There’s an old Roman saying that goes giovedì gnocchi, venerdì pesce, sabato trippa (‘Thursday gnocchi, Friday fish, Saturday tripe’). Most Roman eateries – from tavole calde to Michelin-starred fine dining establishments – continue to abide by this proverbio with their chalkboard menus planned accordingly. And, as The Guardian’s Rome-based correspondent John Hooper has found, telling a Roman waiter that you’re actually not in the mood for gnocchi on a Thursday equates with going against the universally accepted order of things. Like Hooper and other expats, I indulge in more than my fair share of chuckling at this slavish devotion to arcane rules like these. On this point though, I think i romani may be on to a good thing. Since returning to work, I’ve struggled to plan ahead and be organised in the kitchen on workdays. Pasta all’olio, onion soup and canned beans have saved dinner on many an occasion! A designated food for each day of the week may well be of help then. Somehow though, I don’t think Thursday will be our household gnocchi day, at least if it means making fresh, made-from-scratch ones like a good Roman trattoria would. Perhaps we’ll do Saturday or Sunday gnocchi instead. Is that okay Romans?
The word gnocchi literally means ‘little knots’ and they come in a variety of forms in Italy. There are gnocchi alla romana, baked round discs of cooked semolina. In Trentino and Alto-Adige (South Tyrol), you’ll find leftover bread-based canederli or knödel. Some varieties of gnocchi have cheese, vegetable and even fruit flavourings. But, as the food writer and adopted romana Rachel Roddy tells us, Thursday gnocchi means potato gnocchi in the Eternal City.
Both my nonne or grandmothers learned to make these delectable dumplings after migrating to Australia. Neither of them came from Italian regions – Calabria and Sicily, respectively – where there is a tradition of making gnocchi. When they made them though, it was like they’d been doing it all their lives. Curious, I liked joining in. I tried my hand at flicking the little squares of dough along the grooved wooden board for giving the dumplings their characteristic ridges. Every time we made them, I had to relearn the thumb-flicking technique they insisted on using along the board. My clumsy attempts made them laugh. It had to be done properly though. Well-formed gnocchi rigati were essential for getting a tomato sauce or ragù to cling afterwards.
Along with potatoes and flour, my nonne have always added egg to their gnocchi. However, since my father became a vegan, we’ve all been trying to find ways to veganise many foods that he enjoyed in his omnivore days. As it turns out, that stalwart stovetop companion of mine, Pellegrino Artusi, has an entirely egg-free recipe for making potato gnocchi. His introduction to the recipe also includes one of his typically charming anecdotes. After a woman puts her gnocchi to boil and starts stirring, she asks where they have gone. It was not ‘some little sprite who had carried them off’, as the woman suspected. Rather, she had not used enough flour to keep her dumplings together and they had liquefied. Personally, I found that I did not need to use all the flour that Artusi specified (and no, my gnocchi didn’t disappear on me!) but I do recommend having his quantity of 150 grams on hand anyway. You can use the remaining flour for dusting your work surface and the trays you leave your gnocchi to rest on.
My nonne generally served their gnocchi with a simple tomato sauce or ragù. Since moving to Turin, I’ve also come to appreciate them with sage leaves sizzled in butter or with a Castelmagno cheese and cream-based sauce. My husband adores them with pesto. These and many more all work well with homemade gnocchi. I look forward to sharing some sauce recipes soon. In the meantime, here’s my egg-free gnocchi recipe, with special thanks to Artusi, my nonne and these lovely ladies.
Ingredients (serves 2 as a starter)
- 400 g floury potatoes, washed and dried
- 150 g flour, sifted (you may not need to use all this)
Boil the potatoes whole in salted water until tender. Drain potatoes thoroughly and while they are still hot, peel them. Pass them through a food mill, sieve or potato ricer (mashing them with a fork or potato masher works well too). Transfer riced potatoes to a flour-dusted work surface and add fistfuls of flour to the mixture. Keep adding flour and gently knead (you’re not making bread so there’s no need to stretch gluten!) until the dough is consistent and no longer sticks to your hands and work surface.
Remove a large fistful of dough from your ball and roll it out into a 2-cm thick snake. Cut the snake into pieces about 1-1.5 cm in length. Roll the gnocchi along a gnocchi board or gently press them on a fork) to make their characteristic righe or ridges. Lay gnocchi on a dusted tray or tea-towel.
Bring a large saucepan to boil, add salt and gently place the gnocchi in the boiling water. When they bob to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon. Transfer them to a plate and pour your sauce of choice on top of them. Serve immediately.