not use a food processor or any other electric appliance.
Add the egg yolks and mix with a spoon until they are completely absorbed in the potatoes. Season with a little salt. Gradually add the flour, a little at a time, until you have a soft and airy dough that’s not too sticky. Knead by hand, with circular motions, until the flour is completely absorbed. Over-kneading will make the texture too dense and sticky.
Flour a working surface. Shape a ball of dough the size of a tennis ball. Roll it out on the work surface into a long cylinder that’s 1.5 centimeters (0.6 inches) in diameter. Cut the dough into slices that are 6-7 millimeters thick and roll each into a concave and elongated shape. If you wish, you can cut thicker pieces of dough on a diagonal to get plumper gnocchi. Repeat this process with the rest of the dough and leave the gnocchi on the floured surface until ready to cook.
Bring the water to a boil in a wide pot and add the salt and oil. Gently transfer the gnocchi to the boiling water, one batch at a time, and cook for about 2 minutes until the gnocchi float. Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer directly into a bowl with the sauce.
For classic gnocchi with butter and sage: Melt 75 grams of butter in a skillet over a medium flame. Add 7-8 sage leaves and two sliced garlic cloves, and let them brown in the butter. Season with salt and pepper and a little nutmeg. Transfer the cooked gnocchi to the hot butter and sauté briefly until they are completely coated and golden. Serve immediately with a glass of chilled white wine.
Gnocchi with prosciutto and kale
Photo by Dan Perez
A tasty summery version of gnocchi. I prefer to use the curly dinosaur kale (also known as black kale), but any kind will do. You can also substitute thin slices of roast beef, bacon, pastrami or even salami for the prosciutto, as long as you add a little more fat – either butter or olive oil – to the skillet.
2 tbsp. olive oil
12-15 thin slices of prosciutto
12-15 dinosaur kale leaves
0.5 cup toasted almonds (optional)
Half the amount of gnocchi from previous recipe
Atlantic sea salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil over a high heat in a wide and deep skillet. Add the slices of prosciutto and let them get seared in the heat. Trim the stiff stalks from the kale and tear the leaves into small 5x5 centimeter pieces. Add them to the pan and sauté until the leaves soften a little. Crumble the almonds a little and add them.
Once the almonds are coated with the oil, add the gnocchi that have just been cooked.
Season with salt and pepper, and sauté all together until the gnocchi are nicely golden. Serve immediately with a glass of white wine. You can also add a little of the wine to the pan during the cooking to help soften the kale.