Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pasta procrastination: Masters-level gnocchi lessons

There's nothing like an impending deadline to make you want to do something completely unrelated to the task at hand.  Things for me have gotten busy busy busy these past few weeks.  Four out of five weeknights are occupied with either American Sign Language class (I graduated to ASL 102!  Yay!) or a study group for the American Board of Genetic Counselors certification exam (daunting, but necessary for my career).

Given these time gobblers, you'd think I'd focus my efforts on them... but here I sit, snuggled with the cats on a Sunday morning, wanting nothing more than to tell you all about my deep history with gnocchi. This is a combination of an intense instructional session with my mother and Nonna while I was home for the holidays, followed by my own solo attempts back in the 'Peg.  This will truly be a post in pictures... enjoy!!

Wait, this isn't gnocchi!  Traditionally, in our house, gnocchi is served with a tomato sauce, meatballs, and sausages.  I have NEVER been able to perfect the light-as-a-cloud, cheesy, meaty, flavourful meatball morsels that my mother and Nonna seem to have mastered.  I was watching Mom like a hawk when she mixed these up.  Here they are, pan-frying on all sides before being added to the sauce to simmer.
Mommy!!  :D  Gotta keep those meatballs rollin'.  Apparently, the secret to the meatballs is a combination of ground beef, pork, and veal.  Mix that with more dry breadcrumbs (frozen, grated hot dog buns work even better), eggs, and grated Parmesan cheese than you think is truly necessary.  Salt, pepper, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, dried herbs (oregano, basil, parsley), and you're done.  Don't ask me for proportions, I know none.  I was trying to learn "the feel" to know when the mixture is right.
...aaaaand let's not kid ourselves.  This is how WE roll, making meatballs or otherwise.  Red for my warm, big-hearted, passionate mom... and crisp, simple, clean white for me.  Oh, and meatballs.  I'm a little sad that you can't make out the time on the stove clock... I'm pretty sure it's still shy of noon.
 Mom, still hard at work with the meat, with my "liddle brudder" Al in the background.  In internet circles, this is what's commonly known as "photobombing".  And you thought you'd only learn food-related tidbits here...
Sausages.  Now, I have to be completely honest.  I'm not the hugest fan of pork.  I tend to reach for the meatballs more than the sausages... luckily other family members seem to feel the opposite way, so it all evens out.  These sausages were made specially with sauce in mind (and of course, yes, they're homemade).  My dad added some pork skin to them, which adds some delicious flavour (aka fat) to the sauce.  Not that I'm complaining in the slightest, you understand.
Starting on the sauce now, by mixing some home-canned crushed tomatoes into the delicious leftover brown bits and oils from frying the meatballs.  That's flavour in there, can't let it go to waste.  A significant amount of wine makes an appearance, too.
Alright, the sauce is happily bubbling away, with lots of crushed tomatoes, the meatballs and sausages, and a carrot cut into wedges (part of the secret!  It helps sweeten the sauce).  Now onto the gnocchi dough!!  About one potato per person, boiled until cooked through, then peeled and thoroughly mashed (traditionally we use a potato ricer).  Add to that about one egg for every six potatoes (I think we were making 12 servings here...), and about 1/2 cup of cake and pastry flour per person (add more as needed to form a light dough that's just a little bit sticky/tacky still).  Knead well.

Needing to knead.  I know, terrible pun.  I'm my father's daughter, what can I say??
Let's check on how that sauce is doing.  Yup, bubbling away happily, with meat pieces and carrots bobbing about.  I know this looks quite liquid-y at the moment... it will boil down and condense further (though, to be honest, I've always found our gnocchi sauces to be a little further on the liquid side than thick, Prego-esque sauces)
Mmm.  Rolled gnocchi.  You roll out the dough to about 1/2" thickness, then cut into long strips and roll the strips in flour.  Then, the strips get cut up crosswise into little cubes.  These cubes get rolled along the tines of a fork to create that little ridged, curled pattern.  Yes, it's a little time-consuming to hand-roll every piece of pasta, but it's SO worth it.
Don't they look awesome?!  And so old-world, with that pot and glass of wine next to them...
MEATBALLS.  Done.  They've been steeped in the delicious sauce, exchanging flavours, for a few hours now.
Meatballs, sausage, and NONNA!!!  I love this woman more than words can possibly express.  All we know about gnocchi, we learned from her.  I have the fondest memories of helping her roll noodles in her kitchen at a tender young age, for a special-occasion meal like a birthday... and being scolded for "snitching" pieces of raw dough.  It's just so good!!!
Sauce, sans meat products, reducing down a bit more.  Looks good, doesn't it??  The little flecks in it are bits of meat from particularly tender sausages/meatballs that sort of disintegrated into the tomato goodness.
Cooking off the gnocchi... they're such cute little floating dumplings!!!
The finished product, in an absolutely enormous pasta bowl, sprinkled over with Parmesan cheese (or was it Romano?  I can't remember.  Whatever it was, it was good).
Gratuitous close-up... tender little potato pasta dumplings, fresh, light-tasting tomato sauce, and savoury meatballs.  What more could you want??
Ah yes!  THIS is what's missing.  An amazing family to share the meal with.  From bottom right: Papa, Sar (purposely hiding because she was feeling sick and pale), my BFF Kiks, Nonna, Ma, and Hubs :D  That empty spot is for me!
Alright, so that was the training program.  Don't get me wrong, I've made gnocchi before... in a manner of speaking.  I think my former roommates can attest that former attempts have not exactly been... stellar.  I'm remembering trying to make these in my suite-style dorm in first year... the potatoes weren't cooked thoroughly, so there were little pieces of half-raw potato in the noodles.  Not good eats.  Sorry again, Laur and Chaddy!!!!

