Never a fan of dumplings, food writer Nicola Miller’s mind was changed when out of a sense of politeness to her host she ate gnocchi on a school skiing trip
Once upon a time, I had a difficult relationship with dumplings. My teens were punctuated by too many school stews where they bobbed, ambergris-grey and claggy, on a sea of gravy as murky as the waters off Clacton. I rejected anything that was texturally similar or carried the same name, which was incredibly limiting because the world of the dumpling is a kaleidoscopic one. Boy did I miss out. I was stubborn as hell, too; if a dinner lady made me sit at the table until I cleared my plate, I would still be there at the end of the day. My all-time personal best in meal refusal saw me reject the same plateful, re-presented by my mother at each meal, for two days. I had much in common with a cat that would starve itself rather than eat a different brand of pet food.
So, when it was ‘go hungry or eat gnocchi’ whilst on a school skiing trip to Italy one Christmas, it was only my desire to not be impolite that persuaded me to try it. And let me say for the record that the morning had already started off badly when I was banned from skiing for the day and told to remain in the hotel by my teacher. The day before I had accidentally taken her ski poles instead of my own and she refused to believe this was a genuine error because how could I not notice the difference? In my defence, I will point out that it was my first day of skiing and how on earth was I supposed to know what a correctly sized pole ‘should’ look like? Yes, I still bear a grudge. In those days we did not have weeks of pre-ski preparation. We disembarked at the resort in our C&A salopettes to hurl ourselves down a steep slope with only a pair of sticks between us and a broken neck. Actually, I lie. Prior to departure, one of the teachers did tell the girls they needed to be on the pill if they wanted private time with their boyfriends. So that was our preparation – it did not matter if we returned in a halo frame but for the love of God do not get pregnant.
On Christmas Eve, I was left in the hotel with only the kindly proprietor to look in on me, which she was obviously too busy to do because a feast had to be prepared. As soon as her back was turned, off I took down the mountain to the village until cold and hunger drove me back. The proprietor winked and plonked before me a simple bowl of slippery dumpling drumlins in a rippled puddle of butter and sage then left me on my own in a cavernous dining room which smelled of damp woollen socks. (Skiers dressed like Earnest Shackleton back then.)
Realising that there was no convenient dog around, I resigned myself to eating them. It was safe to say I was not expecting great things from simmered blobs of potato, flour and egg. But I was wrong. They were not saggy or sodden and nor did they fight their way down like a duvet being stuffed into a too-small cover. I could not taste undercooked flour. They were lightly delicate and fleeting of flavour – a perfect carrier for the butter and oil they were anointed with. I became a convert.
I still refuse stew dumplings, but I am happy to order and eat gnocchi wherever I can. Chestnut gnocchi with jugged hare at the Bildeston Crown; the classic gnocchi di patate at countless trattorias; tiny Sardinian malloreddus with their tracheal ridges; gnocchi in a Seoul hotel’s ‘world food’ restaurant that came with a side of kimchi back in the eighties. It is everywhere. Europeans took the potato to Italy from its South American home then centuries later, the Italians returned there as economic migrants and made gnocchi with it. An Argentinian friend told me about their tradition of eating gnocchi on the 29th of each month, a possible throwback to the times when Italian workers ran out of money as payday approached. In Argentina, they sometimes make their gnocchi with yucca root or pumpkin and they use pumpkin in Italy, too, because gnocchi is a meal you make with whatever starch you have to hand. And now it is autumn and I am using squash.
It is a subsistence food in many ways but to me, gnocchi tastes luxurious and part of this luxury is time in these days of speedy, one tin cooking. Yes, there are occasions when the thought of doing anything other than chucking stuff into an oven is too exhausting to contemplate. But sometimes it is good to make a meal that likes your company as it cooks: risotto is one of them and gnocchi is another. Neither can be rushed as technique – the little hints and tips that help guard against failure – are everything when it comes to their making. In the interests of full disclosure, I have made and thrown away as many failed gnocchi as I have eaten successful ones, but that was before I properly took on board the concept of time and mental space in cookery. Do not make these if you are in a rush unless you are experienced in the art of gnocchi making.
There is an interesting dichotomy to gnocchi. It takes a while to prepare but it comes together very swiftly at the end. It is not the kind of meal you want to cook if your family is like mine, disappearing one minute before you plate up after hanging around the kitchen all evening. Draining the gnocchi acts as a cue for them to trot to the loo, or to make a call or plant fields of wheat for all the time they seem to take. Gnocchi cools quickly, so make sure your little darlings are sat around the table before you serve it up.
SQUASH GNOCCHI IN AN ORANGE BUTTER SAUCE
500g scrubbed unpeeled red Desiree or other floury potatoes
500g unpeeled kabocha or crown prince squash
150-225g plain flour
1 medium egg
For the sauce:
80g unsalted butter
Two peeled garlic cloves
4 sage leaves
2 large oranges – the zest of both and the juice from one
To serve: grated parmesan cheese
Heat the oven to 200C/180C Fan/Gas 6.
Prick the potatoes all over and put them in a roasting tin with the squash. Bake them until tender; this should take 70-90 minutes depending on your oven.
Take the tin from the oven and, using a towel to handle, peel away the potato and pumpkin skin. Peeling them when they are hot allows steam to escape instead of condensing back into the flesh, ensuring the finished gnocchi remains light. Put the potatoes through a ricer, set aside, and discard the peel.
Rice the pumpkin and drain off any remaining liquid; discard its skin. Place the flesh in a frying pan and cook, stirring constantly over low heat for four minutes. The larger surface area of a frying pan allows more moisture to evaporate, but do not let the flesh catch.
Flour a work surface with plain flour. Place the potato and pumpkin onto it and scatter 150g flour over it along with the salt and pepper. Beat the egg.
Make a well in the middle and slowly pour in the egg, then, using your fingers, mix it all together. Do this as lightly as possible, only adding more flour if it is too sticky to work until it comes together. You want it on the sticky side though so be cautious adding the flour. The amount you need varies with each making so go by touch; when the dough feels as if it will hold its shape, add no more flour.
Divide the dough into four pieces and with your hands, roll each one into a sausage shape about the thickness of your thumb. Cut each sausage into small pieces half the length of your thumb. Take a fork and push each piece against the tines which will give you a dumpling with striations on one side and a thumb-sized depression on the other. Do not worry if they are a bit misshapen; mine usually are!
Cover the gnocchi with a tea towel while you prepare the sauce.
Melt the butter in the same frying pan you used for the pumpkin over low heat and add the garlic cloves and the sage. Stir so the flavours infuse, then add the orange juice and salt to taste. Cook, stirring for two minutes. Set aside and cover while the gnocchi cooks.
Boil a pan of salted water and add the gnocchi – you may need to cook them in batches. The gnocchi will sink to the bottom and then, quite quickly, rise to the surface. Once they have risen, cook them for 1.5 minutes, tasting one to check it is cooked, and then remove with a slotted spoon onto kitchen paper to drain.
Once the gnocchi are drained, add them to the pan of sauce and toss them very gently to coat. Cook for one more minute before discarding the sage and garlic. Serve topped with drifts of parmesan cheese, pepper and the orange zest.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020