For gnocchi success, start with ricotta
Gnocchi, those savoury little dumplings, are frequently offered as a first course in Italian restaurants, as an alternative to a pasta course.
Other times, a larger portion may make a fine hot lunch, or just a few gnocchi can round out a main course, sidled up to a saucy braised veal shank.
The secret to making magnificent, tender gnocchi at home is the same as the old punch line about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.
This is especially true with potato gnocchi; a beginner’s attempts usually produce tough, chewy specimens. Overhandled dough and too much added flour may be the culprits, but in truth, there is a learning curve. Expertise is achieved only by repetition, until you acquire the feel for it.
There are, however, many other kinds of traditional Italian gnocchi that don’t use potatoes at all. Gnocchi alla Romana, for example, is a golden, crisp-topped baked dish made with slices of cooked semolina splashed with cream, butter and cheese. That kind is easier to execute.
And most home cooks can find success making ricotta gnocchi which, at their best, can be exceedingly light and delicate (and still pretty darned good even when they’re not completely perfect). They are made from ricotta and eggs, a touch of Parmesan and a handful of flour.
Good, fresh ricotta is critical. Use the very best you can find, typically at good Italian delis or well-stocked cheese shops. (The grainy, low-fat commercial type doesn’t qualify here.) Drain your ricotta well before making the recipe, or the dough will be too wet. Put it in a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl, for several hours or overnight. You will be surprised by how much liquid whey seeps out. I sometimes drink a glass of it (highly nutritious) or save it to use in soups or smoothies.
When mixing the dough for ricotta gnocchi — it’s really more like a stiff batter — add the least amount of flour possible. The ethereal custardy ricotta gnocchi served at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco have no flour at all, and the dough must be dropped by the spoonful into simmering water. Those are the lightest ricotta dumplings I know.
But I learned in Italy that adding a small amount (quarter- to halfcup) of all-purpose flour to the dough and using fine semolina flour for dusting the work surface makes it possible to roll the dough into long ropes. Use scissors to snip them into gnocchi shapes. I let the shaped gnocchi rest on a semolinadusted baking sheet for an hour before cooking, but it’s fine to skip that step.
Ricotta gnocchi are wonderful served in broth or with a light tomato sauce. Another classic preparation has them swimming in butter with sage leaves. But my latest favourite version is to sauce them with a simple parsley pesto, and to finish with a shower of chopped pistachios and Parmesan.
Ricotta Gnocchi with Parsley Pesto MAKES 6 TO 8 SERVINGS
1 pound fresh ricotta, about 2 cups, drained well Salt and pepper 3 or 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan, plus more for serving 2 eggs, beaten ¼ to ½ cup all-purpose flour, as needed Fine semolina flour or rice flour, for dusting 3 cups flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems 1 small garlic clove, minced ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil 3 tbsp unsalted butter ¼ cup toasted pistachios, roughly chopped for garnish
Total time: 40 minutes, plus chilling 1. Put ricotta in a large mixing bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Whisk in Parmesan and taste. The mixture should be well seasoned. Add eggs and mix well, then sprinkle in ¼ cup flour and stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate. You should have a soft, rather sticky dough. Dump dough onto a clean work surface. Add a little more flour if necessary and pat very lightly to form a soft mass.
2. Test the dough: bring a saucepan of well-salted water to a boil. Take 1 tablespoon of dough and drop into water. Dough should sink to the bottom, then rise to the surface. Let simmer one minute, then remove and taste. If the dumpling keeps its shape, continue to Step 3. If it falls apart, add a little more flour to the dough, but carefully: if you add too much, the gnocchi will be stodgy.
3. Dust dough lightly with semolina, then cut it into four equal parts. Dust work surface with semolina. With your hands flat, gently roll each piece into a rope about ¾-inch in diameter and 12 inches long. Keep sprinkling semolina on dough to keep it from sticking to the counter or your hands.
4. Using scissors or a sharp, thinbladed knife, cut each log into 12 pieces. Dust bottom of a baking sheet with semolina. Transfer gnocchi with a spatula to baking sheet, leaving space between them so they are not touching. Refrigerate, uncovered, for one hour (or leave in a cool room).
5. To make the parsley pesto, put parsley, garlic, olive oil and butter in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly, then blend to a rough purée. Taste and season with salt and pepper. You should have about 1 cup of pesto, more than you need for this recipe. Leftover pesto can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen for up to a month.
6. Place a large pot of well-salted water over high heat and bring to a boil. Add gnocchi, working in batches, if necessary. When they bob to the surface, let them cook for about two minutes and lift them from the pot with a slotted spoon or spider, transferring gnocchi to a large, wide skillet. Add 4 to 6 tablespoons of pesto and ½ cup pasta cooking water to skillet and swirl pan to coat gnocchi.
7. Serve gnocchi in warmed individual shallow soup bowls or a deep, wide platter. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and dust with Parmesan. Pass more grated Parmesan separately.
Ricotta gnocchi with parsley pesto, topped with pistachios and cheese.
A beginner’s attempts often produce tough, chewy results, but with practice, novices can gain the feel of making lovely, tender gnocchi.