Wednesday, March 30, 2011

0 Recipe #255: Spinach & Potato Gnocchi

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I'm back from my travels now, as of a few days ago. I'd gone home (i.e., to my hometown) to spend some time with my family. It was a good trip. While I was there, I took over the cooking to making things easier on my parents. My mother was ecstatic at the prospect of being able to take several nights off from cooking. It was also a great opportunity to share some of my latest recipe creations with them. :)

One evening, I made them an elaborate dinner of various tapas: Anchovies marinated in green sauce, served on crostini, (as well as a separate version made with sardines for my father, since he doesn't care for anchovies), followed by grilled shoestring rosemary-covered sweet potato fries with a sour cream and chive dipping sauce. (The later recipe I created on the fly, so it hasn't been posted yet. I might save that recipe just for the cookbook. Not really sure at this point....) For dessert, I made coconut sticky rice pudding (using white glutinous rice, since they didn't have the black variety), which was topped with poached mangoes infused with Curaçao, and then finally sprinkled with crunchy, caramelized coconut, and served in parfait glasses. Plus, in the same day, I also managed to make an original puréed kale and potato soup (also created on the fly) for the following night's dinner, as well as marinate the tequila-lime chicken, which would later be made on the grill (sans fajitas & other accompaniments) and served with leftover sweet potato fries, for the next night's dinner after that. The whole production took several hours to prepare, but it was worth it. We made sure not to eat as much earlier in the day in preparation for the feast. ;)

The funny thing is that while I was there, some family members (who shall remain nameless ;) ) lost a pound or two while I was there cooking. :) I'm pretty adamant about making and eating meals and snacks at regular intervals, so that probably had something to do with it too. Skipping meals &/or eating large meals with no snacks can really mess with a person's metabolism. And so, the practice of doing the exact opposite, provided one is eating healthy meals in the appropriate portion sizes, will actually help a person regulate their blood sugar and also lose weight over a period of time.

Anyhow, it was great to be back home for a bit. Now that I'm back in DC (i.e., my current home -- I really consider both locales to be home!), I decided to make something simple (and relatively quick!) for dinner tonight, spinach and potato gnocchi. Gnocchi are Italian "dumplings," typically made with potato and flour. They are actually considered to be pasta, and are usually topped with some kind of sauce. Their trademark ridges help hold the sauce and also ensure that the gnocchi cook quickly and evenly. Gnocchi are most commonly served as a first course (i.e., primi piatti), although if you wish, you can certainly serve them as a main course, just like I did. ;) Please be aware that gnocchi are extremely filling, so a little goes a long way.

Gnocchi are fairly easy to make once you get the hang of it, although it might take a bit of practice (and dexterity) to master some of the techniques, particularly when it comes to shaping the gnocchi. When made correctly, the taste and texture of gnocchi is delicate: They should taste like little pillow-like puffs of air that melt on your tongue. If instead, they taste like dense "dough balls," then you need to practice making them a bit more. ;) Although they are usually boiled, they can also be oven-baked (or sautéed) as well.

So, try your hand at gnocchi making. It's a lot of fun!

Spinach & Potato Gnocchi

1 lb. (or about 3 large) Russet potatoes*, well-scrubbed, unpeeled, and perforated all over with a fork (makes about 3 c. riced/mashed potatoes)
1/4 c. kosher salt (for baking the potatoes)
1/2 c. water (for steaming spinach)
6 oz. package fresh baby spinach leaves (about 4 c. baby spinach)
1 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring working surface & dough
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper, or to taste
1 large egg, at room temperature
12 c. lightly salted water, seasoned with a drop of extra virgin olive oil (for boiling gnocchi)
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
4 Tbsp. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shredded (or about 1/2 - 1 Tbsp. per person)

Directions: Prepare the vegetable ingredients: In a preheated oven set to 425°F, bake potatoes, uncovered, in a glass baking tray lined with kosher salt until slightly overbaked and easily pierceable with a knife or fork, about an hour.

