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Italy Roundtable: Zen and the Art of Making Gnocchi

This is the tenth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some caramel corn, and join in on the conversation.

Roots

I just woke up one day and knew it was time. I mean, you can only live in fear for so long. You can only avoid your demons for so long. You can only exist in a state of denial, shame, and self-imposed existential isolation for so long. At a certain point, it’s time to stand up and take back your life.

It was time to make gnocchi.

Yes, okay, I know. I’ve been living in Italy for almost twenty years and I’ve never had the courage to make gnocchi. There are a few dishes I’ve never made in all my years here for the simple reason that I have access to a number of elderly country ladies who are masters at dishes like torta al testo, torta di formaggio, and tagliatelle. So, when I have a hankering, it’s just plain easier to ask one of the zie to whip them up for me than go to the trouble of making it myself. Plus, it totally makes their day (Week. Month. Year.). I figure that when they start dying off on me, I’ll go to the trouble of learning their secrets myself.

This is not the case with gnocchi. I don’t know any older Umbrian women who are particularly talented at gnocchi, which is not a traditional dish in Umbria. Sure, they can throw a bowl of them together under duress, but it’s clearly not their piatto forte. Which is probably the very same reason that I’ve been avoiding making them for all these years. I mean, if Zia Anna—who can almost single-handedly butcher an entire pig and cook up its entrails into something enticing in her 300-year-old wood burning oven in the farmyard out back—can’t make a decent plate of gnocchi, it must be incredibly tricky, right?

But then a couple of things happened. One is that my friend and professional chef Jennifer started shaming me almost daily about it. It was bordering on a bullying-like situation. My self-esteem was beginning to suffer. And then–to rub salt in the wound–Jennifer showed wine blogger Mary Cressler how to make gnocchi in roughly 37 seconds, and Mary went home to make a perfect pot of gnocchi on her first go with complete nonchalance. Nonchalance, I say. And Mary had been in Umbria for all of five days. I’ve been here for 19 years.

It was humiliating.

As a final catalyst, there was the looming monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, with the appalling theme of “roots”. Whoever came up with that idea is clearly a raving idiot (yes, it was me). But then the lightbulb clicked on. Roots! Potatoes are root vegetables! And potatoes are the main ingredient of gnocchi! I would make gnocchi!

Let the record show that when I said those exact same words to Jennifer over the phone, it was met with a disconcerting silence. The life of a genious is a lonely one, my friends.

So gnocchi it was. I was stoked. Ready. Yet potato-less.

Yes, potato-less. You’d think that living on a farm would guarantee a virtual endless supply of basic foodstuffs like eggs, potatoes, and grappa…but we had finished the potatoes from last year and the spring spuds aren’t ready yet. So, I called Jennifer back to ask what kind of potatoes I should buy from the grocery store.

The words grocery store were met with a disconcerting silence.

Which is why I found myself driving around the Umbrian countryside in search of a farm truck hawking locally grown potatoes. Because if my first go at gnocchi was going to crash and burn, it wasn’t going to be because I had the wrong damn potatoes. Luckily, I came upon a truck pretty quickly and the guy there had bagged me up a couple of potatoes when I mentioned I was making gnocchi with them. At which point he snatched the bag out of my hands and dumped them back in bin with a look like I was the biggest cretin who had ever pulled over next to his pick-up. “Why didn’t you say so? You don’t need the Colfiorito reds, then. You’ll be wanting the Avezzano browns. They’re grown in the sandy soil along the river.” Ah. I nodded wisely. He went on to discuss the merits of making gnocchi with potatoes from Avezzano for several minutes. Other clients chimed in. Advice and warnings were given.  Pointers. Tips. Trouble-shooting solutions. None of which were particularly encouraging.

I got back home assembled the rest of the ingredients, according to what Jennifer had told me over the phone:

  • Four to six potatoes. I’m not even going to try to tell you what kind. Ask your farm truck guy.
  • An egg, slightly beaten with a fork.
  • Four to five cups of flour. Have five ready just in case.
  • A small handful of grated parmesan cheese.
  • Salt. (I forgot to put the salt in and they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the salt thing.)

And then I took about 20 minutes to decide on what music I wanted to listen to while I cooked. Because my priorities are straight.

I washed the potatoes and put them in a pot of salted water, brought it to a boil, and then lowered the heat to a simmer and, in theory, let the potatoes cook until fork-tender. What really happened was that I got distracted by this singularly hilarious blog post by my friend Michelle, which pulled me down the rabbit hole of capes, Borsellinos, and cigars until I suddenly realized that I had probably overboiled the potatoes. As it turns out, they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the overboiling thing.

I drained and peeled the potatoes (while roughly still the temperature of the surface of the sun) and then went to pick my sons up from school. I wanted to involve them in the gnocchi-making process, as it involves a) the food mill (big fun); b) mixing dough by hand (bigger fun); and c) rolling out snakes and cutting them into pieces (playdoh-level fun). And, of course, if my first go at gnocchi was going to crash and burn, I could blame them.

When we all got home, we put the cooled potatoes through the mill, then made a well with about three cups of the flour and added the potatoes, beaten egg, and cheese. My sons took turns mixing and mashing it all together, gradually adding more flour until the dough wasn’t sticky. My gut feeling is that we worked the dough a little too much (My turn now! No, let me knead it now!) but as it turns out, they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the kneading thing.

The boys broke off chunks of dough to roll into snakes, which they then cut into the classic little pillow-shaped squares. I kind of gave them free reign at this point, which risulted in a hodge-podge of sizes, shapes, and scored vs. unscored gnocchi on our final tray. But we’re less about form and more about function at our table.

It was time for the reckoning. I cooked the gnocchi in two batches in a large pot of salted, boiling water so they wouldn’t stick together (they only take a couple of minutes to rise to the surface after you dump them in, so it’s easy to keep the first batch warm while you quickly cook the second) and dressed them with our own pesto, which we make in summer and freeze to use the rest of the year.  They looked pretty good…they had retained their shape (a promising sign that they wouldn’t be too mushy) but also swelled just slightly while cooking (a promising sign that they wouldn’t be too tough).

And it was underwhelming. I mean, not the gnocchi. The gnocchi were fabulous. Perfect. Despite a strong probability that we used the wrong potatoes, despite forgetting the salt, despite slightly overboiling the potatoes, kneading the dough to death, and having made no two the same size.

Which just goes to show you. Sometimes the secret to success is not sweating the small stuff.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

 

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