For the current edition of Cook the Books, we are reading Heat by Bill Buford. The book's subtitle, An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, aptly describes what the book is about. Before reading Heat, I knew Bill Buford as the editor of Granta (which he relaunched in 1979), a position he held until 1995, and as fiction editor of The New Yorker. I knew that I liked Buford's writing style. My favorite parts of the book are those where he describes himself dealing with the tasks he is given, like when he browns ribs and burns himself with hot oil (pages 72-73). Less interesting, in my opinion, are the parts where he talks about Mario Batali and other mercurial characters.
I see the book mostly as the story of satisfying an obsession or two, so it inspired me not so much to cook anything mentioned in it, but rather to explore an idea I had had for a while — a small, harmless obsession. Ever since I read how Haalo of Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once had made potato gnocchi using pink-fleshed Viking potatoes, I had been hoping to get my hands on the same or a similar kind of potato (patata).
Gnocchi di patate being one of my mother's specialties, the recipe I have been using since I started making them in my kitchen is hers. She gave me the recipe, i.e., the quantity of potatoes and flour she used, and I drew upon my memories of seeing her making gnocchi to produce my own. When I embarked in the adventure of the colorful gnocchi, I knew that not all potatoes work well as an ingredient for the dish, and I expected to have to make adjustments to the pattern that I had learned.
The subject of gnocchi actually comes up in Heat. On pages 138-9, Batali tells the audience of an episode of his TV show how to make gnocchi (tells, as opposed to explains). In particular, he
tells you that the lumpies will be fully cooked not when they float to the top, as most people incorrectly believe (have you held such a belief?), but only when "they're aggressively trying to get out of the pot" (whereupon everyone lifts up slightly from their stools, hoping to get a glimpse of what gnocchi look like when they are behaving like lobsters thrashing for their survival)...
Nobody apparently asked for more details, and this recipe "courtesy of Mario Batali" actually instructs to take the gnocchi out of the water as they float to the top.
This being an obsession, albeit a mild one, I tried several variations in terms of potatoes (all red Red Rose first, then deep-purple Purple Majesty, all from Warren Creek Farms), of cooking method (baked naked, baked wrapped in foil, microwaved) and of amount of flour. The one thing where I did not change was the list of ingredients: potatoes, flour and a bit of salt. (Just to be clear: no eggs.)
Print-friendly version of briciole's recipe for Purple potato gnocchi
I think that a list of all the different variations I tried would be rather boring, so I'll just share with you the last incarnation of my search for the right balance of flour. For the gnocchi in the photo, I cooked 3 Purple Majesty potatoes, weighing 1 lb and 2 oz (500 g). When I make gnocchi for guests, I cook a kilo of potatoes, but when I make experiments, I make half a batch.
As you can also read on this page, water in the potatoes must be balanced with flour, so the less water, the less flour you need, the lighter the gnocchi will be. Adding flour is a bit of a balancing act: not enough and your gnocchi will disintegrate in the water; too much and they will be pasty. I have been baking potatoes to make gnocchi for years. However, I have found that baking can lead to hardened spots that must be removed. The quest for the cooking method that would dry the potato without making hard spots, brought me to try the pre-set potato program on my microwave, whose cooking time is 3'55". Cooking the potatoes in the microwave, one at a time, scrubbed, pierced in a few places with a blade (to avoid explosion), and wrapped in a paper towel, gave me an unexpectedly good result. The potatoes were cooked evenly, without hard spots, without any water added, and in less time than in the oven.
Once the potatoes are cooked, peel them as soon as you can handle them, taking care to remove only the thin skin layer, cut them in half and push one piece at a time through a potato ricer (schiacciapatate) into a bowl — trying to rice a whole potato caused damage to my previous ricer, so I am sharing the lesson I learned. Let the potatoes cool thoroughly, then add 50 g of flour (a bit less than 2 oz.) and a pinch of salt. Mix in the bowl with a fork, then finish on the kneading board (spianatoia), without overworking the dough. Divide the dough into four pieces and let it rest for a while.
Roll each piece of dough into a rope about 3/4" in diameter and use a knife to cut it into 3/4" long pieces. I use my thumb to make an indentation in each piece while I roll it over the back of a flat cheese grater. I have seen boards that help you make lovely gnocchi, but for now, I am attached to what I have seen used as a child.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and add some coarse sea salt. Slide 12 gnocchi or so into the water and wait until they all surface. Keep the water at a nice, though not furious, boil. Wait until they all float steadily on the surface, not bobbing up and down. Use a slotted spoon (schiumarola) to fish the floating gnocchi out of the pot and place them into a bowl covered with a lid to keep them warm. Do not let your attention wander during this phase. Repeat the tossing-waiting-fishing routine until all gnocchi are cooked. Add the chosen dressing, toss lightly with a spoon and serve immediately.