While potatoes are baking, steam spinach in 1/2 c. water in a large (12-13") sauté pan, covered with a lid, on high heat for 2-3 minutes, so that greens are lightly steamed but still retain their color. Drain spinach into a colander, rinse with cold water, and then gather spinach into the palm of your hand and squeeze several times to release remaining excess water. (Try to squeeze out as much moisture as possible, as this will help produce light and flavorful gnocchi.) Finely mince, then place into a large bowl and set aside.  In another bowl, thoroughly combine flour, salt, & pepper together and set aside.

When the potatoes are almost done baking, bring a large (6 qt.) pot of lightly salted water, seasoned with olive oil, to a rolling boil over high heat. (This pot of water will be used to boil the gnocchi. Cover with a lid to help boil the water a little faster.) When ready, cool potatoes for a few minutes, just until you are able to skin them. (Potatoes need to be warm but not piping hot when you make the dough, otherwise the ingredients won't bind together properly.) Using tongs, transfer potatoes to a plate. Discard the kosher salt (or reserve for later use), and then quickly skin the potatoes, reserving the skins for another dish if you like. (They still had a dab of kosher salt stuck to them after baking, so I ended up eating the skins as I was peeling them off. ;) So yummy!). Then scoop out the flesh into small manageable chunks and pass through a potato ricer, which will help keep the gnocchi light and fluffy. Rice potatoes directly into the same bowl containing the minced spinach.

Make the dough: Combine spinach and potatoes & then set aside. Next, using a spatula (or the back of a large serving spoon), spread spinach and potato mixture to a 1/2" thickness onto a clean, floured surface, followed by about half of the flour mixture (roughly 1/2 c. or only just enough flour to bind the ingredients together), and form into a mound. Make a small depression in the center. Crack the egg and place it right into the hole. Lightly flour the palms of your hands, and then, using a bench scraper, reach underneath the outside of mound and fold the ingredients into the center, lightly tossing them together. Using the bench scraper and your free hand, continue to fold the ingredients, without kneading them, until the mixture turns into a pile of course crumbs. Next, begin to knead the dough very gently, using a lot less force than you'd typically employ for bread dough. Add the remaining 1/2 c. of flour as you knead, so that only a minimal amount of flour will be used. Use a light touch and work quickly (i.e., you should be able to finish kneading the dough in under a minute), but don't overwork the dough, or gnocchi will be too heavy. If the dough feels too sticky, sprinkle a little more flour onto the dough, but only use just enough flour to keep the gnocchi from sticking to your hands and the working surface. Dough should be moist and firm, but not sticky.

Roll out the dough: Break dough into four equally-sized pieces. Flour the palms of your hands again. Starting with the floured side of the dough facing upwards, roll out each piece into long, 3'4" thick "logs," using the palms of your hands. Line up all of the logs so that they're parallel to one another, and then use a bench scraper to cut them crosswise into 1" inch long pieces.

Shape the gnocchi: Lightly dust the gnocchi with flour before shaping them. To shape the gnocchi, you can use a common table fork or a traditional, ridged wooden gnocchi board (also called a gnocchi paddle). Here are the instructions for the two different methods:

To shape the gnocchi using a fork: Hold the fork in one hand with the tines facing upward, and with the other hand, pick up a single gnocco with your thumb and index finger, grasping it by its cut ends, and place it against the tines of the fork as far from the end of the fork (i.e., the points) as possible, with the cut ends facing outward (i.e., perpendicular to the fork tines). Then, using your thumb, gently press and roll the gnocco against the fork with a gentle but assertive forward motion, down the length of the fork towards the points. The gnocco should curl up a bit over your thumb and make a slight "C" shape. A properly shaped gnocco will have ridges/indentations on its curled exterior, from the impressions made by the fork tines, with a smooth concave depression on its underside from where your thumb was. When finished shaping, place it back onto the floured surface (or onto a floured baking tray). Repeat until all of the gnocco have been shaped.

To shape the gnocchi using a gnocchi board: Rest the bottom edge of the board on a firm surface, tilting it at about a 45° angle. Then, pick up a single gnocco, holding it by its cut edges with your thumb and index finger, and squish it lightly with your thumb along the board while simultaneously pushing it away from you. The gnocco will roll away and curl up around your thumb, forming a cupped "C" shape. Ridges will appear on its curled exterior, from where the gnocco was pressed onto the board, and there'll be a smooth inner curve from where your thumb was. When finished shaping, place it back onto the floured surface (or onto a floured baking tray). Repeat until all of the gnocco have been shaped.

