Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Refrigeration Makes it Happen (or, Lisa Tries to Make Gnocci; Hilarity Does Not Ensue)

I have great friends. Why do I have great friends? Because they let me invade their kitchens, muss up all of their potwear, and with unconditional support, let me perform my culinary experiments. This week, I had a lovely meal that helped me understand the importance of refrigeration as part of a recipe... or more aptly, the importance of having patience and actually following the instructions. And the value of having forgiving friends.

Last Thursday, I did dinner & Grey’s Anatomy with my friend Katrina over at her dainty little apartment just blocks from the lake. Katrina is one of my New Hampshire friends, which is pretty special because not many people from New Hampshire a) go to Northwestern (we both went there) and/or b) end up in Chicago. So to celebrate the fact that we are awesome windy city-living ladies, we decided to do a little Italian dinner.

For an appetizer, Katrina made a batch of absolutely delicious crostini, using a fresh sliced baguette, olive oil, sliced tomatoes, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella slices (see recipe below). She also picked up a gorgeous Chianti... forget the vinter... but I think it’s now my second favorite red wine (behind Argentinean Malbec... MMM)... which we sipped on with the crostini and with dinner.

Dinner was up to me, and as I’ve been wanting to try to make gnocci (pasta-like potato dumplings) for a while, that was my choice. I tried gnocci for the first time when I was in Rome, loved it, but haven’t had it since. Thinking it must be difficult to make, I looked up a recipe for gnocci in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I knew I really could go to Mark to cook everything when I found a very simple recipe for gnocci nestled in the pasta section. Curiously enough, Mark’s recipe only called for four ingredients: potatoes, flour, salt, and pepper. Surely it couldn’t be that easy. However, other recipes I looked up all contained the same basic four ingredients, only adding such “flair” as minced garlic, italian herbs, an egg, nutmeg, and other random stuff. “Easy!” I thought. “I can totally do this!” So on I went, over to Katrina’s, potatoes in hand, looking forward to cooking a quick and tasty meal. Or so I thought.

I’m mad at Mark Bittman now. We’re in a fight. He made the gnocci look so easy... but it turned out to be MUCH more difficult than he said. In short, it’s very, VERY important to refrigerate the dough... for at least TWO hours before you cook your dumplings. Mark didn’t make this very clear. I believe the line was “refrigerate if you can”. Well, let me tell you, it’s pretty necessary if you don’t want your Gnocci to separate into blobs of goo when you put them in the pot.

Also, another thing I didn’t really get is that Gnocci is truly one of those “blank canvas” types of foods, like bread: you can make it plain, or with stuff in it; with more flour, or less flour; make it savory or sweet. I added what I thought was enough flour, but turns out I needed much much more.... probably another reason my Gnoccis turned to blobs of goo when I tried to cook them.

So, there I was in Katrina’s kitchen... both of us poking the gelatinous gnocci as it floated listlessly atop the boiling pot... tears of embarassment forming in my eyes... as we both realized that the valiant attempt was a total loss. Once this fact was established... starving... we briskly swept the failed gnocci into the trash and threw some real pasta on the stove. I heated up some of my frozen vodka cream sauce and the evening was saved!

Before cleaning up, I threw a bunch more flour into the gnocci, refusing to give up. I wrapped it up and brought it home, and let it sit in the refrigerator. A few days later, I gave the Gnocci another, post-refrigeration plus-flour try. Miraculously enough, it WORKED! Here’s the final recipe:

Lisa’s “Second-Time’s the Charm” Gnocci

2 Russet (baking) Potatoes
2-4 Cups Flour
Salt, Pepper
Minced Garlic
Basil, Oregano, Thyme (fresh chopped if possible)
Shredded Parmesan Cheese

Peel the potatoes and boil them for 45 minutes, or until soft. You can speed up the process by cubing them first. Mash the potatoes. Add the salt, pepper, garlic, herbs, and cheese, and add flour by the cup until dough is firm and workable. On wax paper (or a nonstick baking sheet) roll out dough into logs about one inch wide. Cover and REFRIGERATE FOR AT LEAST TWO HOURS, preferably overnight.

When ready to cook, bring a medium-sized pot of water to a boil. Cut the gnocci logs into inch-wide slices, and roll into balls. You can press a fork into the side to add a little flair if you like. Drop the gnocci, about ten at a time, into the boiling pot and cook for 10-12 minutes. After several minutes, the dumplings will rise to the top of the water. Finished gnocci should be soft but chewy. Use a slotted spoon to remove finished gnocci to an oiled bowl, and repeat until all gnocci is cooked. Serve with the pasta sauce of your choice. Serves 2-3.

Katrina’s Crostini
A Baguette
Roma or Plum Tomatoes
Fresh Basil Leaves
Fresh Mozzarella
Olive Oil

Cut the baguette into slices about a half-inch thick. Lay slices on a baking sheet and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Layer each slice with basil leaves, tomato slices, and mozzarella. Place in the oven at 325 degrees until cheese is melted and bread is golden brown.

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