My favorite dressing for gnocchi is a simple tomato sauce with basil, but, based on experience, I know that it does not make for a nice photo when the gnocchi are pink, and I can imagine that with purple gnocchi it would be the same. Hence, for the occasion, I dressed the gnocchi with 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of butter melted in a pan with two leaves of fresh sage and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The balance of flavors was right and the texture of gnocchi was satisfying. That doesn't mean my obsession is over, but only that it has found a momentary satisfaction.
This is my contribution to the current edition of Cook the Books, hosted by Johanna of Food Junkie not Junk Food. You can find the guidelines for participating in the event here, and here is the announcement.
This post has the roundup of the event.
I will neither quote Dante (not my favorite subject in school), nor sing arias from Italian operas (though there are many I love, and we just saw a fabulous production of Aida). However, as usual, you can click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the gnocchi di patate viola audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
Volevo sempre farli, ma ero convinta che diventassero grigi, bellissimi!
Posted by: Laura | December 03, 2010 at 09:57 PM
Le patate viola le ho trovate una volta sola e le ho fatte in insalata, ma vorrei tanto provare gli gnocchi. A me il sapore di queste patate ha ricordato un po' quello delle castagne.
Posted by: Alex | December 03, 2010 at 10:30 PM
Hee hee. I know these taste lovely, but I can't help by think of the little piece of playdough in a Cranium game. Nice idea though. I make gnocchi a lot, but never with these potatoes, which is such a fun idea. Happy cooking!
Posted by: Lemon Tart | December 03, 2010 at 11:25 PM
I will neither quote Dante or sing arias....that was a very funny line, Simona. Brava on these gorgeous purple gnocchi for Cook the Books!
Posted by: Rachel @ The Crispy Cook | December 04, 2010 at 03:02 AM
Cooking in colours is a concept I would like to follow, afterall we eat with our eyes first.
Posted by: bellini | December 04, 2010 at 06:14 AM
Laura- io le patate viola le ho provate (si trovano in un piccolo sacco di varieta' diverse da Trader Joe's) ma a dire il vero, sono infatti diventate grigiastre. Come hai fatto, Simona? Sara' il metodo/tempi di cottura? Fra l'altro, non sono riuscita a percepire una reale differenza nel sapore.
Non ho mai fatto gli gnocchi in casa proprio per il fatto che bisogna spellare le patate quando sono ancora calde e non voglio bruciarmi i ditini. Suggerimenti?
Posted by: Cynthia | December 04, 2010 at 06:34 AM
I just found your blog through Proud Italian Cook and am enchanted. The recipes are wonderful, but the pronunciation you offer at the end is stupenda! brava.
Posted by: ciaochowlinda | December 04, 2010 at 10:09 AM
Simone! Thank you so much! I feel like I understand gnocchi so much better now! I love that you made them from purple potatoes... How fun and playful! I have to agree, the sage butter might not be visually appealing, but what a flavor combination! I'm saving your gnocchi recipe...and it's on my "to make" list!!
Posted by: Glennis - Can't Believe We Ate | December 04, 2010 at 12:02 PM
wouuuuuuuu ma che meraviglia, troppo belli ^_________^ e perfetti con burro e salvia, li preferisco al sugo di pomodoro con cui non ho un gran feeling.....un dubbio, le patate viola si riconoscono anche con la buccia o bisogna chiedere al fruttivendolo quali sono ? si sa mai che abbia una botta di c....... e riesca a trovarle anch'io ;-)) ciauzzzzzzzz
Posted by: astrofiammante | December 05, 2010 at 06:38 AM
I read Heat some years ago. I don't remember whether or not I actually made it to the end of the book. I do remember liking it, for the most part, though. That quote from Batali -- oy.
Those purple gnocchi are really something! How fun, and I'll bet they were delicious.
A million years ago some friends and I tried to make potato gnocchi; ours disintegrated in the water, so we must not have used enough flour.
Posted by: Lisa | December 05, 2010 at 01:09 PM
Ciao Laura. Ho usato lo stesso tipo di patate anche per fare la zuppa con i porri e mi e' venuta di un bel colore psichedelico.
Ciao Alex. Interessante il rimando alle castagne: me ne ricordero' la prossima volta che le preparo.
I must admit that I am not familiar with the Cranium game. Now you got me curious...
Ciao Rachel. Having gone to school in Italy, I studied Dante as a teenager, which explains my conflicting relation with the great poet.
Ciao Val. I am particularly attracted by purple vegetables. Besides being beautiful to look at, they are good for our health.
