For gnoc­chi suc­cess, start with ri­cotta

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOOD - DAVID TANIS

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.

KARSTEN MORAN, NYT

Ri­cotta gnoc­chi with pars­ley pesto, topped with pis­ta­chios and cheese.

KARSTEN MORAN, NYT

A be­gin­ner’s at­tempts of­ten pro­duce tough, chewy re­sults, but with prac­tice, novices can gain the feel of mak­ing lovely, ten­der gnoc­chi.

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