Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gnocchi with red pepper cream sauce

Staples: AP flour, salt

I first went to Italy when I was 16 on a family vacation. We spent three or four nights in Rome, and we went to the same restaurant for every dinner. Stupid Americans, I'm sure, but it didn't matter; the service was great, we got tons of free food, and it was all delicious. Most importantly, it was there that I had my first encounter with gnocchi. Little potato pillows of heaven, they were, and it was love at first bite. I ordered them every night.

When I decided to do a summer study abroad in Italy, I'm 99% positive it was that dish alone that made me choose Rome over the more popular Florence trip. Oh, I said it was that I wanted to be in a big city and loved the ancient history and blah blah blah, but really, I'm pretty sure it was the gnocchi.

I ate like a queen for 6 weeks. Youngest child that I am, I proclaimed a dish "mine" at each restaurant we frequented (and frequent, we did. I don't think we went anywhere just once): the arugula salad with bresaola, honey, and parmigiano-reggiano at the pretty, five-table ristorante a block away from our market; the pizza bianca at the little shop around the corner from the American University of Rome; the bread with ricotta salata and fig jam at the deli near the Spanish steps; the pizza diavola at the train-themed (?) trattoria across the street from our apartment (which I incessantly referred to as "the neighborhood joint" and forced my roommates to enjoy at least weekly); etc.

That's me at the deli with ricotta salata!

Then, all of a sudden, it was time to go home, and I hadn't been back to the restaurant from my family trip. I walked by just to make sure it was still there, but I could never convince my friends to go. (I'm going to blame it on the high prices, but more likely it was because I had exhausted them with my pleas for dinner at the neighborhood joint.)

Fortunately, I was still able to get my fill of gnocchi. I thought I didn't like pesto; then I had it fresh. . . on gnocchi. . . in Riomaggiore - one of the five towns in Cinque Terre, in the Liguria region, which is famous for its pesto. . . sigh. Provoked by my oohs and aahs, one of my Italian professors proclaimed that she knew how to MAKE gnocchi and would teach us in our tiny European kitchen. Aside from the homemade gnocchi's deliciousness, all I really remember from that experience was how easy it was.

Well, let me tell you, it's not.

It is really labor-intensive and kind of stressful, especially when you study recipes beforehand that all scream "potato ricer needed!" and warn against overworking and gumminess. I knew that my teensy tiny Italian kitchen did NOT come complete with a potato ricer, so I forged ahead with a fork, mashing the potatoes as little as possible and being careful to add only enough flour to bring the dough together.

But as I felt the lumps in my gnocchi ropes, it all came flooding back. I tried to make these bitches for my family when I got back that summer, and it was a disaster. In fact, I remembered that after rolling and cutting all the individual gnocchi, I put one in the pot and it disintegrated, and I was forced to throw all the gnocchi back into a bowl and add more flour. Oy.

Lumps aside, though, they came out pretty good. I don't think they'd win any awards, but they're pretty light and soft, and I liked their chew (I'm not going to go as far as to say that they weren't gummy, but it didn't bother me). With the sauce and the cheese, they were a pretty satisfying meal.

At the very least, they were a good catalyst for some fun reminiscing. . . only now, all I want is dinner at the neighborhood joint.

Gnocchi with red pepper cream sauce
Serves 3

1 lb russet potatoes
2/3-1 cup AP flour
1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 cup milk

Prepare gnocchi: Wash potatoes and prick all over. Microwave for about 10 minute or until a knife goes through with no resistance. While still hot, peel the potatoes (be careful not to burn your fingers) and mash them with a fork, fluffing as you go along. Add salt and 2/3 cup flour. Continue adding flour, a little at a time until the dough can be formed into a ball. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes. Pinch off a handful and roll into a 1/2 in diameter rope. Cut 1/2 inch long pieces. Roll pieces over the back of the tines of a fork to make ridges (optional). Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and set aside.* Put about a quart of salted water on to boil.

Make sauce: Mix roasted red pepper and sundried tomato sauce and milk together in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until gnocchi are ready.

Cook gnocchi: When water boils, add 5-10 gnocchi. One minute after gnocchi rise to the top of the water, remove and place in the sauce. Continue in batches until all gnocchi is cooked and sauced. Divide into three serving dishes and top with cheese (I used fontina but parmesan would be great).

* At this point, the gnocchi can be frozen for later. Place gnocchi in a single layer on a plate or cookie sheet and freeze, then move to a Ziploc bag. Cook from frozen.

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