Posted by: Simona Carini | December 05, 2010 at 11:06 PM
Ciao Cinzia. Forse le patate che ho usato per gli gnocchi sono di una qualita' diversa. Ho comprato un paio di volte il sacchetto che dici tu, ma le patate le ho fatte arrosto. Certamente vuoi evitare di scottarti nel manipolare la patate. A volte mi capita che comincio a spellare una patata e quando sono a meta' le mie dita cominciano a protestare. Allora la lascio freddare per qualche minuto e poi completo l'opera.
Thanks, Linda, for the kind words!
You are more than welcome, Glennis!
Ciao Astro. Le patate viola che conosco hanno sia la buccia che la polpa di tale colore, pero' di varieta' di patate ce ne sono tante e quindi per sicurezza io chiederei al fruttivendolo.
Ciao Lisa. If there is not enough flour, the gnocchi don't hold during the cooking. Making colorful gnocchi is quite fun. Now I will work on the pink version.
Posted by: Simona Carini | December 05, 2010 at 11:23 PM
Beh, devo proprio provarli sti gnocchi. Essendo veronese, gli gnocchi sono il mio piatto forte ma non ho mai fatto gli ghocchi di patate viola! Mi ispirano!
Posted by: Sara | December 06, 2010 at 03:31 PM
Your mild obsession was very productive. I have gnocchi on my list of cooking goals. Thanks for the tutorial. Do purple potatoes taste like the normal ones? They look like the color of our purple sweet potatoes.
Posted by: Claudia | December 06, 2010 at 05:12 PM
Interessantissimo! Me voglio testare! Grazie.
Posted by: Leandra | December 06, 2010 at 11:55 PM
Simona, I love how the cheese grater makes the gnocchi look like little pinecones. I've never seen that before, and I'm switching! The purple ones are beautiful.
Posted by: Camille | December 07, 2010 at 08:53 AM
This is a great recipe! Thanks for the tip of using the cheese grater! they looks so professional!! And these purple potatoes are so photogenic!!
Posted by: sweet Artichoke | December 07, 2010 at 12:11 PM
Ciao Sara. Mia madre faceva gli gnocchi di patate abbastanza spesso e anche io, una volta che ho imparato, li ho fatti di frequente. Farli colorati e' stata una tentazione troppo forte.
Ciao Claudia. From tasting the gnocchi, you can tell that they are not made with russet potatoes, which are the kind I used before. This page, referenced in my post, has a good description of them. I am not sure I have ever seen purple sweet potatoes.
Ciao Leandra. I hope you try them.
Ciao Camille. That's the shape of gnocchi I am familiar with. The gnocchi board certainly makes them of a lovely shape.
Thanks, Sweet Artichoke. Did you eat any gnocchi when you were in Rome. If my memory serves me well, they are usually served on Thursdays. Also, in Rome they also make another type of gnocchi, using semolina flour. I will tackle them one of these days.
Posted by: Simona Carini | December 08, 2010 at 05:08 PM
Fantastic, Simona! Not all blue potatoes will hold their color when cooked. Very fine photos, too. You may not want to sing an aria, but I do hear the "Triumphant March." ; }
(Need to catch-up w/ you. I fell off the planet for a bit.)
Posted by: Susan | December 11, 2010 at 10:30 AM
Ohhh, I just love the shade of purple of the cooked gnocchi. Hopefully someone is growing Purple Majesty here in Australia. I've used Purple congo for gnocchi but they end up quite an unreal shade of purple.
Posted by: haalo | December 12, 2010 at 04:57 AM
I am bad in that I am just getting around to everyones' CTB posts now. ;-) I love your purple gnocchi--so pretty. I am a huge fan of a butter and sage sauce--so delicious! Great job!
Posted by: DebinHawaii | December 12, 2010 at 08:37 PM
Ciao Susan. Thanks for the info. I am glad you like the photos. It was actually tricky to capture the purple of the gnocchi. The Triumphant March was a great moment at the opera: the costumes were gorgeous and the "elephant" was a sight to behold.
Hi Haalo. I didn't think to check whether you had made purple gnocchi before the pink ones. It's very interesting to see how the color of the gnocchi differs in the two cases. I really want to make the pink ones and then compare notes (though I know that the pink potatoes I can get are not the Viking kind).
Hi Deb. I am glad you like the color of the gnocchi and my choice of dressing.
Posted by: Simona Carini | December 14, 2010 at 06:52 PM
What a wonderful way to create lavender-colored gnocchi!
Regarding tomato coloring regular potato gnocchi pink:
Do you have Ada Boni's "Il tesoro della cucina"?
There is a special section in the back with color pictures that includes a recipe for a salsa di pomodori which is extraordinary in its simplicity, and it does not discolor the gnocchi as much (tavola # 34).
Posted by: Merisi, Vienna | December 18, 2010 at 01:09 PM
Ciao Merisi. I confess I don't have Ada Boni's book. Thanks for the pointer.
Posted by: Simona Carini | December 18, 2010 at 09:24 PM