For most of us growing up in America, Italian food has usually meant Italian-American food, hearty and delicious, but not especially complex or subtle. Increasingly, though, authentic Italian cooking is changing how we think about Italian cuisine. As with French food, there are distinct regional differences, and some of the most memorable dishes are made with a handful of well chosen ingredients, perfectly prepared. Just as important is the sense of hospitality and comfort that is part and parcel to this cuisine.
A dinner at Eataly Chicago made me think about what I like best in Italian food – beautiful food meant to be shared in each other’s company. When we started thinking about a way to convey how much we enjoyed our experience at Eataly, gnocchi came to mind pretty quickly.
In Italy, gnocchi are made from an array of flours or with potato, but here in the United States, most people think of gnocchi as potato based. We’ve made potato-based gnocchi here on Blue Kitchen, but this weekend, we were thinking about a different take – something a little more interesting. Sweet potato seemed the right approach – a warm, rustic flavor that speaks to cozy winter evenings at home with good friends.
Making any gnocchi is a meditative process. It’s not difficult or miserable – it just needs to be done in its own way. You can’t rush it, you can’t skip steps, you need to just relax your mind and enjoy the ride. At the end you have a dish that is at once humble, beautiful, inviting and convivial. The very essence of Italian cuisine.
Here are four tips for making sweet potato gnocchi (or any potato gnocchi):
1. This recipe takes time. If you want a pasta you can bang out for a quick, tasty mid-week dinner, try this ziti with sausage and fennel or, if you want a dish that is really elegant but you’ve been at the office all day, try duck breasts with raspberries.
2. Bake the sweet potatoes. Don’t boil them or steam them or microwave them. Baking intensifies their flavor and reduces the moisture.
3. Do not skip the part where you drain the ricotta. That takes at least two hours. On the other hand, while you’re waiting, you could watch two episodes of "Orange is the New Black," or you could memorize the Gettysburg Address, or you could practice your latest tap steps.
4. After you make the dough, and before you roll it out, let it rest for five minutes. This gives the gluten a chance to develop, helping the gnocchi hold together better when you are rolling them out and forming them.
Making these is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
(Recipe next page)
Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Wilted Kale
Serves 4 to 6 (with leftover gnocchi to freeze for a future meal)
For the gnocchi:
1 cup ricotta
2 cups baked, mashed sweet potatoes (from about 1-1/2 pounds sweet potatoes)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1-1/4 to 2 cups flour
For the wilted kale:
8 ounces kale, ribs removed and torn into small pieces
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1. First, put the ricotta in a fine sieve and set it over a large bowl. Let it drain for at least two hours. Some ricottas will give up a lot of moisture, some will give up only a little. Don’t worry, be happy.
2. Meanwhile, bake the potatoes. Cut them in half lengthwise, rub them all over with olive oil, and bake them cut sides up on a cookie sheet or pizza pan until they are soft when you pierce them with a fork, about 30 minutes. Take them out of the oven and let them cool completely. When they are cool, scoop the soft flesh out of the skins, measure out 2 cups worth, put in a medium mixing bowl and mash thoroughly so the sweet potatoes are smooth and even. Don’t purée them in a processor or a blender! That will make them gluey. (The skins are edible and super healthy – save them for an informal snack.) Add the ricotta and mix well. Then stir in the beaten egg, salt and grated cheese.
3. Now the dramatic part. Start adding flour. Your goal is pillowy, fluffy, light gnocchi. In making the dough, you need to strike a balance between wetness and dryness. You may make dough that is very easy to handle, roll, and to cut into pieces, but that dough will most likely yield gnocchi that are bouncy dense rubber balls. For this recipe, I found that about 1-3/4 cups of flour was the right amount. Depending on how moist your ingredients are, you may need more – some recipes with this volume of sweet potato use as much as 2-1/2 cups of flour. This was the gauge I used: the dough was ready it was still sticky, but had formed a soft mass and was starting to pull away from the sides of the bowl – and when, in the next step, I rolled a part of it on the counter top, it willingly formed a rope shape, and then was willing to be cut into pieces that just barely held their pillow shape.
4. When the dough seems to have reached this point, set a timer for 5 minutes and just walk away. Come back when the timer rings, flour a work surface and put the dough on one side of it. Cut it into four equal pieces. Place one of the pieces on the floured surface, lightly flour your hands, and roll the dough into a snake about 20 inches long. If the dough doesn’t cooperate – if it still handles like gunk – then put it all back in the bowl, add a little more flour and gently try again. (Also, when rolling out the rope, do not try to pick it up – it doesn’t have tensile strength.) Cut the dough into pieces about one inch long and set each piece on a lightly floured board, cookie sheet or plate. Each piece will look like a charming little puffy pillow. Do the same with the other three sections. You should have about 50 to 60 gnocchi.
6. Next: the dents. The classic treatment for gnocchi is to roll each one on the tines of a fork to give it the traditional deeply scored lines. I raked a fork across the tops instead. Some cooks prefer to simply dent the gnocchi with a thumb, and next time I am going to try that approach.
7. Once all the gnocchi are prepared, they are ready to cook. At this point, you may freeze some of them for future use (stack them in a freezer bag, interlayered with wax paper).
8. When you are ready to cook them, heat 3 quarts of salted water to a simmer. Gently slide the gnocchi into the water, about 12 at a time. (If you put them all in at once, the water will stop boiling and the gnocchi will stick together in a hideous mass.) Some recipes that I looked at call for the gnocchi to be cooked for a minute or less. I just do not get that. I found that anything less than 4 minutes left them raw in the middle. When the gnocchi begin to float up to the top, test one – cut it in half and taste to see if it is cooked through. Take them out of the water with a slotted spoon and reserve in a bowl, covering them with foil.
9. Once the gnocchi are all cooked, they are ready to serve. But I thought they had a pale, weird look, so I took one more step, sautéing them for a minute or two in a little butter to lightly brown them. It improved their looks quite a bit and gave them a lovely nutty flavor. Do this step last, just as the kale is finishing cooking.
10. Meanwhile, prepare the kale. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a big, deep nonstick skillet. Add the garlic and shallot and sauté until the shallot is translucent – about 90 seconds. Add the kale and toss with a pair of spatulas so that it is all coated with the olive oil. Salt lightly. Sauté until the kale has wilted down and cooked through, but is still bright green, about two or three minutes. Scatter the pepper flakes over the kale and continue sautéing for a little longer. Sprinkle on the lemon juice, toss again, and the kale is ready.
Plate by making a bed of the kale, then embedding the gnocchi in the kale. Six or seven gnocchi is a good serving size.
This simple wilted kale preparation may take the lead on its own for a quick weeknight meal, along with a tubular pasta or brown rice. A little Parmesan cheese wouldn’t be wrong.
These gnocchi also lend themselves to many accompaniments. Many people like them with browned butter and sage. I was really surprised to see how many recipes out there pair sweet potato gnocchi with flavors like maple, cinnamon, honey, and apple cider. Because the gnocchi are so sweet, I recommend steering away from other sweet things and toward flavors that are bitter, like kale or escarole, or earthy and savory, like sautéed mushrooms with garlic butter. Or just simply toss them with some creamy, tangy goat cheese and a good grating of black pepper.
Finally, don’t overthink the flour problem. When you are working with the dough, you’ll see what I mean and it will make sense to you.