Thursday, September 29, 2011

Spuds: Gnocchi with leek, kale and sage butter

From the Potato Festival at Sentry Hill Historic House, UK

Potatoes are starting to come in from the farm, and so I've been giggling about potatoes a lot recently.

Why are potatoes so damn funny, anyway?

Way back when I was an active linguistics major, a friend and I half-seriously started developing a phonetic theory of humor. Which is to say, determining which sounds produced by the human vocal tracts and which features of them were inherently funny. We compared oodles of words that made us giggle. We looked at beautiful sounding things, like cellar door, and inverted their qualities. We combined a number of funny features and found ourselves in a Swedish Chef routine. I don't remember everything about our inquiry and findings, but as far as I remember, it doesn't quite predict the humor of potato. It doesn't have any awkward consonant clusters, its vowels display one or fewer of the funny features (high, front, rounded). Still, again and again, it comes up as hilarious, context or no.

Cheryl Wheeler sings about potatoes to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance

Maybe it's the humble simplicity of the potato. Maybe it's just that it's hard not to smile about potatoes, all or part of many classic comfort foods. Gnocchi is one such dish, an Italian pasta which often features...potatoes! I mean, seriously, does it get any more comfort food than that? (Answer: you fry onions in butter and put them on the potato pasta)

Potatoes, of course, are a relatively recent addition to European cuisine, not showing up on the scene until at least the 16th century, which makes their relative ubiquity throughout Europe and its cultural progeny all the more staggering.
Gnocchi's history in Italy goes back much farther than that of the potato. The earliest versions, dating back over 2,000 years, involved mixing leftover semolina porridge with eggs and cutting it into small pieces. Gnocchi made with ricotta also have a long history. All versions, though, produce tender little pillows of dough, boiled to perfection and hard to resist.

As far as homemade pasta goes, this one is fairly easy. It doesn't beg for special equipment like a pasta roller, and doesn't entail the same kind of bicep-building battles as does a stiff semolina dough. They pair well with most deep fall flavors, but here we've pretty much kept it to butter, sage, leek and kale. Even from this, you can pare it down to butter, sage and black pepper and still be blissful.

Potato Gnocchi with Leek, Kale and Sage Butter

vegetarian, optionally vegan/dairy-free
Serves 2-3

    The Gnocchi:
  • 3-4 med. peeled potatoes (about a pound), boiled or roasted, then milled, riced or mashed
  • 1 Tblsp. butter or olive oil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 c. all-purpose flour (plus flour for dusting)

  • The Rest:
  • 2 Tblsp. butter, olive oil or margarine (we are not kidding around)
  • 1 leek, cut into long thickish strips about 5" long
  • ¼ chopped fresh sage and/or tarragon (or to taste)
  • 8-10 stems kale, destemmed and roughly torn
  • ½ c. mushroom, veggie or chicken broth
  • salt and pepper to taste

Traditionally, the potatoes for this are cooked whole and in their skins, then peeled and ground up into mush (Note: good use for leftover baked potato!). I'm not sure exactly what the logic behind this is, though I suspect it's about trying to keep the spud's moisture balance. If it takes on too much liquid, you'll be forced to add more flour and make a tougher, less potato-y end product. Too little, and you won't get smooth potato taste. That said, I haven't experimented with other ways of cooking a potato for this, so I can't tell you that they don't work.

In any event, once you've reached the point of cooked and peeled, you want to put it through a ricer or food mill. You want a pretty smooth mashy texture. Work in the butter or oil and salt, then start working in the flour. Unlike most pasta dough, where you are trying to develop the gluten pretty strongly, you want to knead this just to the point of coming together into a ball.

Once you have incorporated all the flour, cut the dough into 4-5 sections and roll each into a snake about ¾" in diameter. Cut into ¾-1" sections. Flatten each slightly against the back of a fork with your thumb. At this point, you can boil them for prompt eating, or freeze them for later. If eating now,
boil in at least 1 gallon lightly salted water in a big pasta pot. While you're waiting, prep the leeks, kale and herbs. Melt butter over medium heat in a 10" cast iron skillet or similar, and let butter brown a little before adding leeks. Once leeks start to get soft, season with salt and pepper, add kale and broth and cover. Shortly before adding boiled, drained gnocchi, add herbs and toss. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve.

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