Gnocchi alla Sorrentina
Need a weekend cooking project? Not fussed about breaking a sweat and turning on the oven like many Italians are during their relentlessly hot summers? Then why not try your hand at making gnocchi alla sorrentina, a dish from Campania's Sorrento coast? Made with potato gnocchi, tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella and grated parmesan, this oven-baked primo is sure to impress anyone you've invited over for dinner.
In his late 19th century cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Pellegrino Artusi shared an anecdote about a woman's gnocchi which 'disappeared' after being put to boil. His lesson was to use enough flour so the gnocchi hold together. Most experienced Italian homecooks know well however that minimal flour and a bit of technique are key to achieving light, pillowy dumplings.
So, a bit of advice to ensure you succeed. First, source the right potatoes. Seek out older, floury varieties which absorb less water such as russets. Secondly, use potatoes that are similar in size so that the cooking time is uniform for the unpeeled spuds boiling away in your saucepan. Thirdly, after boiling, ensure you drain your potatoes thoroughly. Drain them in your pasta colander and then transfer them back to dry in a hot saucepan for a minute or two, a trick I've learnt over time. Next, start peeling your spuds and passing them through your potato ricer while still hot. Use rubber gloves or insert a fork inside the potatoes to make this task easier, if you like. Finally, add the indicated amount of flour in gradual, small fistfuls to the riced potato and egg. You may find that not all of it is necessary. Once your ingredients have just come together and you have a smooth dough that no longer sticks to your hands and work surface, you'll know you're ready to start rolling out your gnocchi.
Another important note, this time regarding utensils. If you're serious about gnocchi-making, I highly recommend getting a potato ricer. If you don't have one of these on hand, a food mill or a fork can be used to mash your potatoes instead. As for creating their characteristic righe or ridges, a grooved wooden gnocchi board is the most commonly used tool for doing this. Rolling your gnocchi along the back of a fork works well too.
Ingredients (serves 6 as a starter)
Pass tomatoes through a food mill until obtaining a smooth puree. Gently heat a saucepan with 40 mL of olive and the clove of garlic. As the garlic begins to colour, add the pureed tomato mixture, 200mL of water, salt and 5 of the torn basil leaves. Leave to simmer on low to medium heat, uncovered for 20 minutes. Cover and set aside for the final assembly.
In the meantime, prepare the gnocchi by rinsing the potatoes of all dirt. Place in a large thick-bottomed saucepan, whole and unpeeled, and bring to boil. Allow to cook until tender (you should be able to easily pierce a fork through them). Drain in a pasta colander, put the emptied saucepan back on low heat until its bottom is dry, add the potatoes and leave them to dry for a couple of minutes. Peel the potatoes while they are still hot, discard their skins and pass them though a potato ricer. Spread the riced potato on a clean wooden board, allowing any remaining steam to escape. Transfer to a large bowl, add the beaten egg and salt and begin incorporating the flour, bit by bit. You may not need all the flour indicated. Gently bring the ingredients together until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks to your hands and your mixing bowl.
Remove a large fistful of dough from your ball and roll it out into a 1.5cm thick log on a clean, wooden work surface. Cut the log into pieces about 1.5 cm in length. Roll the gnocchi along a gnocchi board or gently press them on the back of a fork) to make their ridges. Lay gnocchi on a well-dusted tray or tea-towel and repeat above procedure until all the dough has been used.
Bring a large saucepan of water to boil, add salt and gently place the gnocchi in the boiling water. As they bob to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon, drain of any excess water and transfer them to a lightly oiled baking dish. Add the tomato sauce and remaining basil leaves, tossing carefully to coat the gnocchi all over. Sprinkle the grated parmesan and top with the cubed pieces of mozzarella.
Place in an oven preheated to 240 to 250 º C for 5 – 10 minutes or until the mozzarella has melted and the corners are bubbling with hot tomato sauce. Serve immediately.