Let’s begin with a bag of potatoes. Not the most alluring start I know, but a sound start and one I’m sure Jocasta Innes, who died last week aged 78, would have approved of. This week I’ve found myself cooking from her Pauper’s cookbook and marveling anew at her thrifty flair and inventive recipes that prove you can eat extremely well for very little. Her carmine kitchen walls, well hung pans, black leather trousers and self-confessed ‘party slut’ years, I’ve been marveling at those too. What a woman!
Let’s begin with a bag of potatoes. Not taut and waxy, full and blousey or tiny, soil-encrusted new potatoes though, save those for a well-dressed salad, a good mashing or as mint-scented chaperones for a pair of tender lamb chops. A bag of what my home economics teacher Mrs Carrington would have called boilers or everyday potatoes, the tuber equivalent of a reliable friend; neither waxing lyrical or liable to collapse into a mealy heap just when you need them. You will also need a large pan of cold water, salt, a food mill or potato ricer, plain flour, a knife and fork, and about an hour.
In Rome it’s traditional to eat Gnocchi di patate on Thursdays. Press your nose up against a misted up window pane or peer round the door of any traditional trattoria on any given Thursday and will almost certainly see gnocchi di palate or gnocchi del Giovedi chalked up on the blackboard. Peer persistently and you might well catch sight of the Gnocchi being whisked from kitchen to table: steaming bowls of small, pale dumplings, forked on one side, thumb depressed on the other, sitting nonchalantly in simple sauce.
To add eggs, or not to add eggs: that is the question. In Rome the answer is – as far as I understand – resolutely yes. Eggs are mixed with floury (farinoso) potatoes and a generous amount of flour which produces stout, well-bound and thus well-behaved gnocchi. The kind of gnocchi that can withstand a rowdy, rollicking boil in an equally rowdy trattoria kitchen. 1 kg potatoes, two whole eggs and 300 g of flour seems more or less the general Roman consensus, give or take a very strong opinion.
Then there are the gnocchi di patate of the north, made with just potato and the scantest amount of flour. Tender, billowy gnocchi. Gnocchi that wouldn’t stand a chance up against a couple of Roman dumplings in a dark pan. I like gnocchi di patate made both with and without eggs, but last Thursday, in the mood for something delicate and channeling Jocasta (about time too, these are lean times and my domestic management is appalling) I pulled Marcella Hazan from the shelf.
I had several disheartening experiences before finding my way with gnocchi di patate. The key, according to Marcella, is what she too calls boilers, trustworthy potatoes that are neither too waxy nor – and this is important - too floury which all too often means the eggless, scantily floured gnocchi disintegrate and disappear like so many ships into the rolling salted water.
Having scrubbed your potatoes, you boil them whole in their skins until tender. As soon they are cool enough to handle you peel them and then press them through the food mill or potato ricer and into butter-coloured heap of tiny potato threads on the work surface. Working quickly while the mixture is still warm, you start by adding salt and just three-quarters of the flour, hoping it is enough to bring the potato into a delicate but workable dough. If necessary, you cautiously add the rest of the flour. You divide and roll the dough into five, fat sausages which you then cut into small pieces. A light touch is required.
To finish, you gently gently press each gnoccho against the inside of a fork with your thumb. This way, one side is branded with four prongs, the other a thumb sized indent, all intended to help the sauce gather and cling obediently. Keep the work surface, your hands, your child and the gnocchi well dusted with a (fine) blizzard of flour. The water must be plentiful, as salty as the sea and boiling steadily but not tempestuously, you are going to gently boil/almost poach your delicate dumplings. Drop 15 gnocchi in at a time. Once they bob like excited children to the surface, let them cook for another 12 seconds before using a slotted spoon to scoop them gently from the water to a warm serving plate onto which you have spooned a little sauce.
And the sauce. Browned butter: comely, rich and reminiscent of hazelnuts, is just delicious (isn’t it always) with gnocchi di patate, especially if scented with some musty, camphorous sage. However keeping Jocasta in mind and using what I had, I decided a large tin of plum tomatoes that had, been sitting neglected behind the beans should be milled and simmered with a few leaves of basil into a smooth, dense sauce.
It was a good lunch, the gnocchi tender and tasting so purely of potato, the tomato and basil sauce simple and clinging faithfully. Even with a (frugal) dust of parmesan, – granular, salty cheese makes a particularly heavenly contrast with the humble sweetness of potato – I estimate gnocchi di patate al sugo for four costs under €3, a true pauper’s lunch, which is something I have thinking about lately. I didn’t have any wine, which was appropriate but disappointing, so I raised a forkful of gnocchi to Jocasta instead. The beauty of modest resourcefulness. I think she would have approved. Thursday therefore gnocchi.
Gnocchi di patate al sugo Potato gnocchi with tomato sauce
Adapted from recipes in Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’ arte di mangiar bene and Marcella Hazan’s The essentials of classic Italian cooking and the ever trustworthy Le ricette regionali Italiane.
Adding eggs to the dough does make it more manageable, especially if your potatoes are very floury. It also makes the gnocchi more substantial, which many people (Romans) prefer. I leave that decision to you, your potatoes and gnocchi experimenting. If you do decide to add eggs, add two for every kg of flour. One thing everyone seems to agree on is the food mill or potato ricer – both indispensable for gnocchi. Both indispensable in the kitchen per se, particularly the food mill. It is my favourite kitchen tool.
- 800 g boiling potatoes (medium-sized and all more or less the same size)
- 150 g plain, unbleached flour (plus more for sprinkling and dusting)
- a large tin (580 ml) of best quality Italian plum tomatoes
- extra virgin olive oil
- a clove of garlic
- a few leaves of fresh basil
- freshly grated parmesan
Scrub (but don’t peel) the potatoes. Put the potatoes in a large pot of cold, well-salted water and bring to the boil. Cook until the potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes then once cool enough to handle peel them. Pass the potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer onto the work surface. Add a pinch of salt and three-quarters of the flour to the potatoes and bring them together into a dough. The dough should be very soft and smooth – you may or may not need the final quarter of flour. A light touch is required.
Divide the dough into quarters. Dust the work surface and your hands with flour and roll the quarters into long sausage-like rolls about 2cm/ 1″ thick. Cut the roll into pieces 2cm long. Using your thumb gently press each piece with the back of a fork which will mean you have fork indents on one side and a small thumb depression on the other. Sprinkle the pieces very lightly with flour.
Make the sauce. Pass the tin of tomatoes through a food mill or blast with an immersion blender. Warm some olive oil in heavy-based pan and saute the garlic until fragrant and golden. Add the tomato and basil, bring to the boil and the reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or so or until the tomato has reduced significantly into a dense, spoon coating sauce. Taste and season with salt. Spread a little of the sauce in the bottom of the warm serving dish or bowl.
Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a gentle rolling boil, but not tempestuously, you are going to gently boil/almost poach your delicate dumplings. Drop 15 gnocchi into the pan. Once they bob back to the surface let them cook for another 12 seconds before using a slotted spoon to scoop them from the water and onto the serving dish. Spread a little more sauce over the gnocchi and sprinkle with parmesan. Repeat with the next 15 gnocchi.
When all the gnocchi are cooked and on the serving dish, pour over the remaining sauce, sprinkle with more parmesan and serve immediately.