Boil and assemble gnocchi: Transfer gnocchi, approximately 44-45 at a time, into the 6 qt. pot of boiling water. Boil gnocchi in batches until they rise to the surface and float, about 2-3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, gingerly transfer gnocchi to a large serving bowl, shaking spoon gently over the pot to drain excess water each time before placing gnocchi into the serving bowl. (Gnocchi should be handled very carefully, or else they'll break.) Immediately, transfer to bowls or plates, using the same slotted spoon. If desired, season with additional salt and (black ground) pepper to taste (you can just use a pinch of the leftover kosher salt if you wish). Sprinkle with nutmeg and Parmigiano-Reggiano while the gnocchi is still warm, so that the cheese melts. If desired, top with a light layer of tomato sauce, butter & sage sauce, seven-herb sauce, mint & Kalamata olive pesto, or regular pesto. (Or you can simply drizzle them with a bit of olive oil instead.) Serve immediately, accompanied by a Caesar salad or vegetable side.

Yield: 6-8 servings as a first course, or 3-4 servings as a main course. (Makes about 88-90 gnocchi. Depending upon how many people you'll be serving, that works out to be roughly about 11-15 gnocchi as a first course, or about 22-30 gnochhi as a main course.)

Variation: To make this dish vegan, simply omit the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or add non-dairy imitation cheese (i.e., soy cheese, etc.).

Chef's Notes: Selecting and processing the potatoes: *For the best results, select Russet potatoes. Russets are ideal because they are dry and starchy, which, in turn, will help to create light-as-air gnocchi. Too much moisture will make for heavy, gummy dough, so the less moisture the better. If you can't find Russet potatoes for some reason, the Yukon Gold variety will do. Please note that, comparatively speaking, Yukon Gold are a bit waxier and do contain a bit more water than Russets, although some might prefer Yukon Gold for their cold and flavor. Whatever potato you choose, be sure to use a dry, high-starch potato. Also, the older, non-waxy potatoes work a lot better, as they tend to be a bit drier as well.

IMPORTANT: Whatever you do, do NOT use a food processor to mash the potatoes. This will make the potatoes extremely gluelike, and will lead to unpalatable and very heavy gnocchi.

How to make light & fluffy gnocchi: The trick to creating perfect gnocchi is to use as little flour as possible, extract as much moisture from the ingredients as possible, and handle the dough as little as possible.

The bottom line is this: The drier the ingredients, the lighter the gnocchi. This is why it's important to squeeze the heck out of the spinach before combining it with the potatoes and other ingredients. :) Similarly, this also explains why it's better to bake the potatoes on a bed of salt versus boiling or sautéing them. Boiling potatoes, even with their skins intact, encourages water absorption/retention, whereas baking potatoes on a bed of salt in an oven, uncovered, will dry them out. This is also why the potatoes are perforated all over with a fork before they're placed into the oven. The holes made all over the potatoes allow the steam to escape and thus, remove any remaining moisture.

Also, be careful not to overflour the gnocchi as you're working with the dough and shaping the gnocchi. Too much flour, as well as too much kneading, will make your gnocchi heavy, so use a light hand and as little flour as possible when forming the gnocchi.

And lastly, use a potato ricer, which will help to aerate the potatoes, and thus, the gnocchi as well. Although it's not a required step nor is it listed in the above directions, you could also sift the flour and other dry ingredients together if you like, before working the dough. All of these steps will help to yield much lighter gnocchi.

Storage: If you won't be cooking the gnocchi right away, you can also refrigerate cooked gnocchi in a sealed container (or covered bowl) until a few minutes before serving time. Just be sure to let them cool first and then lightly coat them with olive oil before placing them into the fridge, to keep the gnocchi from drying out or sticking to one another. They'll keep for several hours or overnight.

Another alternative is to freeze them: Gnocchi will keep in the freezer for several months. To freeze them, first place the uncooked gnocchi onto baking sheets lined with wax paper, then dust with flour, and freeze until hard, about 1-2 hours. Then remove from freezer and place into a large freezer bag, in a single layer. When ready to cook, simply boil the frozen gnocchi in lightly salted water, seasoned with a drop of olive oil. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until they rise to the surface.

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