Those made by the owner of Gnocchi Bar on Capitol Hill are uncommonly tender, almost silky in texture, defiantly light.
WHEN IT COMES to making gnocchi, don’t fear the potato.
That’s Lisa Nakamura’s most basic advice, and she ought to know: She serves upward of 15,000 little potato pillows a month at Gnocchi Bar, the casual Capitol Hill spot she opened this spring. And before that, her gnocchi was the runaway favorite at upscale Allium, her previous restaurant on Orcas Island. Before that, she learned about making gnocchi from Thomas Keller while working at the French Laundry.
Anyone who’s been confronted with a plateful of leaden, inedible lumps — which is almost everyone who’s tried a few versions of gnocchi — should be afraid to make it. Nakamura is here to help.
She’s modest about her expertise; this isn’t the food she ate growing up in Hawaii. “I’m kind of faking it, in a way,” she demurs. “I’m sure there’s some Italian grandma sitting there going . . . ” She mouths the words what the hell.
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“I think I know what I’m doing. I’m not sure,” she says. “People seem to like it.”
Her gnocchi are uncommonly tender, almost silky in texture, defiantly light. Preparations include local, seasonal vegetables; this fall, she’ll make gnocchi with lamb ragu, as well as her pumpkin gnocchi with bratwurst and beer sauce. Gnocchi Bar has been “crazy-busy,” she says. (Serving D’Ambrosio gelato doesn’t hurt.)
Her regulars include Jon Manley, a DJ on 107.7 The End who loves the gnocchi with meatballs so much, it’s called “The Manley” on the menu. Then there’s the guy who works across the street at the police station who looks like Morpheus from the movie “The Matrix.” (Posing with her for a photo for Facebook, Nakamura says, “He said, ‘Wait, let me put my sunglasses on.’ ” The results are pretty much perfect.) And a neighborhood dog named Odin who drags his owner inside and up to the counter every time he’s walked by.
“He’s like, ‘I’m not leaving until you give me my meatball,’ ” Nakamura says, laughing. (Dogs aren’t technically allowed in Gnocchi Bar, but Morpheus hasn’t arrested Odin for trespassing yet.)
As for developing her gnocchi methodology, Nakamura says, “Some of it was logic, and some of it was trial and error.” She read and reread Harold McGee (who writes about the chemistry of food and cooking), obsessing over the science of gumminess. As with making bread, she says, you learn from making gnocchi over and over: “There were times when I’d think I’d screwed up the dough, and it actually worked out better.”
She’s reduced her hard-earned gnocchi knowledge to a few tenets. To reduce moisture, roast the potatoes at a high temperature instead of boiling them. Work with the potatoes while they’re still very hot, because cooling leads to gumminess. Keep the dough dry until the last minute, “just like when you’re making biscuits.” And it’s all egg yolks, no egg whites, because she says, “The yolk is all fat. Fat makes it more tender.”
Making gnocchi is messy, she warns, but the more you do it, the better you get at it.
“It’s only a potato,” Nakamura says. “Don’t be afraid of it. And if you are afraid of it, we’ll make it for you!”
Lisa Nakamura’s Potato Gnocchi
Serves 8-12 people
4 to 5 medium-sized russet potatoes
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus 1 cup for dusting
1 tablespoon salt
3 to 4 egg yolks
1 cup white wine
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups heavy cream
Grated Parmesan cheese
First, some tips: If you’re using store-bought stock, make sure to get the low-sodium version. When forming gnocchi, potatoes should be really hot or really cold; anything in-between will make for a gummy texture. And use russet potatoes; waxier kinds (fingerlings, red, Yukons) are too sticky.
1. Wash potatoes well.
2. Bake in a 400-degree oven until skins are crispy and shell-like, an hour-plus. About halfway through baking, poke a hole in each potato with a paring knife to let steam escape.
3. Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a simmer and prepare an ice bath.
4. Cut each potato in half and scoop out the insides. Pass potatoes through a drum sieve or mash until smooth. Work in a scant cup of flour, salt and then egg yolks. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and quickly knead until it comes together.
5. Form logs of the dough, then cut them into segments. Roll into balls, score on a gnocchi board or with the back of a fork, and drop immediately into the gently boiling water. (Do not have water at a rolling boil, because gnocchi could disintegrate.) When the gnocchi float to the top, they are cooked. Scoop them out and place them in the ice bath.
6. Drain gnocchi well. Use immediately or place on a greased baking sheet and freeze, then store frozen in airtight bags until use.
7. To cook for serving, heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan until very hot. Add gnocchi and sear. Remove gnocchi and deglaze pan with white wine. When wine has evaporated, add stock, then heavy cream. Reduce until you have a sauce consistency, combine with the gnocchi, season with salt and pepper, and serve with Parmesan.