Gnocchi, the humble little Italian dumplings, are glorious in fall when the addition of pumpkin makes them shine. Served with a simple sage butter, the dumplings promise to wow your crowd.
SOMETIMES CULINARY triumphs come in the humblest packages. Take the modest Italian dumplings known as gnocchi. Gnarly little knobs of nothing more than flour, eggs and sometimes vegetables, gnocchi are the most primitive form of pasta imaginable. Yet, made correctly, they can have an ethereal goodness that defies their earthy nature.
When I was the chef at Friday Harbor House in the early 1990s, I used to get flowers and vegetables from Nootka Rose Farm on Waldron Island. The produce was delivered via boat twice a week, and every time it arrived was like Christmas morning. The greens were crisp and usually sparkling with the well water in which they were rinsed. The squashes and beans and peas were vibrant, and seemed to possess a density far beyond their commercially grown counterparts. The roots and tubers from Waldron, too, were invariably the best of their kind.
One late summer day when the boxes from Waldron arrived, I saw the yellow Finn potatoes and knew instantly that they would become potato gnocchi. Most recipes for gnocchi call for baking potatoes. With its large, almost crystalline granular structure, the flesh of a russet is less likely to become gummy as it gets cooked, riced and mixed on the way to becoming dough. But handled lightly, yellow-fleshed potatoes can yield a soft and pillowy dumpling with more character than those made with baking potatoes. So I made the gnocchi and a classic béchamel, then stirred in grated Reggiano Parmigiano and listed them on the menu in the slot reserved for pasta.
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As fate would have it, a group of Italian cyclists was staying at the inn that night, and they all ordered the gnocchi. I sauced the dumplings, baked them off and sent them out. When I stepped into the dining room to check on the guests, the cyclists stood up and applauded.
Gratified, I started making gnocchi more often — and not just with potatoes. I tried the oldest form of gnocchi, Gnocchi alla Romana, made with a cooked paste of semolina flour and milk. They were good, but they didn’t thrill me. I made spinach gnocchi, good but strange. Then I tried gnocchi di Zucca, made with the dense, sweet flesh of sugar pumpkins grown at that wonderful farm on Waldron. I served them with browned butter and fried sage leaves, like the ones found in the Emilia-Romagna, the home of some of my ancestors. These were a revelation, transcending their vegetable origins and sending me into a reverie. I found myself wishing the Italian cyclists would return. I just might have gotten another standing ovation.
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Pumpkin Gnocchi with Sage Butter
Gnocchi are little lumps of pasta-like dough that are boiled in salted water until they float. Many versions are rubbed against the tines of a fork to create neat, shell-like nuggets, but I find it simpler to press the pieces of dough into simple discs that are thinner in the center than they are around the edges. The depression in the center allows them to cook evenly, sort of like the hole in a doughnut.
For the gnocchi
1 1/2 pounds fresh pie pumpkin, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 to 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg, or to taste
For the sage butter
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
24 fresh sage leaves
For the garnish
2 ounces Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Pile the pumpkin cubes onto a rack over a cup of water in a medium-size saucepan. Steam over medium-high heat until the pumpkin is soft and tender, about 10 minutes. Lift the rack from the saucepan, discard the cooking water and allow the pumpkin to cool to room temperature.
2. Force the steamed pumpkin through a food mill or press it through the holes of a colander. Put the purée back in the pan and stir in the 2 tablespoons of butter. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the pumpkin has thickened and dried, about 10 minutes.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and when the pumpkin purée has cooled almost to room temperature, stir in a cup of the flour, the egg yolk, salt, pepper and nutmeg. You should have a very sticky dough. Stir in another half cup of flour, then sprinkle the remaining flour onto a clean, dry surface and scrape the dough onto the flour. Knead the mixture gently, incorporating just enough flour to make a soft dough.
4. To form the gnocchi, divide the dough into 8 pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a rope about an inch thick and cut the rope into 12 pieces. Gently pinch each piece of dough with a well-floured thumb and forefinger to make a concave dumpling. Place the formed gnocchi in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with baker’s parchment. If you’re not going to cook them immediately, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the gnocchi for up to 4 hours or freeze them for several days.
5. When you’re ready to cook the gnocchi, bring a gallon of water with a tablespoon of salt to a boil. Cook the gnocchi in two batches in the boiling water until they rise to the surface of the water, about 3 minutes. Lift the gnocchi out of the water with a slotted spoon and hold them on a warm platter. Toss the gnocchi with the butter sauce. Use a vegetable peeler to cut curls of Parmesan over the top of the dish and top with a few grinds of fresh pepper.
6. To make the butter sauce, melt the butter in a small skillet over low heat. Add the sage leaves and simmer until the butter turns golden.
Greg Atkinson, 2010