"I don’t know anybody on the planet who’s as impassioned about gnocchi as I am,” Christine Hickman laughed ruefully one evening in her well-appointed passive solar kitchen on the north side of Santa Fe. “There’s got to be. But I don’t know who would write a whole cookbook on it.”
Hickman was referring to her new culinary tome Gnocchi Solo Gnocchi: A Comprehensive Tribute to Italy’s Other Favorite First Course. In it, the longtime Santa Fe resident — a former pastry chef at Deborah Madison and David Tanis’ late, great Café Escalera — details her zest for the small hand-formed football-shaped dumplings, a cousin to pasta, that she calls “the quintessential Italian comfort food.” Hickman, who has spent more than 30 summers cooking and teaching in Italy, presents her labor of gnocchi love on Sunday, Dec. 9, at Garcia Street Books; in January, she teaches a class in gnocchi preparation at Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe.
Most often made with potatoes, egg, and flour; cooked in simmering water; and dressed with butter and sage, pesto, or another sauce, gnocchi represent “one of the oldest preparations in the history of food,” according to Hickman, with written recipes dating back to the 14th century. Hickman was so struck by her first sumptuous plate of what Italians call un piatto povero (a simple dish made with inexpensive ingredients) that she recorded the date and place in her diary: Nov. 2, 1988, at La Mangiatoia inSan Gimignano. From there, she began eating her way across the vast gnocchi landscape, sampling versions made from various flours, potatoes with or without egg, vegetables, cheese, and breadcrumbs; savory or sweet; baked, boiled, stuffed, or fried; and sauced with anything from porcini mushrooms to squid and roe to fennel pollen. Despite its title, Hickman’s cookbook is in no way gnocchi-solo — its more than 160 recipes include a section on canederli, a larger, more bread-based gnocchi from the northeastern regions of Italy, as well as a wealth of instructions for sauces from oxtail ragú to savory fig to pancetta, radicchio, piñon, and rosemary.
This is my go-to recipe for ricotta gnocchi. They come together quickly, are extremely versatile, and freeze consistently well. It’s the perfect first course for an elegant dinner or a light meal with close friends.
One blustery November night at Il Piatto on Marcy Street, Hickman and I shared a rich plate of potato pecorino gnocchi with mushrooms and marsala cream while she explained that Italians like a little sauce with their gnocchi, while Americans are more into gnocchi with their sauce. She praised the texture of chef Matt Yohalem’s tender yet toothy little dumplings while noting that half as much sauce would have sufficed in an Italian trattoria. The dish’s popularity has skyrocketed in Italian restaurants in America over the past few decades, she said. But we were still hard-pressed to find more than one restaurant with gnocchi on its menu in Santa Fe, perhaps because of the dumplings’ propensity to turn gummy or mushy with the wrong ratio of ingredients or too much time in the water.
As with any recipe that requires expert attention to dough and hand-shaping, it is imperative to practice. Hickman writes, “If you have ever attempted to make gnocchi at home without a seasoned, wise and loving nonna at your elbow, you probably have encountered problems.” At Il Piatto, she smiled knowingly as I detailed a years-ago attempt at potato gnocchi that turned into clumpy lead balloons in a pot of boiling water, refusing to rise to the top. The next evening, I parked at her house behind a cherry-red Mini Cooper with the license plate “GNOCCHI.” In her herb-lined kitchen, she thrust an apron at me while I hoped for the best, setting to work chopping garlic as she threw bits of this and that into her food processor, whirring up a batch of sun-dried tomato and olive pesto with thyme and rosemary.
We were concocting Hickman’s basic ricotta gnocchi, a preparation that takes less time and expertise than potato gnocchi. The dough came together quickly after Hickman drained a container of whole-milk ricotta (she’s partial to the Trader Joe’s brand) in a cheesecloth-lined colander and then whisked it with a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, two egg yolks, and some salt. She cut about a cup of flour into the mixture, using it sparingly to create a pliable dough while cautioning me to always start slow with the flour and continue to check the consistency before adding more. Rolling the dough into a small but thick rope, she formed three dumplings and tossed them into a large stockpot of simmering water. Within a few minutes, they popped to the surface for us to test their consistency. (Hickman writes that every gnocchi maker takes this step and that they all have a story about the time they forgot to test and the batch failed.) Savoring the salty, cheesy flavor and light, silky texture of the rather adorable morsel she handed me, I immediately wanted another.
As I set to work forming a full batch of dumplings, Hickman demonstrated how to use a wooden gnocchi paddle — something she said her no-frills “gnocchi mama” in Italy had never heard of — to create beautiful ridges that help the dumplings to hold their sauce, whether it be carbonara, creamy leek, or browned butter and preserved lemon. I watched my gnocchi regiments evolve from the first few lines of malformed dough drops into something resembling what I’d eaten at Il Piatto, and my pride swelled. I began to relish the zen flip of the thumb on the paddle that creates those exquisite lines in the dough. When I heard Hickman tell her husband, sotto voce, that I was a natural, I was incredulous — I’m bad with my hands, don’t normally enjoy working with dough, and have no artistic talent; yet here before me was at least half a batch of marvelous little dumplings I’d created all on my own. Screw tamales or biscochitos, I thought giddily, already planning my upcoming holiday gnocchi-making party.
Alchemizing a bit of the cooking water with the pesto and hot cooked gnocchi, we ladled the tasty little lumps into warm bowls and ate them with a salad of arugula, shaved asparagus, Grana di Pecora cheese, and toasted pistachios. I relished the rustic yet sophisticated amalgam of fresh herbs, olives, tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil over the substantial but somehow airy dumplings. Awash in the haze of good comfort food, I knew I had found my gnocchi heaven, as Hickman calls it — and it hadn’t been too hard at all. ◀
Gnocchi Solo Gnocchi: A Comprehensive Tribute to Italy’s Other Favorite First Course, by Christine Y. Hickman is available at Collected Works Bookstore, Garcia Street Books, or via sonomarcella.com. Hickman presents her book at Garcia Street Books Sunday, Dec. 9, at 4:30 p.m. For more information about the Jan. 19 gnocchi-making class at Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe, call 505-988-3394.