I was hosting a 4-course birthday dinner for a friend. I asked her what she wanted. “Nothing special. You come up with something. It’s always good,” she told me. But the next morning she sent me an email. “Can you make sweet potato gnocchi? I’ve been craving them.”
How could I say no, but the pressure was on. Everyone at my dinner loves the puffy, light sweet potato gnocchi at da Flora, one of our favorite North Beach restaurants. Would mine pass muster with this exacting crowd?
I use both russet and sweet potatoes here. Sweet potatoes can be wet so I roasted the potatoes instead of boiling them in their jackets to keep them as dry as possible.
The sweet potato gnocchi were light little pillows that just about melted on my tongue. The sage butter sauce is classic in its simplicity and adds richness to the gnocchi’s sweetness. The grated parmigiano really balances the flavors and adds to the complexity of this dish.
This recipe made over 100 gnocchi. Lucky for me I had more than enough for dinner so some could be frozen to enjoy another day. Just spread them out on a cookie tray and put them in the freezer. When frozen store them in a freezer bag. Drop the frozen gnocchi right into the boiling water. They’ll take a bit longer to cook through. Frozen gnocchi are good but fresh gnocchi are better.
Olive Garden, Romano’s Marcaroni Grill, Buca di Beppo — I don’t eat in these joints and if you love authentic Italian food you shouldn’t either. The food they serve has been engineered to appeal to the bland American palate that prizes grease, calories and volume. Most of what they serve is a disgrace and has no connection to the healthy simple dishes that Italians and Italian-Americans enjoy.
The Wall Street Journal had a piece in today’s paper about how these chains struggle to keep and grow their middle America clientele with low-brow tastes.
Olive Garden sends its chefs to Italy to taste the real deal. Unfortunately, when they return to their test kitchens in Orlando the chefs reverse-engineer the dish and bastardize it so that it appeals to their customers.
They stopped making basil pesto for pasta because it was too green for their clientele. A great pasta dish they enjoyed in northern Italy was too “rustic” so they added a cheesy sauce and meat to make it more “normal” and to convince their customers that it was a good deal. They don’t use capers often because the salty and pickled flavor is too out there for their diners. Gnocchi was a bit too adventurous so they only serve it in soup. My delicate gnocchi would never hold up in this water bath.
Please, please, please! Do not equate what you get at these chain restaurants with authentic regional cuisine in Italia or with the food that I celebrate on Gianni’s North Beach. Visit Italia, and until you do, cook up some of my dishes for yourself. You’ll feel better after you eat and, even at chain prices, you’ll save money too.
Rhode Island friends are in town and we we’re making 2 classic Italian-American pasta dishes. Carol brought a cavati pasta machine all the way from Little Rhody. I’ve never seen this contraption and I was anxious to try it out.
You say cavati, I say gavadeal. These are RI and Jersey slang for the same pasta, better known as cavatelli.
Carol was the lead cook. Her cavati pasta dough is simply ricotta, milk, flour and an egg. This isn’t the gnocchi dough that is hardly kneaded so it stays light and tender. This dough is kneaded well to form a stiff, resilient dough, tough enough to be rolled into ropes and fed into the cavatelli pasta machine. It’s the fresh version of dried cavatelli pasta and it’s worth the effort. We made the cavati dough by hand but you can make it in a food processor to save time and effort. Mix the ingredients and knead it well to form a stiff dough.
Roll out 1 inch dough ropes, feed it into the machine and crank. Out pop the cavati. The machine is amazing. Just keep cranking and in a couple of minutes you have a sea of cavati.
My mother dried her fresh pasta on a clean sheet atop her bed. We dried ours on the dining room table. Spread them out so they don’t touch one another and stick together. Let the cavati dry for 30 minutes.
Carol made 2 sauces for the cavati — broccoli rabe with garlic, EVOO and chicken stock and the classic vodka cream sauce. Both were delicious. Here’s my first plate. The fresh cavati have a great toothsome feel, tender but resilient with each bite. The broccoli rabe sauce is garlicky and really rich with chicken stock flavor. The pink vodka sauce with flecks of tomato is silky and the cream mellows the San Marzano tomatoes. Buon appetitio!
If you have a cavatelli machine you are in good shape. If you do not simply roll out 1/2 inch ropes of dough. Cut the ropes in 1 inch pieces. Using your thumb press hard on each piece to flatten it out. It should curl up tightly as you press & pull with your thumb. You can get an idea of how to form these by watching my gnocchi video. The difference between the two is that you don’t want the puffy gnocchi form but rather a flat disk that tightly curls from the pressure of your thumb.
The rising popularity of the potato gnocchi video prompted me to share a simpler gnocchi recipe using ricotta to make the dough instead of potato.
Ricotta gnocchi are quicker to make and lighter than the potato version. The dough is ready in a jiffy and the sauce is finished as the gnocchi boil. I love these little soft pillows. Sometimes I give them a light finger poke to create a little “belly-button” on one side to ensure they’ll cook evenly.
The dough and ricotta gnocchi are made using the same methods as in my potato gnocchi recipe. Watch that if you want a visual of how to make gnocchi. The sauces in that episode go well with ricotta gnocchi too.
I reached up to northern Italy for the sage burnt butter sauce. You see it in Tuscany and the Veneto. This is a great sauce to add to your repertoire. It pairs well with gnocchi and other fresh pasta to create a full-flavored but delicate dish.
At least 1 tablespoon of sea salt for the cooking water
Put the potatoes in a pot and cover with water about 2 inches above the top of the potatoes. Bring the potatoes to a gentle boil.