Having suffered these past failures, however, has given me even more drive to start improving (eventually perfecting?) my gnocchi and meatballs.  My goal is to reach a Nonna-level of expertise... let's call that a gnocchi PhD.  My mom has most definitely achieved her Master of Gnocchi degree, and is just a hair's breadth away from graduating with her doctorate.  I, however, have only a measly Bachelors of Gnocchi.  Time to hit the "books"... or forks, as the case may be.  I am bound and determined to one day be an adorable little Nonna, making perfect gnocchi for my grandchildren (though I think I've yet to meet a Nonna who stands 5'9"... maybe I'll shrink).  Better start practicing!

The following are from my gnocchi attempt earlier this month, as a big thank-you to Jess for breaking out her tailor's tools and measuring me for my wedding dress.  There's still room for improvement, but it was by FAR the best attempt I've made so far.  I'd better just keep at it!

Mmm... my meatballs.  A few slight changes here: I couldn't find ground veal at my local Superstore.  So, I made do with just ground beef and ground pork.  I do have to admit... some of the surfaces on these puppies are bordering on burnt.  However, I'm happy to say that the softening effect of the acids in the tomato sauce made these MORE than edible.
This may be my favourite picture of 2011 so far.  I've set it as my desktop picture, no word of a lie.  I adore how my south-facing sliding doors let in the natural sunlight on a Sunday morning...
Rolled gnocchi, basking in the sun.  I don't have a potato ricer, so I had to make do with a masher and an immersion blender... I think I did a thorough-enough job, though.
The rolling implement.  Some people just cut the gnocchi into cubes and boil them off... I can't bear the thought of it.  With Nonna, we'd experiment with rolling the gnocchi on different surfaces (the four sides of a box grater, a clean woven wicker basket) to make neat patterns.
My sauce + meatballs + carrot, bubbling away happily.  You can already see how much it's reduced- just look at the markings along the sides of the pot.  I had to use No Name whole canned tomatoes and crushed tomatoes to make this sauce, as I didn't have any of the home-canned Nonna variety to use.  Sadness.
Not gnocchi... just a fun up-close shot of the Greek-esque salad I made to accompany the gnocchi.  It's baby spinach, Roma tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, feta cheese, and fresh dill, tossed in a dressing made from olive oil, oregano, lemon juice, garlic, and a splash of feta brine.  Mmm.
Analogous to the large bowl of tossed pasta and accompanying meatballs on the side.  I forgot to sprinkle with cheese, though.
The whole shebang.  Don't worry, I was measured for my dress BEFORE tucking into this "feastival", as dad would say.
So my criticisms for this Masters defense project?  My gnocchi were a little too large, and quite dense and firm.  I'm not sure if the latter was a factor of me kneading the dough too much or too long, or adding too much flour, or what.  They were still good, don't get me wrong... but they lacked the tenderness of Ma and Nonna's efforts.  No matter... just gives me an excuse to keep trying.  Hubs was quite jealous when he heard that Jess and Kyle (by way of a doggie bag) got to eat this deliciousness, so I'm sure he'd welcome a repeat performance.

My only other complaint about this attempt?  I was, in hindsight, rapidly coming down with a cold while preparing and eating this meal.  I had to have Jess taste the sauce for me, to ensure that it was nicely seasoned and balanced before tossing it with the noodles.  All that work, just to be thwarted by impaired taste buds... disappointing.  Yet another point in favour of attempting these again, and soon.

I'll leave you with one last interesting tidbit: I had no idea, until my laagm (loving aunt and godmother) sent me a Wall Street Journal article, that gnocchi was so popular in South America.  There, it's called "ñoquis", and they have a whole set of folklore surrounding it.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this food writer's battle to make the perfect ñoquis for her husband- I hope you enjoy it, too!

With visions of potato dumplings dancing in my head, I remain,

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