The transition period between the dark, cold months and the bright, warm ones is a testament to the resourcefulness of a people. With the last of the winter produce having been harvested long ago, and the spring produce not yet ready to be utilised, the options of what to eat are limited. Clever planning and foresight are necessary to ensure that there is enough sustenance to bridge this gap. This may not seem like a relevant problem to me, or you, or anyone else living in the modern world today. However, it is still a reality for many and was likely the reality of your very own relatives too, not so long ago. Whether it was brought about by poverty, war, or circumstance, all people at some point in history have had to preserve, ration, and be creative with food.
When one think of seasonal cooking, one usually thinks of cooking with what that season produces. Well, what if that season bears little fruit? Then, we naturally turn to what we have stored, preserved, and rationed. Root vegetables (such as sweet potatoes), garlic, and hard cheeses all keep very well and therefore, mesh perfectly in these first few weeks of spring. Seasonal cooking, redefined.
(If you are reading this and you happen to live in a part of the world that already has fresh spring produce, I am very envious!)
How to make gnocchi
I'd like to stress the importance of a good cooking technique, if you're hoping to get pillowy soft, melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi. In Artusi's cookbook from 1891, La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene, he recounts the story of a woman who, upon stirring her gnocchi in the boiling water, looks down to find that the gnocchi had disappeared. Her problem, of course, was two-fold. She didn't add enough flour, causing the gnocchi to dissolve upon contact with the boiling water, which was boiling too vigorously.
If the end goal is delicate and supple gnocchi, then the cooking method must fit the part. This means adding just enough flour (but not too much) and not working or kneading the dough excessively. Also, it means gently simmering the gnocchi until they just pop up to the surface, and then promptly fishing them out.
This recipe makes enough sweet potato gnocchi for 8 people as a primo (first course). Any extra gnocchi can be frozen for future use (instructions below), so it's great to make on a long, slow afternoon, stocking your freezer for the coming weeks.
Sweet Potato Gnocchi
- 850 g sweet potato
- 250 g plain flour
- 1 egg (50 g), beaten
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- sea salt
- black pepper
- olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- fresh rosemary, chopped
- pecorino or parmigiano, to serve
In a large pot with an inch of simmering water, steam the sweet potatoes for 40 minutes, or until soft. In a large bowl, mash them very well using a potato masher, ricer, food mill, or fork. (If you want to use the potato skins in the gnocchi, which is my personal preference, it helps to roughly chop the potatoes with a sharp knife before mashing. Otherwise, peel the potatoes before mashing.)
Once the sweet potato mash is warm to the touch, add the flour, beaten egg, nutmeg, and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Quickly mix in the ingredients with a wooden spoon until well combined. It should come together into a dough yet feel quite soft and moist. If it is too wet and hasn't come together into a dough, add more flour (1 tbsp at a time, mixing after each addition).
Prepare a baking tray or large cutting board by sprinkling it with flour. This is where the gnocchi will rest.
Turn the dough out onto a very well-floured work surface. Take a golf-ball-size piece of dough and roll it into a long cylinder, 1.5 cm wide, keeping your movements swift and gentle. Cut off 2 cm long pieces. Place the gnocchi on the prepared surface to rest, making sure there is ample space in between them. Repeat this process until the dough is finished.
To freeze any extra gnocchi, place the tray or board in the freezer, as is. Once the gnocchi are frozen solid, they can be stored in a sealed container (in the freezer) for a couple months.
To cook the gnocchi, put a pot of well-salted water to boil on the stovetop.
In another pan, coat the bottom with a generous layer of olive oil and place on a medium-low heat. Once the oil is warm, add the garlic and rosemary. Let them simmer and add their flavour to the oil. Turn off the heat.
Once the water is boiling, add the gnocchi to the pot. Add enough to cover the area of the bottom of the pot, but no more. Place the lid back on the pot. Do not let the water boil -- it should only simmer. (Lower the heat if the water starts boiling vigorously.) Once the gnocchi have risen up to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the oil. Repeat until all the gnocchi are cooked.
Turn the heat under the pan to medium-low and let the gnocchi sizzle in the oil, but not enough to fry them. Move them around just a little to coat them evenly in the oil.
Serve with a drizzle of fresh olive oil, cracked black pepper, and grated pecorino. Buon appetito.