I won’t bother singing the praises of tiny pillows of potato pasta smothered in made-from-scratch tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. You already know how delicious gnocchi all Sorrentina can be. But you probably believe that it’s the kind of complicated dish to leave to the professionals and Nonna.
My relatives in Italy often make this dish for a special Sunday lunch or holiday because it carries a big punch. Many of them make a pasta and not actual gnocchi; instead of using potato, they use flour alone. I myself prefer traditional gnocchi with a little more weight to it, thanks to potato. Believe me, gnocchi is actually pretty simple to make, and it can be lots of fun. It’s the kind of thing the kids will love to do with you. And you can make it alla Sorrentina as I’ve done here or choose another sauce. I also enjoy it in a simple brown butter and sage sauce.
Now, I used to often go through the lengthy, difficult process of following Lidia Bastianich’s directions for making gnocchi at home. It took a long time to perfect, and it would take hours to complete. Was it worth it? Definitely. But now I no longer live in LaLa Land because I have a child. I learned a new way to pull off one of my favorite dishes. I adapted a recipe from Iron Chef Marc Forgione that appeared in the April 2012 Food Network Magazine. Here goes:
3 Russet potatoes (But you could use other kinds if you don’t have Russet)
1 cup of flour
Grated whole nutmeg (optional)
You’ll need a potato ricer
1 Can of peeled plum tomatoes
2 to 3 Cloves of peeled garlic (peeled and either smashed or cut in half)
1 to 2 tbsp Olive oil
1 to 2 Bunches of fresh basil
Heavy pinch of fresh oregano
Heavy pinch of salt
Light pinch of sugar
The first step to gnocchi is cooking the potatoes. Many people boil the potatoes, but baking them brings out a great flavor. So, place aluminum foil under each potato. Poke holes in the potatoes with a fork. Douse each one with olive oil and sprinkle salt on top. Then, wrap each one in the aluminum foil. Put them in a pre-heated oven at 400 degrees F. Bake for about 45 minutes or until tender.
Next, unwrap the baked potatoes as soon as you can after they come out of the oven. Scoop out the potato out of the skin when it’s still hot. Use oven mitts or a clean towel to protect your hands. The quicker you work, the more likely you’ll end up with light – as opposed to heavy, dense – gnocchi. Lightly flour a surface, such as a marble board or countertop. Pass the potato you scooped out through a potato ricer and drop it onto the floured surface.
Spread out the riced potatoes so they form a single layer. Crack the egg into a cup and beat it. Then, spread it over the potatoes along with the cup of flour. Sprinkle salt on top. I also sometimes like to shave fresh nutmeg on top (but I leave it out if I want my mom to eat it because she’s not a nutmeg fan). Using your hands, bring it all together to form a dough. Create an oval ball of dough.
Let it sit for about 10 minutes. Then, cut the dough into roughly equal-sized logs. Roll those with your hands into roughly foot-long ropes. Cut each rope into small, equal-sized balls. Roll them in the palm of your hand and place them onto baking sheets lined with clean, lightly floured dish towels. If you want to be fancy (or want to guarantee the sauce sticks to the gnocchi), you can lightly press on each ball with the bottom of a fork to create grooves.
When you’re all done, boil salted water and place a handful of gnocchi in at a time. When they come up to the top of the pot, they are done. Put them into a bowl and continue boiling gnocchi until you’ve finished.
In the meantime, you must make the sauce. I sometimes make it the day before and just reheat it while the water is boiling, so I can place the gnocchi directly in it and don’t let them sit at all. Whenever you’re ready to make the sauce, you should begin by sautéing two to three cloves of garlic that you’ve either smashed or cut in half in about one to two tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy sauce pot. Once the garlic gets lightly browned, remove it from the pot.
Next, add the entire can of peeled plum tomatoes, including the liquid, to the pot. Smash up the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon while stirring. Add basil, oregano, salt and a little, tiny bit of sugar (it’s just to take away the acidity of the canned tomatoes). San Marzano tomatoes are the best, but any will do, by the way. My mother doesn’t like pieces of tomato in her sauce. If you are like her and prefer it smooth, you can use an immersion blender or food processor to puree the sauce. The sauce is done after it has simmered until it thickens to your preference. Stir it every once in a while and keep the flame low after it initially boils, so it doesn’t burn or come out dry.
Finally, Put the gnocchi in a baking dish, top it with sauce, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil. Put it in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees F. Cook it until the mozzarella melts and the sauce bubbles a bit. Last but not least, take a bite of that good stuff and let the gnocchi melt in your mouth.