No doubt we are all well accustomed to the notion of comfort food. We all reach for its warm familiararity in times of stress, sickness or even in good health. My belief is that people are blueprinted with this comfort reaction which manifests itself in food, after all it’s what we all seem to return to when consoling someone who is ill & what we expect others to do for us when we are similarly disposed.
Our family tonight has finally been collectively scythed down like barley stalks in a swaying field with the most persistent & determined virus, their workings, movements & speech clogged up by some phlegmy quicksand. Still valiantly untroubled & constitutionally robust (even though I have a reoccurring chest rattle, a major hindrance for an asthmatic) I swoop in & gallantly corral the unruly rabble of ingredients in the pantry to morph into a proverbial lullaby of soothing & sensory appeasing bites with each incremental taste, acting like a pacifying salve.
‘What dish?’ I hear you enquire, breathless with wonder & bewilderment.
And before you can all incant, nodding your heads knowingly, Spag bol, Lasagna or Minestrone you are wrong but your choice of country & its cucina is on the Lire.
Ours was in fact Gnocchi.
In Ghosts Of Apprenticeships Past, Italian waiters I knew said that ‘Gnocchi’ meant ‘simpleton’ & was a dumpling made from mostly potato & flour but could also be made from semolina or even polenta., either way it was a simple dough & to borrow a phrase from the tobacco lobby, was a ‘sauce delivery device’.
Gnocchi, being so simple are of course prone to over working by people intellectualizing them to the point where they bear little or no resemblance to their forbears. We in this day & age are fanatical about one particular aspect of their manufacture & though I don’t have hard evidence to underpin why we are so, it seems ‘lightness’ is the divine character most eagerly sought. Notwithstanding my own recipe is very light & adheres to the a la mode doctrine but this is by chance more than by slavishly following the perceived convention.
I served it simply with nut brown butter fried sage leaves, cooked pumpkin, onion dice, slivers of garlic & peas, reduced with cream & enriched with grated parmesan & is simpatico personified plus.
For gnocchi that a Nonna would be envious, start with potatoes that are NOT waxy or starchy. Many people overcomplicate the method mostly due to improvable notions that may have worked once so they became the benchmark for future renditions that in turn become part of folklore. I have dispensed with the action of rolling a fork along the gnocchi, which act as 'sauce catchers' & look nice but are not only un-necessary but add another step in their process.
Once cooked well, drain the spuds & let dry until they are soft & chalky to touch.
Mince through a potato ‘Ricer’ or ‘Moule’ to break up the starch. Transfer to a mixing bowl with a dough hook & mix a third of the volume of spud to strong flour, preferably Durum wee & a good pinch of salt. Mix slowly & evenly until all the flour is incorporated. Check this by dropping the unconvincingly mixed blob into the boiling salted water, should it not go to mush is a good sign!
Special note: Don’t over mix as this will develop the gluten in the flour which will give your gnocchi the characteristically glueyness that many people associate with not only poorly made gnocchi, but gnocchi in general.
I put my gnocchi mix into a piping bag & over a bowl of tumbling boiling water I squeeze the bag until a tube of mix spurts through. Using a sharp small knife I slash the spurting tube of mix into similarly shaped tubes which then fall into the boiling salted water. When they rise I scoop them out & ‘refresh’ them into ultra chilled water. You might find your gnocchi has ‘furry’ bits of unevenness along their lengths; these will harden up in cold water. Let then cool completely before reheating them in boiling water, then the sauce. You are ready to serve!
This particular meal was met with Mona Lisa smiles of contentment which permeated throughout our whole, cold little house, them first respite for the evening until the heaters kicked in!