Boil the potatoes until they are knife tender about 30-40 minutes. Try to keep the skins from rupturing so the potatoes don’t absorb any water and don’t overcook them.
Let the potatoes cool a bit so that you can handle them. Peel them. If they’re too hot to handle use a kitchen towel to hold the hot potato when you peel them.
Put the potatoes through a ricer or food mill while the potatoes are still hot. Mashing the potatoes works in a pinch but the gnocchi won’t be as light.
Spread the riced potatoes on a cookie sheet or a flat baking pan in a single layer to cool and allow some of the moisture to evaporate. The drier the riced potatoes the lighter the dough will be.
Bring a big pot of very well-salted water to a boil.
Put the riced potatoes in a mound on a flat work surface. Create a well in the middle.
Crack the egg onto the work surface in the well. Beat the egg well. (I don’t salt fresh pasta doughs including gnocchi because I think salt toughens the dough. I’d rather the gnocchi absorb salt in the boiling cooking water. But, if you want add about 3/4 teaspoon of salt to the egg before you beat it.)
Slowly start to incorporate the egg into the ring of riced potatoes.
When fully incorporated spread out the mixture and sprinkle some of the flour over the top.
Knead the flour into the potato mixture.
Repeat with another dusting of flour until the dough holds together and is smooth and soft. Try to use as little flour as possible for light gnocchi.
Sprinkle some flour on the work surface so the dough doesn’t stick. Knead the dough to create a smooth dough ball.
Cut the dough ball into 6 pieces.
Flour the work surface again if necessary and roll each piece into a rope of 1/2 inch diameter.
Cut the rope into ½ inch pieces. Make sure you have enough flour on your work surface so that the pieces don’t stick together.
Using the back of a fork press the piece over the tines with your thumb and press downwards to push the gnocchi off the fork. You’ll create indentations from the tines on the back of the gnocchi and a concave indentation on the other side from the pressure of your thumb. Great shape and texture to absorb the sauce.
Spread the gnocchi on a floured cookie sheet or flat baking pan as you make them.
Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water, gently stir to make sure they don’t stick together and gently boil the gnocchi until they rise to the top of the water.
Remove the gnocchi with a spider or mesh ladle and place them in the sauté pan with the sauce of your choice.
Makes about 48 gnocchi.
Don’t get interrupted when you’re making the gnocchi. When you finish making them all put them in the boiling water and eat them right away! Or, you can freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet or shallow baking pan. Make sure they not touching one another! When they’re frozen store them in a freezer bag. Boil them still frozen. They’ll take a little longer to cook.
Pesto Trapanese Recipe
Basil pesto ain’t the only one. Small ripe tomatoes and roasted almonds are the stars of this pesto. Basil is only a minor player. This uncooked sauce made in a blender or food processor takes only a few minutes. The aroma and taste of the almonds is front and center supported by the sweetness of the tomatoes and the sparkle of the hot pepper as you swallow.
Good for 1 pound or 500 grams of spaghetti or the yield from one full potato gnocchi recipe or your favorite pasta shape.
2 ½ cups or ¾ pound of the ripest and sweetest cherry, pear or other small red tomato
1 large garlic clove, smashed
10-12 large fresh basil leaves
½ cup whole almonds, roasted or lightly toasted
¼ teaspoon peperoncino flakes
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup EVOO
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
Put the garlic, almonds, pepper flakes, basil leaves, tomatoes and then the sea salt in a food processor or blender.
Blend for about a minute or so, scrape down the sides and then blend again until no large bits are visible.
While the machine is running gently stream in the EVOO until the pesto is smooth and well blended.
Use the pesto at room temperature to dress the pasta. Top the dressed pasta with the grated Parmigiano Parmigiano. You can store it in the refrigerator for a few days.
Gorgonzola Sauce Recipe
A quick delicious piquant sauce you can make in less than the time it takes to boil the water for the pasta. The flavor of this noble blue cheese from northern Italia is the boss in this sugo. You don’t need a lot of the sauce. Just a thin coating on the pasta is what you want.
Good for 1 pound or 500 grams of pasta or the yield from one full potato gnocchi recipe.
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces gorgonzola dolce
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
Heat the cream stirring frequently so a skin doesn’t form on top.
When the cream is reduced and thickened add the gorgonzola and stir until the gorgonzola is melted and well blended with the cream.
Mix in sea salt and pepper to taste.
Top the dressed pasta with the grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano.
Pizzaiola Sauce Recipe
Named after the pizza-makers of Napoli this sauce is just San Marzano tomatoes, garlic infused olive oil and oregano, a typical topping for a pizza. Simple and quick but a rich and robust sugo. I use this sauce for pasta, my eggplant parmigiano and other dishes that call for a flavorful tomato sauce.
Good for 1 pound or 500 grams of your favorite pasta or the yield from one full potato gnocchi recipe.
1 28 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
3 tablespoons EVOO
2 garlic cloves, smashed
½ teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
½ cup grated pecorino
Put the olive oil and garlic in a cold sauté pan big enough to hold the cooked pasta your using.
Heat the pan over medium-high heat until the oil sizzles and the garlic just begins to take on some color.
Add the tomatoes and salt and mix with the EVOO and garlic.
Simmer to evaporate some of the liquid and the sauce thickens.
Stir in the oregano.
Continue cooking for about 30 minutes.
Remove the garlic before using the sauce, or not. Your choice.
You’ll notice some similarities between this video and the show’s format. It was during the shooting and production of the Spots Unknown profile that I decided to ask Jeff Diehl if he’d produce my cooking show. The rest is history.