Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gnocchi - Recipe 1

Something about dumplings masquerading as pasta noodles (i.e., gnocchi) screams cold-weather food to me, not so much because they're sometimes eaten in Italy (most of which, to the best of my pent-up meteorological knowledge, doesn't experience anything remotely resembling our winter weather outside of the Alps), but mostly since you'll find them in Central/Eastern Europe locales as well, many of which are poster children for dreary, snow-and-ice laden hinterlands (think Dr. Zhivago). Anyway, I stumbled across a gnocchi recipe in the Saturday issue of Wall Street Journal (WSJ) a few weeks back and decided to whip it out this past Monday while we all (the progeny and I) were stranded indoors on a bracingly-cold afternoon. With a little help from the Disney Channel, I was able to keep the kids at bay for an hour or so to assemble the gnocchi.

Now for those of you who are gnocchi cognoscenti (I'm not counting myself amongst this group), you're aware that they can be potato-based or semolina flour-based (and potentially others, I suppose). My WSJ recipe is a potato one, so the first step involved nuking the potatoes in the microwave, something that we frequently do here in the Commissary (this half-ass technique actually makes very good baked potatoes - I highly recommend it). After waiting a few minutes for the potatoes to cool, I needed to remove the skin (Ouch! Don't the damn things ever cool off?), then pass them through a ricer, which is a tool that I bought at Target expressly for this occasion and will probably never use again (except for possibly child discipline). After adding flour, salt, and egg, I was ready to knead, and I suspect this is where having some experience comes in handy since there's no good description of how long you're actually supposed to knead (somewhere between not too short and not too long). I stole an idea from my Joy of Cooking book and decided to do a test batch of gnocchi first to see if I got the texture right, namely cut up about 10 pieces or so from the dough and boil them to see if they fall apart or hold their shape. Amazingly, they seemed to stay together well, so I must have done something right. I finished cutting up the remaining pieces (see photo above) and boiled them up, followed by making the brown butter/sage sauce recommended in the recipe to accompany the pasta/dumplings.

Loaded with anticipation, the 3 of us sat down (Mrs. Hackknife was working late) for dinner. Hackknife Jr. had to be prodded to try the gnocchi and didn't care for it. Hackknifette needed no prodding, but simply spat out (daintily, I might add) the one bite she took. I sprinkled a little Parmesan cheese on my gnocchi, took a bite, and....was really quite underwhelmed. They were, well, bland, not very flavorful at all, even with the sauce. Upon reflection, I suppose I could have covered them with tomato sauce and that may have saved them. Maybe I didn't cook them right. Or maybe they're just not meant to be that flavorful (I think of other dumplings I've had in German or Polish restaurants and, yes, most of them aren't that great, either, unless they're swimming in gravy). I mean, come on, be realistic, what did you expect when you put mashed potatoes, flour, egg, and salt together, and BOILED it? Why, when you put it that way, it sounds about as appetizing as shoe leather.

Not wanting to be completely discouraged, I do have a second gnocchi recipe in the archives to try, one that is made with semolina flour and baked in the oven (which is more of a traditional Italian preparation from what I understand). I think we'll be attempting this one sometime in the near future in place of our stoic potato alternative.....

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