Monday, March 23, 2015

Gnocchi Guru Evan Kleiman Dishes on Italian Staple

Evan Kleiman mixing Beet-Ricotta Gnocchi.

When I heard that KCRW "Good Food" host, author and chef Evan Kleiman was going to teach a class on making gnocchi at New School of Cooking in Culver City, I just had to sign up. I've been an avid listener to Kleiman's radio show since its inception in 1997; it's a smart, provocative and deeply satisfying mix of interviews, reviews and culinary exploration that excites the brain as much as the taste buds. 

A sheet of potato gnocchi shaped by the students.
The "Good Food" host, who often mentions her deep love of Italian cooking, has authored several cookbooks on the subject and ran a beloved L.A. restaurant, Angeli Caffe, which closed in 2012 after 28 years.

Until I took this class, I'd never attempted to make gnocchi (pronounced nyawk-ee). In fact, my household has become rather carb-phobic of late, with pasta and gnocchi seldom making an appearance. When gnocchi does show up, it's often the shelf-stable potato variety from Trader Joe's--quite good, but, no surprise, fresh is far superior.





"I don't believe in giving out recipes before class," Chef Kleiman announced as about 16 of us, perched on stools next to stainless-steel counters, looked on. "You have one opportunity to watch me and the rest of your life to look at the recipe."

Point taken. Our teacher was fun to watch--completely absorbed in what she was doing, yet imparting little gems of wisdom along the way to the room full of would-be sous chefs. Three hours sounds like a fair chunk of time, but it passes rather quickly when you're making three types of gnocchi, plus a meat sauce (Ragù alla Bolognese). 

Semolina Gnocchi (Gnocchi alla Romana).
These are baked rather than boiled.


Of course it was Evan Kleiman who did most of the work, assisted by several members of New School's culinary staff. We pitched in when asked--cutting out semolina gnocchi (Gnocchi alla Romana) with small round cookie cutters; mixing the potato, flour and egg gnocchi (Gnocchi di Patate) with bench scrapers and our hands; shaping the small beet and ricotta "gnocchetti" into tiny pink balls and rolling them in flour. It was particularly satisfying when we finally sat down to sample the bounty we'd help create.

Mixing potato and flour for Potato Gnocchi.

Here are a few tips I gleaned from the class, though I'm sure there are many more I can't decipher from my beet- and flour-stained notebook.

1. The key to success in making gnocchi is allowing the mixture to stand for several hours or overnight--usually in the refrigerator--to absorb the liquid. (This is also true of other dumpling-like doughs, such as matzo balls.) If you don't allow the mixture to chill enough, it won't hold together in the hot liquid.

2. Always do a "boil test" with a few gnocchi before dumping all of them in. When they float to the top, they're ready. Make sure that water is at least simmering when you put the gnocchi (potato or cheese) in.

3. Making potato gnocchi is a more like making pie dough than kneading bread. When you add flour, you want to mix it in to create a dough, but avoid working it so much that you activate the gluten, as you would when making bread.

4. Ms. Kleiman used baked beets that were peeled and grated in her beet-ricotta gnocchi, which created gorgeous fuchsia-colored little rounds of cheesy dough. Golden beets, spinach or carrots would be good alternatives--and would add their own beautiful hues.

5. The ricotta cheese gnocchi can be made with almost no flour or with almond flour or potato flour if you want to make them gluten-free. 

6. The key to ricotta gnocchi is using the right ricotta. "Don't use American ricotta as it's too wet and will require too much flour," Kleiman said. (Her preferred varieties are listed in the recipe below.)

7. A pressure cooker is invaluable for cutting the time required to make an excellent sauce that tastes like the flavors have melded for at least a day, even though it has only cooked for an hour. Kleiman's favorite brand is Fagor, which claims that its pressure cookers can reduce the cooking time as much as 70%.

Potato gnocchi are particularly satisfying to make because "you never have to measure anything," Kleiman said. You just rice baked potatoes (minus skin) in a food mill or ricer with fine holes, dust with flour while still warm, add egg and mix with care (see Step 3 above). It's also possible to leave out the egg.

And finally, as she watched her class making gnocchi for the first time--some rolling the balls of dough a little too small, others a bit too large, some making it too wet, others kneading too much--Kleiman seemed undismayed.

"Cooking's a craft. You only get good at it by using your hands over and over again," she said. "It's very satisfying if it comes out right. If it doesn't, you eat it anyway. You eat your mistakes." 

Here's a link to Kleiman's recipe for Semolina Gnocchi, along with other recipes on the New School of Cooking blog. The semolina variety was the only one of the three that was baked, not boiled. Below are her recipes for Beet-Ricotta Dumplings, Potato Gnocchi and Ragù alla Bolognese.  All are taken almost verbatim from the handout our hard-working chef finally allowed us to have after we'd watched her create culinary magic in front of our eyes. 

Fuchsia or magenta? Whatever you call it, the gnocchi are delicious!

Evan Kleiman's Preface to the Beet-Ricotta Recipe:

I'm giving you the recipe for the Beet Ricotta because they are so special, but really the recipe is the same whatever condiment you use (like sautéed zucchini). The only difference is how much additional flour you might need to add because of the additional moisture in the "condiments." Or you can make them totally plain. When I do that, I always add a little grating of fresh nutmeg. The default finishing of all these gnocchi is melted or brown butter and Parmesan. You can add sage to the butter or a sprig of rosemary for flavor.

You can make the "batter" up to 2 days ahead, and you can form the balls one day ahead. Because the moisture content of the ricotta varies, always make a tester of your mixture before you form all the balls.

