Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gnocchi - Part 1: Lessons from a Pastaio

Pastaio - Pasta Maker

My big mouth has been working for me lately; a refreshing change from the norm, I must say. Remember how I mentioned Mike Easton in my Braised Short Ribs post? The guy who owns Il Corvo Pasta in Seattle? The guy who told me how I should have made that thick, amazing sauce? Well, he came into my restaurant again last week. After a little bit of chitchat my big mouth blurted out,

“Will you show me how to make pasta and maybe do an interview for my blog?”

He said, "Sure! But instead of pasta, let's do gnocchi. How about Thursday morning?"

It’s either dumb luck or I’m truly following my heart these days because at that moment I knew that this was going to be the beginning of a series of tutorials and interviews that I will be doing with chefs, craftsmen, and artisans in order to learn how I can recreate some of my favorite things at home… and for Lorelei.

Bright and early last Thursday morning I found myself in the quaint little shop that Mike shares with a gelateria just below the Pike Place Market. As I walked in, the red neon Procopio sign mounted on a wall-to-wall mirror behind the counter cast a warm glow on the place; a welcome contrast to the gray Seattle morning. With a quick, “Hello. Good morning” Mike rolled right into telling me about the first steps of the gnocchi making process.

The main theme of the lesson was about moisture; how to keep it in and out of the potatoes while cooking them, and how best to allow as much moisture to escape the potatoes after cooking in order to make a light, fluffy gnocchi.

First: boil the potatoes (preferable Yukon Golds) in salted water until they are tender to the core when tested with a knife. Then, as soon as you can, peel the spuds of their skin and pass them through a food mill or ricer.

Let the milled potatoes fall onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet in as much of an even layer as possible for uniform cooling. Then, allow to sit out uncovered for around two hours to let it come to room temperature and dry out a bit.

If you don’t have the time, as Mike doesn’t in the shop, place the uncovered tray in the fridge overnight. The next morning place the tray in your gas oven with the pilot light on for about an hour or until it's just warm to the touch. If you’re unlucky like I am and don’t have a gas range (and are as impatient as I am), carefully and with great attention, put the tray in your electric oven at 200º for fifteen to twenty-five minutes or as long as it takes for the potatoes to feel like supple little petals in your hand. That sounds flowery, I know, but it's true. The potatoes that Mike made felt like lavender petals when they had finished the drying process; delicate, fragile, and fluffy.

Then, after a little while of cooling and tending, the fun begins.

There’s a no-fail formula to making the gnocchi dough. Really. There is. It’s not about how many potatoes, or how many eggs, or how much flour to use, it’s about the weight of the ingredients.

-        For every 300 grams of boiled, riced, and ‘dried’ potatoes (yes! grams)
-        There is one egg (or there about)
-        Then, flour. Equal to 1/2 of the total weight of the potato/egg mixture.

No foolin’. That’s it.

One important note: Use WARM eggs. Room temperature is good, but Mike does something pretty cool; he places eggs from the fridge into a bowl of boiling water and lets them stand for five minutes or so. Using warm eggs will keep the potato/egg/flour mixture from being too stiff and will make the dough easier to work with.

Once you have the three ingredients in a bowl, get your hands in there and start mixing. It’s going to be sticky, but it’s the best kind of sticky.

Then, when everything is well incorporated, turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface.

Then, as you would bread dough, kneed it for a few minutes to develop the glutens in the mixture. Mike explained that this process is pretty crucial because this will allow the gnocchi to puff up to be tender little pillows, and not doughy gut bombs. (Technically speaking, the expanding liquids are trapped by the gluten proteins thereby making the dumplings puff up nice ‘n perty like.)

When the dough has come together and is a bit elastic, it’s time to start rolling! It’s like preschool, or art class all over again. I love it!! Cut off a small-ish piece of the dough and, on a floured surface, start rolling it out like it’s Play Dough. Of course, Mike made it look easy, deftly rolling out piece after piece, dusting each one with a pinch of flour so they wouldn’t stick to the board or to each other.

Then, when there were three or four snakes of dough rolled out, he would line them up and, with the precision of a chef (wait, he is a chef… anyway), he took his bench scraper and chopped them into even pieces.

Just after cutting, he dusted the newly formed pillows of dough with flour so that the exposed bits wouldn’t stick together. He repeated these steps until the entire loaf of dough was rolled, chopped, dusted, and ready to be cooked.

At this point, of you were to be making a small batch, or wanted to either be fancy or make your mark on your creation, you could, well, make some marks in the gnocchi; either by means of a gnocchi board, or on a fork.

Then, all that’s left is to boil ‘em up and serve ‘em up. Enjoy!


About the boiling…

It is very important to have your water well salted, “like the sea.” Mike was sure to point out that the ocean is 3% salt, and that the boiling water for gnocchi (any pasta really) should be at least 2% salt. Remember that there was NO SALT in the dough mixture, so this is the only time that the gnocchi will be seasoned. (Don’t worry about percentages at this point, just salt the hell out of the water.)

Another thing about boiling gnocchi is that it takes way more time than what you might think. The common thought, as was mine until last week, is that gnocchi are done cooking when they float to the top of the water. No! No! Once they hit the top let ’em cook for a good long time; Mike says around four minutes, but we stood in his kitchen for I don’t know how long shootin’ the shit before he popped a piping hot pillow into his mouth and said, “Now.”
No kidding, they really puff up! They are deflated a bit in the picture, but oh boy! I've never had gnocchi like this. It was a new experience for me. In three simple letters, GUH!

You can toss the freshly cooked gnocchi into a sauce (simple is best, don't over do it), or you can generously coat the strained gnocchi with olive oil and keep them in the fridge until you're ready to serve them (this is of course what is done in the restaurant as the gnocchi are served as freshly boiled as possible)*.

I wasn’t at Il Corvo for service that day, but there’s a great shot of the gnocchi that we made that day on Mike’s site.
Mike and his assistant Johannes Heitzerberg preparing fresh pasta for service. Sometimes with music blaring, other times in silence. Either way, it's really freakin' cool... I'm such a food dork.

When I asked Mike about where and how he learned to make pasta, he said this,

“I didn’t go to Italy to learn how to cook. 
I knew how to cook before I got there. 
I went there to learn an craft.”

And that he did. What a wonderful experience I had. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to watch this craftsman at work. Mike’s pasta is available Monday through Friday 11:00 – 2:00. You can follow Il Corvo and learn about their daily specials and other fun stuff on Twitter (@ilcorvopasta), on Facebook (Il Corvo Pasta) or on Mike’s blog http://ilcorvopasta.com.

Stay tuned for Part two of the gnocchi story: Making Gnocchi at home With The Babes.

*Gnoccchi that are par-boiled and tossed with olive oil


UPDATE: Want to read part two? Here you go! Gnocchi - Part 2, Making it at Home With My Babes 


Michele said...

Awesome! Delicious! Great article, photography and very well described! My mouth is watering!

Michele said...

Awesome! Very well done article, descriptions and photography! My mouth is watering and I this just makes me miss the Seattle area more! Thank you!

The Food-Minded Mama said...

Thank you Michele. I'm glad that you liked it.