More often than not, the beginning of January makes me feel kind of unbalanced. I don’t cope well with the resolution-making frenzy that takes over at this time of the year – especially in this day and age, where those who shout about their plans on social media seem to be more of an inspiration than those who keep their head down and deal with the hard graft. I’d love to step into 2016 with unwavering optimism, but if the past few years have taught me one thing, it’s that even the best laid-out plans can fall prey of the daily grind. Take my 2015: I spent way too much time and energy juggling two jobs, and have been a flaky friend, a nervous wreck, a frustratingly unproductive writer as a result. I battled, certainly not for the last time, with the same old catalysts of my anxiety: the passing of time; the fear of having failed myself and the people I love; the discomfort of feeling like a fraud, always on the brink of getting caught out. It takes more than the turn of a calendar page, and a motivational quote on Instagram, to put a stop to all that.
The first week of January also marks the end of another festive break spent with my family in Italy. As the years go by, I realise that one of these Christmases will be the last I spend with my grandmother; a formidable woman, who played a huge part in raising me, taught me life lessons I keep close to my heart, and fed me some of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I only half believe her when she claims she’s nearing the end of her days, as I’ve heard her say it for twenty-odd years, but the reality of aging is inescapable. One day, time will prove her right, and she won’t be there to say “I told you so”.
Her main fear is that, once she has left this world, we, her family, will get on with our lives as if she’d never been a part of them. For one, that’s simply impossible. Secondly, for someone who’s so worried about being forgotten, it puzzles me how she keeps resisting our attempts to craft keepsakes we’ll cling to over time. Pictures of her are as rare as they are precious to us, and no matter how persistently we ask, she fiercely refuses to write down any of her recipes, on the grounds that she’s ashamed of her handwriting. So we make do with watching her cook, jotting down procedures as best as we can, knowing there’s no other way to save them from oblivion.
Nonna, as I call her in Italian, has always enjoyed spending hours in the kitchen, tending to dishes no one else in the family has patience for. She takes enormous pride in her creations, asking everyone if they’re happy with their food at least five times per meal, and taking offence whenever a “yes” is less resounding than she expects. She’ll worry that the meat’s too hard or the sauce for pasta is too dry (they never are), or try to sneak extra portions into everyone’s plates. “Have you eaten enough?” (pronounced in Friulian dialect, the language she was raised in) is her signature quote, the one us grandkids repeat to each other with glee at the end of big family meals, when everyone’s too full to even look at the leftovers on the table.
Savoury mains are her speciality: she has never been much of a sweet tooth. Potato gnocchi are my favourite food she makes; an acquired taste, as I’ve refused to eat them for years, due to a weird fussy child’s suspicion towards anything made with boiled potatoes. I’d lie if I told you picking my favourite was easy – nonna‘s osso buco and stuffed guinea-fowl are very close seconds. In the end, though, it all boils down to one thing: my love for carbs. A love so strong, I’ve resolved to learn to make gnocchi, even though the possibility that mine wouldn’t be nearly as soft, flavourful and fulfilling as hers was very real.
The procedure is simple, as long as you have a couple spare hours to follow it through. Coming up with perfect gnocchi is, however, no easy feat: the right ingredients matter more than anything, and even my grandmother, who’s been making gnocchi for a lifetime, can fail when the quality of the potatoes is not exactly right. The recipe I’m sharing with you is one I’ve seen her make several times. It took a lot of convincing to get her to translate her rough measurements, dictated by experience (“a few potatoes”, “you’ll know when to stop adding flour”), into quantities I can use, but eventually, she had to surrender. Her recipe now lives with me, and I’ve made it quite a few times in my London kitchen, achieving results that are nearly up to my master’s level. Try it for yourself, and you’ll make the both of us very proud.
(serves 4 – 5)
- 1kg floury potatoes (Maris Piper or similar)
- 300g plain flour
- 1 egg
- 2 generous pinches sea salt
- Cold water, for the pot
Preparing the gnocchi
- Put the potatoes in a large pot, filled with cold water. Bring to a boil, add 1 pinch of salt to the water, and leave to cook until soft (around 45 minutes, depending on the potatoes).
- Drain the potatoes; leave them to cool slightly, until warm enough to handle, then remove the skins and mash them well.
Cook’s tip: If you’d rather not handle hot potatoes, you can peel them before boiling them. Nonna would discourage that, as peeled potatoes might break up in hot water, but I still prefer that to finger burns.
- Place the mashed potatoes on an ample working surface, lined with flour. Alternatively, if you want to reduce the mess in the kitchen, put them in a large bowl with low edges.
- Form a well in the centre, and crack in the egg. Gradually add flour, and knead with your hands until you get an even, solid mixture.
- Cook’s tip: Be very careful with the flour: stop adding it as soon as you’re able to shape the mixture. Depending on the potatoes, you might not need the whole 300g. If, on the other hand, you end up needing much more than that, it might be a sign that the potatoes are too watery; this might lead to hard, tasteless gnocchi.
- Divide the mixture into chunks, and form a long, thick strand with each of them. Cut each strand into pieces, around 2 – 3cm thick. These are the gnocchi you’ll cook up; set them aside as you cut them up, so as to keep the working surface clear, and sprinkle a little flour on top of them so they don’t stick to each other.
- Roll each gnocco (that’s singular for gnocchi!) down the length of a fork; this will create slight indentations for the sauce to cling to.
Cooking the gnocchi
- Fill a large pot with water, bring it to a boil and add 1 pinch sea salt.
- Pour in the gnocchi; as they come to the surface (it’ll take 1 – 2 minutes for this to start), take them out of the water with a perforated ladle, and divide them into portions.
- Garnish and serve; gnocchi are great with beef ragù, or seasoned with melted butter and sage. Some enjoy them with tomato passata, too, but I’m not as much of a fan.
Cook’s tip: If you’re not serving the whole lot straight away, you can either store raw gnocchi in the fridge and cook them the next day, or refrigerate leftovers once cooked and garnished, and simply reheat them in a pan or in the microwave. Nonna says they usually taste better the day after she’s made them – if you ask me, they taste great at any time.