Potato gnocchi with homemade tomato sauce
What’s the story with gnocchi?
If you ask two Italians how to make gnocchi, you are likely to get three strongly held opinions. What kind of potato to use, bake or boil them, add an egg or never with an egg, all purpose flour, semolina, or “00” flour, add salt or no salt and so it goes. You get the picture.
Essentially, gnocchi are light and fluffy dumplings typical of northern Italy (dare I say?), although made in abundance in other regions. They are famous for being tricky to make right and require a certain amount of “feel” that you learn by doing. Just adding all the ingredients a recipe calls for may not yield the desired results.
Making gnocchi is a rewarding adventure and although may be intimidating it is worth giving it a try. Successful gnocchi are light and airy, hold their shape and take to the sauce beautifully, be it browned butter, olive oil, creamy cheese sauce or tomato sauce.
When we stayed in Rome for a few weeks last year, we learned that traditional trattorias serve gnocchi on Thursday each week and we indulged in these little butter or sauce covered hearty and satisfying dumpling as often as we could. In Rome apparently, they do use egg yolk in gnocchi, making them more sturdy than their potato-and-flour-only northern counterparts.
There are many articles about gnocchi making and here is one from Rachel Eats, a beautifully written Rome based food blog that you may want to read.
Below are some do’s and don’ts of making gnocchi:
What kind of potatoes to use
You have to choose the right potato to make good gnocchi. The common advise “out there” is that older potatoes are better than new and starchier potatoes are better than waxy, but not too starchy as in Russet. Marcella Hazan (the Julia Child if Italian cooking) specifies that you need “all purpose boiling potatoes”. I made this recipe with brownish skinned Yukon Gold potatoes that were sitting in my pantry for a few days.
How to cook the potatoes
Here too there are different opinions. Some say bake them, others say bake on a bed of salt, still other say boil. Marcella Hazan says to boil them which for me is (almost) the final word. Depending on how patient I am, I may bake or boil but this time I steam them in their skin over boiling water to make sure I don’t end up with waterlogged potatoes with broken skin. One thing you don’t want is waterlogged potatoes so don’t pierce them too frequently to check if they are done.
Ricing the potatoes
However you cook them, once the potatoes are cooked through peel and rice them while still warm. If you don’t have a potato ricer, get one (See image below). A food mill is also good if you don’t have a ricer.
What about adding an egg?
When it comes to adding an egg, two Italians would have three strongly held opinions. Traditional northern Italian gnocchi do not contain eggs. Roman cooks apparently do use egg yolk, one per pound of potatoes. Adding an egg yolk makes the dough easier to handle but will result in a heavier, more sturdy gnocchi, not as light and fluffy as the one you get from potatoes and flour alone. On the other hand……..you can add a yolk to the recipe if it makes you feel better, or just to see how it feels. In your kitchen you have the say.
You can use all purpose flour, semolina flour or “00” flour used for making pizza dough. Whatever flour you use, the tricky part (there is always a tricky part) is how much flour to add. The lawyerly answer is: it depends. The Italian answer: Quanto Basta, meaning, as much as you need. The amount of flour varies depending on how much moisture the potatoes contain and therefor how much flour they would absorb. Sometime they take more flour, sometime less, so you have to get the “feel” for the texture. In principle, use the least amount of flour that is needed to keep the dough from sticking.
I’ll show you how to work around it:
Yesterday I made sweet potato gnocchi. They have a higher moisture content and took more than the amount of flour the recipe called for. The white potatoes in today’s recipe were dryer and took much less than the 1.5 cup flour the recipe calls for.
- Don’t add all the flour at once. Add only as much flour as you need for a pliable dough.
- When you reach what you think is the correct proportion let the dough rest for a few minutes to allow the flour to fully absorb the moisture from the potatoes.
- When ready, pinch off a couple of pieces of the gnocchi dough, shape into two gnocchi and drop into salted boiling water. If they keep their shape and look good then proceed to roll and make gnocchi with the rest of the dough. If they fall apart, add more flour. You can always add more flour, but cannot take it away if you have added too much.
The tomato sauce I offer below is based on Marcella’s recipe and goes well with gnocchi. It’s simple and easy and has become a staple in my kitchen. You can make it with canned tomatoes without compromising quality.
Serve the gnocchi with the tomato sauce and grated parmesan.
Ingredients for potato gnocchi
1.5 lb brown skinned potatoes
1- 1.5 cups all purpose flour (see note above)
Tomato sauce – see recipe below.
Directions for making the gnocchi:
Steam or boil the potatoes until cooked through. I steam them in a large pot over a steaming rack. Do not poke or pierce them too often as they should not get waterlogged. If you have time, bake them in the oven until tender.
When the potatoes are cooked through allow to cool slightly, then peel and push them through a ricer.
Begin adding flour to the mound of riced potatoes, kneading as you go.
Add just enough flour until a smooth dough forms that holds it shape.
At this point you can test the dough: bring water to a boil, pinch a couple of small pieces and form into gnocchi shape. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water. Once they float to the surface check them. If they hold their shape then you can proceed with the recipe. If they fall apart then add more flour to the potatoes and continue kneading until it reaches the right consistency.
Once you are confident that the dough is ready divide it into four pieces and, on a lightly floured surface roll each into a rope about one inch thick. Try to roll them evenly so the gnocchi is of equal size.
Cut each roll into slices about 3/4 inch long.
To shape the gnocchi you have a few options: either roll it on a gnocchi board (that’s what I do), or using your finger press them lightly against the tines of a fork to create both an indentation on the under side and lines from the fork on the top. These will ensure even cooking and will create places for the sauce to stick. On the other hand I have had gnocchi that were pillowy and they were both beautiful and delicious. Do what you works for you.
Keep the shaped gnocchi on a lightly floured tray as you work.
Bring a large and wide pot of water to a boil and salt it generously.
Cook the gnocchi in a few batches in the boiling water. When they float to the top remove them and set aside. I use a piece of parchment to drop a bunch of the gnocchi into the water all at once. I set the gnocchi on the parchment and let them slide into the water all at once.
When you are finished cooking all the gnocchi add them to the pot with the tomato sauce and stir gently to coat them with the sauce.
Spoon into warm serving plates.
Serve at once.
1 28 oz canned Italian plum tomatoes
1 onion, peeled and quartered
6 tablespoons olive oil
4 basil leaves
1 cup tomato passata optional (not tomato paste, passata is a tomato puree that comes in a glass bottle).
Salt and pepper
Add all the ingredients except the salt and pepper into a pot, bring to a gentle boil, lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes stirring occasionally and mashing any tomato chunks against the side of the pot.
Remove the onion and add salt and pepper to taste.
the sauce should be fairly smooth and thick. I don’t puree it further but you can if you want to.