Brr! It’s a cold day here on the Central Coast and cold days always leave me craving something with potatoes.
Behold–the humble potato. In spite of her cross-eyes, blemishes, dirty skin, and thick waistline, she is love by–dare I say?–everyone, from one end of the globe to the other and back around again. As Americans, in a single year, we EACH consume 140 pounds of potatoes, and as a nation, 4,000 million pounds of French fries. Some historians credit the potato with the expansion of Industrialism across Europe; it was the cause of a war, aptly named, The Potato War, where opposing forces, due to crop failures, literally raided their enemies and took their potatoes. And, due to a blight that caused the potatoes to rot from disease, it was the root (pardon the pun) in the decrease of over two million people from Ireland’s population during the Great Potato Famine (1845-52), gone to either starvation, or off to America in search of work and well, potatoes.
Personally, I adore potatoes, probably given to the fact that my mother cooked a lot of potatoes. In fact, to this day, I have never met anyone, myself included, who could work a potato over in quite the way that my mother can. Among her repertoire: crispy hash browns, wonderful potato pancakes, fried homestyle potatoes with thick slices of caramelized onions, mashed potatoes, potato casserole, twice baked potatoes oozing with cheese and bacon, scored potatoes, and roasted potatoes. We ate, thinking back upon those days, a significant number of potatoes. Although my grandmother worked at the National Potato Board, we consumed more than our fair share of the tubers because we were poor and quite simply, because they were good and satisfying.
My real affair with the potato actually began when I was in my early thirties and living in San Francisco. Mr. B decided to take me to a wonderful little (and I do mean little) restaurant on the edge of North Beach (the Italian sector) called, Cafe Macaroni. After folding ourselves into one of the few tiny tables in the dining room made even smaller by the ginormous refrigerated display case brandishing a good fifty antipasto treats, Mr. B ordered the wine while I scanned the menu. “Don’t bother,” he said, closing my menu. “I am going to order you the most perfect thing ever.” And with that, we raised our wine glasses in a toast, passing time until the beautiful, I-can’t speak-much-English waiter arrived.
The dish that was placed before me was gnocchi. And even I, who had lived between the pages of cookbooks and had a subscription to not one, but two, highbrow food magazines, and who–seriously–had traveled to Italy, had never even heard of gnocchi. I was sheltered and naive and my soon-to-be husband, Mr. B, was introducing me to a ball of boiled dough–no, a drug–that would plunge me squarely into the depths of addiction, for once that first little dumpling crossed my lips and my brain lit up with euphoria, my heart racing through my chest, I was hooked.
But this post is not about my battles with dumpling addiction, which is a sad and heartbreaking tale on its own, but rather, a moment for me to pause in my day to commiserate with my fellow human beings south of the equator in Argentina, who so love gnocchi, that on the 29th day of every month, they celebrate Dias de los Noquis–Day of the Gnocchi–but February, a most uncooperative month, only gives us 28 days. I’ve never been to Argentina, so I’m not sure what that means, but from what I’ve read, the only time one can find gnocchi is on the 29th day of the month. Does that mean that these poor people will have to go without gnocchi since their last feast of January 29th, or until their next on March 29th. There’s no telling, but I will be frank by saying here, out loud and for everyone that I would revolt–I would–in fact, I WILL eat gnocchi today, even though it is only the 28th. and I hope that you, too, will lift up your fork in solidarity and enjoy a plateful of these delectable dumplings!
But, where, you ask, can you buy gnocchi? My friends, making gnocchi is not as hard as you think, especially when one’s addiction rarely allows the time to go off in search of the ‘stuff’ available on the street.
Admittedly, I am new to making gnocchi. At first I resisted because it seemed so time consuming and I felt buoyed by my stash of ready made gnocchi in my cupboard. But one day, just like any addiction, those gnocchi weren’t enough for me; they weren’t light enough or fluffy enough and they were sort of dry, too. So it happened, innocently enough, that in search of an afternoon snack, I spied a plastic container of leftover mashed potatoes. I know; I am well aware of the legions of gnocchi experts who say one must cook the potatoes; one must rice the potatoes; one must do this and one must do that…or else. But me, well on my best days, I’m rebellious, so I pondered over those potatoes that had been in the refrigerator for exactly five days, and then, I grabbed a yogurt and quietly shut the door.
I spent the next 12 hours thinking about the possibility of having a first time run at homemade gnocchi and yes, I did wonder how almost week old mashed potatoes would work. I briefly toyed with the idea of starting with fresh potatoes, I mean, if I was going to commit myself to something so laboriously (at least I thought so) time consuming as gnocchi, then I should really set myself up for success by starting fresh. But then, that would mean, since it was the weekend and basketball season was still going strong, I would miss a good game, not to mention, I’d have to throw out those perfectly good, albeit, semi-aged, mashed potatoes.
I had recently read a recipe revealing that the secret to ultra crispy has browns (another one of my obsessions) was parboiling the potatoes and then leaving them to cool in the refrigerator for several hours prior to shredding. The science behind this trick had to do with the starches getting a chance to get all cozy with their neighboring starches, and as we can imagine, the cozier the starches get, the happier everyone is in the end. So, I reasoned that my potatoes weren’t aged–they were just cozy. Thus, I took the container out of the refrigerator so that when they were at room temperature, I could get started on making gnocchi.
Making gnocchi is a pretty intimidating task and if you read enough recipes, you will probably shy away from it altogether, which is almost what I did. Then, I came across a recipe that said that it really wasn’t about how much flour you added as it was about the consistency of the dough. That won me over and gave me the courage to proceed with my plans. I dumped the mashed potatoes out onto a floured cutting board, made a well in the center and cracked two eggs into the hole. Then I added a good pinch of salt and several generous cranks of the pepper mill. Finally, I started working in the scoops of flour. I will confide that at one point, I was fairly certain that I had used way too much flour, but I just kept reminding myself it was about the consistency and feel of the dough. I continued to knead and to add more flour until my dough was smooth and pliable and had lost its stickiness.
The next part was easy: I cut the dough into pieces and rolled each into a long rope. Then, I cut the ropes into tiny pillows of dough.
Now, there is a whole other argument to gnocchi that one must rake each dumpling with the tines of a fork, or it’s not really gnocchi. The fork tines, I learned, are so each gnocchi can serve as a vehicle for extra sauce. For me, using fork tines to rake grooves into the dumplings was a decorative touch at best, for I wasn’t worried a lick about whether or not my gnocchi could carry sauce; I eat my gnocchi with a spoon.
The rolling and cutting went by rather quickly and before I knew it, I had quite a pile of gnocchi. Unbelievably, there were even too many for me, so I decided to freeze the surplus for later use. I did this by rolling them in flour, tossing them onto a cookie sheet in a single layer, and freezing them until they were firm. Then I divided them into freezer bags for later use.