It’s a cold winter night in Toronto. I’m about to drive over to Rocca’s for dinner, but text her first.
“Get three to four medium at No Frills,” she instructs. We need Yukon golds.
When I arrive, their house oozes Puglian warmth. Randy says “You don’t have to knock” and Rocca calls from upstairs, saying “Do you want some slippers?’
She enters the kitchen and pulls out the pasta board. It’s two feet by two feet, thick plywood with a lip that catches under the table. Her father, or Nonno to the grandkids, made it for her.
Nonno will turn 95 next Sunday. They want to celebrate at a restaurant but he asks his daughters to make him cavatelli, his favourite pasta.
“Handmade pasta for 25 people,” says Rocca shaking her head and muttering Puglian swear words.
But tonight, the pasta is gnocchi.
“I’ll get started while you have some wine and cheese,” says Rocca.
Randy is dangling a large breast and nipple from a string. It’s a cheese called Caciocavallo and the size of a small cantaloupe.
“Our annual Father’s Day cheese,” he laughs, an impish grin spreading across his mug. I nibble on slices with baguette and knock back some Rosso while Rocca deftly peels the potatoes, cuts them into quarters and boils in salted water.
“I’ll demo the first batch, then it will be your turn,’” she announces.
She measures out two cups of organic, unbleached all-purpose flour and piles it on her papa’s pasta board. With a flick of her right hand, she swirls a hole in the middle, creating a powdery volcano waiting for liquid. I spoon chunks of hot, cooked potato into her ricer and she squeezes, mightily, creating a rainfall of potato strands.
The essence of these gnocchi – hot steaming Yukon gold potatoes – slips and wafts through the kitchen air. We share a satisfied cooking smile. Rocca taps a free run Omega 3 egg on a bowl’s edge and we both go “ahhh” over the yolk’s deep orange-ness.
She sprinkles the flour and potato mound with salt. I ask how much and she mutters “Normale”.
She wields a bottle of olive oil and pours two large glugs into the mound, creating golden streaks and streams throughout. I ask how much and she shrugs her shoulders, too busy to fuss over measurements.
Then she does something that makes this recipe writer crazy: she slides the beaten egg into an empty measuring cup and pours reserved (and cooled) potato cooking water into it up to the one cup line.
As I sigh in frustration, Rocca clutches a quarter dry measure and twice she scoops up egg and potato water mix sprinkling it over the potatoes, flour, salt and olive oil. Using her bare hands, she mushes it all together (I recommend a dough scraper). It doesn’t coalesce into a good clump so she adds another quarter cup of egg and potato water. In seconds, it transforms into a hot, soft dough, pliable and warm. The perfect spot between sticky and dry. We cut off a half cup chunk and roll it into a snake, then cut of half-inch pieces she calls “chicklets”.
“Do you want to cut chicklets or roll out the gnocchi?”
While the former sounds easy, I know I need practice rolling. She has a small wooden board, the size of a large smartphone that is corduroy-ed, with narrow slits, and she demos how to roll a piece of gnocchi dough along this surface. One deft move and “Voila!” it’s a cute little roll with ridges.
Fast forward 18 months. Rocca is at the gnocchi helm again, this time in the Cowichan Valley bossing David and me. We stand at the counter each with a pile of PC “OO” (doppio zero) flour before us. We blend in cooked and riced BC-grown yellow potatoes plus potato water mixed with egg. A soft, warm dough forms instantly and we knead it ever so briefly. We start to cut dough chunks, roll out dough snakes, cut into chicklets and press against the gnocchi board. It takes a skillful hand but Rocca won’t do it. She says “your job” and David and I steal competitive glances at each other’s work.
We fill two baking trays with our ridged dumplings. Rocca cooks them in hot boiling salted water, plunking them in and lifting them out with a slotted spoon, the second each gnocchi bobs to the surface indicating doneness. Cooked gnocchi slide into a bath of ice cubes and cold water in order to halt cooking. Later they are drained en masse and drizzled with lots of olive oil. Their final destination is a good sauce.
I happen to have one. Braised short ribs.
In Duncan I am able to find huge, fat short ribs at Thrifty’s supermarket. (In Toronto, I’d have to order them from a butcher since they never look this fat and ample in supermarket meat counters.)
We heat up my sauce in a large deep skillet, add the gnocchi and warm everything gently while someone grates Parmigiano-Reggiano and finds our sacred, big jar of Puglian hot peppers in oil.
Gnocchi is best served as a first course, or primi. It’s filling. Just two ladles full is ample for most. Rocca smiles in approval after she takes her first bite. The gnocchi are soft, delectable pillows bathed in an unctuous sauce, bedecked with parmesan.
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While Rocca prefers the counter technique for creating the dough, you can also mix everything in a large bowl. If you don’t have a gnocchi board, Rocca says it’s ok to leave as half-inch chicklets simply cut from the rolled dough.
3-4 Yukon Gold or yellow-flesh potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 cups flour, all-purpose or “00”
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook potatoes until tender but not crumbling. Reserve a cup of cooking water before draining potatoes. Mound flour on the counter and create a well in the middle. Sprinkle over with salt. Once the potato water has cooled enough not to cook the egg, crack the egg into a glass measuring jar and fill to one level cup with potato water. Mix. Place potatoes in a ricer (if you don’t have one, grate them) and drop potato shreds into the flour well. Pour over ½ cup of egg/potato water and olive oil and mix into a dough, using a scraper or a spatula. Add another ¼-1/2 cup of liquid if needed to create a soft pliable dough. Roll and form gnocchi.
Heat a large pot of salted water to boil, gently add gnocchi. When gnocchi float to surface, remove with a slotted spoon and place directly in heated sauce or into an ice bath to cool.
Mado’s Short Rib Pasta Sauce
Preheat oven to 350 F
3 tbsp olive oil
2 large cooking onions, chopped
2 large ribs celery, chopped
2 tsp dried thyme
Heat oil in large Dutch oven, cook onions, celery and dried thyme with salt until soft and caramelized, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
Use the same pan to heat another 2 tbsp olive oil on high and brown
3 lbs short ribs (3-6 pieces)
Seasoned with salt and pepper
This takes about 3 min per side, total about 12 min. Set aside
Deglaze pan with 1 cup red wine (Shiraz/Syrah) scraping up all browned bits. Add sautéed onion mixture and
1/2 tsp dried chili pepper flakes
½ cup dried porcini or shiitake mushrooms, finely crumbled
1 cup passata (pureed tomatoes, favourite brand is Mutti sold in tall glass jars)
3 crushed garlic cloves
Handful basil leaves, chopped
1-3 tsp sea salt
Lots of freshly cracked black pepper
Fill with water to just cover the ribs
Place a sheet of parchment over the surface, cover and bake at 350F for one hour, reduce to 325F and cook 2 more hours. Meat should be falling off the bones. Allow to cool (preferably overnight in the fridge). Skim fat. Remove bones and tendons. Shred meat gently.