The luck of the gnocchi

Gnocchi with chicken and broccoli

Buenos Aires Herald
On Sunday supplement
Food and Wine

Just in time for Gnocchi Day. You do know about El Día de los Ñoquis, don’t you? Surely if you’ve spent time here someone has mentioned that it’s custom to eat these little pillows of potato-y goodness on the 29th of each month. The question is… why? There are several theories.

The most widely accepted one, that most Argentines will tell you, is that, you see, times were tough. And with payday generally being once a month, as the end each approaches the ingredients in the pantry start to run out and there’s no money to buy more. You use the cheapest ingredients – potatoes, flour, eggs – and make your family a big, hearty bowl of gnocchi to dig into and tide you over fora day or two.

Is that the real origin, reaching out to us from the late 1800s? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s because there have always been patronage jobs, that cadre of folk who get paid by the government but don’t actually work – just show up once a month for a paycheck. They’re called ñoquis too. Some say that a couple of local restaurants around the government offices came up with the “holiday” as a dig.

More cynical folk around claim that one of the big pasta companies here started the tradition as a sales pitch. That one’s not as probable, since back in the 1800s most people probably made their own pastas rather than buying commercial brands. It also doesn’t explain why the custom is widespread in other parts of South America, particularly places with larger Italian populations.

Of course, it could just be because the 29th of each month in the area around Rome is celebrated as San Pantaleon Day and gnocchi are the dish of choice, and has been since long before Argentina was a single nation. It would involve a bit of a reinterpretation, because gnocchi alla romana don’t involve potatoes or rolled pillows of dough, but are generally flat discs of semolina flour, eggs and cheese.

Regardless of the origin, I wanted to prepare you for this month’s Day with my easy way to prepare these little treats, and a simple and healthy alternative to the tomato sauce tinged bechamel that usually is glopped over these. Unless you like that sort of thing.

Gnocchi

1 kg baking potatoes
handful of coarse salt
200 gm flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg

Heat your oven to moderate, 180°C. In a baking dish put a layer of coarse salt that just covers the bottom. Set the potatoes on top and stick the pan in the oven and roast them for approximately one hour, until when you stick a knife in it slides in easily. Remove from the oven – we’re going to work with these while they’re hot. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise and place them, one at a time, cut side down, on a fairly fine sieve and press them through with your hand or a spatula. You should be left with just the skin, which you can toss (or snack on).

Once you have your “riced” potatoes, crack in the egg, the salt, and add the flour. Mix well, it’s best if you do this with your hands as you can feel the mixture. You don’t want to beat this or knead it, just get it all thoroughly mixed together. Break off a handful and roll it on your counter or cutting board into a long rope, about 2 cm in diameter. Using a knife or pastry cutter, cut 1 cm slices on a slight diagonal. Some people like to press the sides with a fork for the distinctive groove pattern – a nice touch if you’re using a sauce because it helps it cling to the gnocchi. I usually just press them in slightly with thumb and forefinger to make a little concave pillow.

You can refrigerate these, lightly covered with a towel, for up to a couple of hours or use them straightaway. When ready to cook them, bring salted water to a boil and then unceremoniously plop the gnocchi in. When they float, they’re ready to remove. Toss with some olive oil and then add your sauce or topping. My pick of the week, chicken breast and broccoli sauteed in olive oil with a little chopped garlic and fresh chilies.

Oh, and don’t forget to stick a one-peso coin under each plate at the table for good luck during the upcoming month! It’s tradition, you know?

A series of recipes and articles that I started writing for the Buenos Aires Herald Sunday supplement, Food & Wine section, at the beginning of 2012. My original proposal to them was to take local favorite dishes and classics and lighten them up for modern day sensibilities. We’re not talking spa or diet recipes, but at the very least, making them healthier in content, particularly salt, fat and portion size. As time went by, that morphed into a recipe column that, while emphasizing food that is relatively “good for you”, wasn’t necessarily focused on local cuisine. At the beginning of 2013 I decided to stop writing for them over some administrative issues, but it was fun while it lasted.

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