These beet "gnocchetti" are a revelation. The color is intense, the flavor earthy and sweet and the texture has that kind of disappearing "cloud in the mouth" effect--the perfect recipe when you need to wow people, especially those who think they hate beets. Boy will they change their minds! 

Beet-Ricotta Dumplings 

Serves: 6-10 depending on appetite and size of menu

Ingredients:

2 medium or 4 small red beets, washed
2 pounds dry Italian ricotta*
2 whole eggs
2 cups grated imported Parmesan cheese, plus more for the table
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (more if needed) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dredging
1 pound butter
2 bunches fresh sage leaves removed from the stems

*Use the Angelo & Franco brand from Whole Foods or the Gioa brand at Italian markets.

Directions:

1. Wrap washed beets in aluminum foil and place on baking sheet. Bake in 450 degree oven until tender--approximately 45 minutes.

2. Remove from the oven and let beets cool. Slip the skins off with your hands. Grate beets into a mixing bowl on the large hold of a box grater. 

3. Add the ricotta, eggs, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to the beets.

4. Mix slowly in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment or with a spoon until combined. (Beware of colorful splashes from the bowl!) 

5. Add 1 cup flour and mix again. Set the mixture aside for a minimum of 2 hours in the refrigerator. It can be made up to two days ahead.

6. To form the gnocchetti, roll a small walnut-sized piece of mixture into a little ball.

7. Drop it onto a shallow pan (pie pan or cookie sheet) covered with enough flour to coat all sides of the balls.

8. Lay each dumpling on a parchment-lined baking sheet, lightly covered with flour. Continue forming the gnocchetti until all the mixture is gone. You can then refrigerate the little dumplings up to one day in advance.

9. Just before you are ready to serve, melt the butter together with the sage leaves in a skillet. Let the butter lightly brown. The sage leaves should be nice and crispy. Set the brown butter and sage aside while you cook the gnocchetti.

10. Slip the gnocchetti into a pot of simmering, salted water. Wait until they float to the surface of the water and continue to cook for an additional minute. 

11. Using a slotted spoon, remove the gnocchetti from the water as they are done. Place them on a serving platter. Once all the gnocchetti are on the platter, top with melted butter and crispy sage, plus a liberal dusting of Parmesan cheese. Serve to oohs and aahs!

Sheets of gnocchi awaiting their hot bath.


Potato Gnocchi 

(Gnocchi di Patate)


Ingredients:

2 pounds mixture of russet and Yukon or other yellow-fleshed potatoes, scrubbed

300-350 grams 00 flour or all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading and rolling

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 eggs, beaten*


*For a recipe without eggs, check out Marco Canora's preparation.

Making potato gnocchi.

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prick potatoes and place directly on metal oven racks.  Bake potatoes until soft and yielding.

2. Remove baked potatoes from oven and carefully remove the peel.  The potatoes will, of course, be very hot.  Press through a food mill or potato ricer onto a floured board, preferably wood.


3. Chop up the potato further using a bench scraper, then sprinkle flour and a little egg over dough that isn't too wet. The goal is to control moisture so you don’t have to add too much flour, which has gluten and will cause tough gnocchi in large quantities.

4. Cut off a manageable chunk of dough and roll it into a 1-inch diameter snake.  Cut snake into pieces between 1/2 and 1 inch.  You may lightly score with fork tines or poke your index finger into each pillow making an indentation or you can use them as simply little pillows.

5. Lay the gnocchi on a parchment or plastic wrap lined tray and refrigerate until ready to use.  They should be cold.  You make also freeze them on the tray for later use, collecting them when hard for storage in a zip bag.

6. To cook, bring water to a boil, add salt, then turn heat to a simmer.  Add the gnocchi (if frozen do not defrost).  Gnocchi are done when they rise to the top of the water.  I usually let them cook another few seconds. 

7. Remove from water with a slotted spoon.  Lay spoon on a towel to collect additional water.  Serve on a platter with sauce of your choice.  You may also sauté them in butter like spåtzle after they are boiled.


Ragù alla Bolognese in a pressure cooker.


Ragù alla Bolognese*


Ingredients:

1 ounce dried porcini or 1 tablespoon porcini powder
2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 celery stalks, peeled and minced

2 carrots, peeled, trimmed and minced

1 onion, peeled and finely diced

Salt to taste

2 peeled garlic cloves, minced

2 lbs ground chuck or ground meat (not lean)

½ lb sweet Italian sausage

1 cup red wine

Small handful finely chopped Italian parsley

3 sage leaves, coarsely chopped

2 cups water or broth

1 can tomatoes in juice, blended 

Additional salt and pepper to taste


*Recipe calls for a pressure cooker, but I assume you could cook it without one just by adding more time. 



Directions:

1. Put the porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with warm water.  Let dry mushrooms soak for 30 minutes. 

2. Sauté the celery, carrot and onions in butter and olive oil with salt to taste until they begin to soften.

3. While the vegetables are sautéing, put the ground meat and sausage in a bowl and add milk.  Stir to mix.  The meat should become fluffy.

4. When vegetables soften, add garlic and sauté until you smell the aroma.  Then add the ground meat and milk mixture and sauté until brown.

5. Add the wine, raise heat and cook off alcohol.  Add herbs, broth or water, tomatoes in juice and salt and pepper to taste.

6. Close the pressure cooker according to manufacturer directions.  Bring to high pressure and set to maintain pressure.  Cook for 1 hour, take off heat and let pressure reduce naturally.


A feast!












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