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Getting to know gnocchi — a different kind of dumpling

What is in a name? If that name happens to be dumpling, well then just about everything, because the word dumpling seems to have as many interpretations as there are languages.

Most all dumplings are some smaller form of mixed, cooked dough. They come in tastes from sweet to savory and sizes ranging from big to small.

Some are stuffed, some are mere bits of cooked starch, while others have added ingredients like cheese or vegetables.

Even the cooking type varies wildly with steamed, boiled and fried dumplings all represented in cuisines around the world.

In China and many Asian countries, the dumpling is generally a thin dough stuffed with a meat or vegetable mixture. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining in a dim sum house, you’ve no doubt gazed up the variety of stuffed dumplings like Siu Mai or Jiaozi.

Contrasting those elaborate preparations, dumplings of other cultures can be nothing more than a readily available starch like yams in Africa or wheat in America, made into simple forms and cooked with other ingredients to flesh out a nourishing meal.

Even with the American classic, chicken and dumplings, the titular word can be interpreted in vastly different ways. In the north, you might find the pillowy, biscuit-like dumplings atop the chicken stock, whereas when traveling in the south you’re likely to find your dumpling to be of the flat, dense variety.

One of the most iconic and delicious dumplings of the world can be found in Italy, the birthplace of so many delicious dishes.

I am talking about gnocchi, of course, but even the term gnocchi can be taken to mean different things. Italy is broken up into regions, many of which feature their own spin on gnocchi.

These variances can be not just in shape and size, but in the ingredients used as well. When in Rome, a plate of gnocchi will likely be made of semolina flour cooked polenta-like, allowed to set and then baked or cooked.

Other regions have ricotta or spinach mixed with egg and flour then lightly boiled. These are just a couple of examples of the assortment of dumplings found throughout the regions of Italy.

The type that most Americans would identify as gnocchi is the potato variety, made with a mix of starchy cooked potato, egg and enough flour to bind the dough.

Having a light hand with the flour is key, as they can go quickly from delicate beauty to gummy toughness.

The dough is rolled out into cylinders, cut into portions, and frequently rolled on a ridged surface, such as fork or special board, or pressed with a thumb. This adds texture to the finished dumpling, allowing it to better adhere to whatever sauce it is served with.

Saucing gnocchi can be as simple as tossing with brown butter, or gilded to luxurious heights with shaved truffles.

There is a certain nuance to making these Italian dumplings, but it is nothing to be intimidated by. Once you get used to the method, you can start playing around with other ingredients like sweet potato or squash.

Gnocchi are undoubtedly

comfort food

, but they are just as delectable on a dinner party table as they are on a boring Tuesday night spent with Netflix and a bottle of wine.

Gnocchi with Roasted Butternut Squash, Goat Cheese in Tarragon Brown Butter

Making gnocchi requires no special equipment, but a potato ricer or food mill does make it easier. Never use a food processor; this makes the starch in the potatoes gummy and leaden.

Also, gnocchi freeze well, so I’d encourage making a big batch and freezing portions of uncooked gnocchi individually on a baking sheet. After they freeze, portion them into freezer safe bags and you’ll have gnocchi ready to cook for any meal.

Makes 4 large servings

For the gnocchi:

4 large baking potatoes (3 to 4 pounds), such as Russets 2 to 2-1/2 cups All Purpose flour, plus more for dusting 1 egg 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

For the finished dish:

1 butternut squash, peeled, cubed and roasted 4 ounces of goat cheese 4 tablespoons of roasted pumpkin seeds 4 tablespoons of butter 3-4 sprigs fresh tarragon Salt to taste Chili flakes (optional) To make gnocchi:

You can boil or bake the potatoes, but boiling takes less time. Bring the whole potato to a boil, then simmer 40-50 minutes until they are cooked throughout, but not falling apart. After they have cooled down a bit, peel them and pass them through a ricer or food mill, or you can gently crush the potato with a fork.

Either on a board or in a mixing bowl, make a mound of the potato, then add 2 cups of flour over, leaving an indentation or well for the egg in the center. Add egg, salt and start mixing, breaking the egg and incorporating into the flour and potato.

Gently mix the ingredients to start to bring them together into a dough. If the dough is too wet, add the extra 1/2 cup of flour a couple of spoonfuls at a time as necessary.

Once the ingredients have melded into a mass, you can put the dough onto a floured work surface and gently knead. If the dough is sticky, add some bench flour.

When you have your dough finished, divide it into equal sized pieces and roll into a ball shape. Take each ball and roll it out into a log like shape, using your fingers and palms to gently extend the log until it’s the thickness of a plump hot dog. Cut the log into equal segments, each about 3/4 to 1 inch in length.

If don’t have an old-fashioned gnocchi board with ridges, you can use the back of a good, sturdy fork. Place a dough piece near the base of the fork tines and ever so gently press down and roll at the same time. The idea is to create a set of ridges on one side. It may take a couple tries to get used to it, but just remember to be gentle.

Repeat with remaining dough and then cook or portion individually to freeze.

To cook gnocchi:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, you can add the gnocchi in small batches. They will sink, but luckily this works like a perfect timer, as they will merrily float to the top when done to let you know they are ready. Gingerly remove from water with slotted spoon.

To finish dish:

In a large skillet, heat the butter, and as it starts to melt and brown, add the tarragon, swirling to perfume it into the butter. Turn to low and add the cooked gnocchi, tossing to coat, then add the cubed squash. Cook 30 more seconds and remove from heat. Plate in wide bowls, garnishing each with crumbles of goat cheese, roasted pumpkin seeds, and fresh tarragon.

Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.
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