Gnocchi in Campania
My last farm in Italy is in Campania. Campania is in the south – Naples is in Campania to give you some orientation. This farm isn’t by the sea like Naples; it’s inland, separated from Campobasso, the next province over, by a mountain ridge. To get here, I took a train from Rome, heading 3 hours south and disembarked at Vairano. But that’s the short story. To really get here, I spent a sleepless week with wee bugs and large spiders in a caravan at my first farm (where I left after one week: “it’s not me, it’s you”), then I spent three glorious weeks working on a wine harvest while eating amazing, weep-worthy home cooking, a side trip to Bologna where I had a good time getting it all wrong, a week in Tuscany on a horrible farm (“the dishwashing farm”) where I planned to spend a month but couldn’t take it and escaped after one week. After busting out of my dishwashing prison farm (it really felt like I got out of jail), I headed to Rome. I didn’t know what else to do – I was scared of more farm failure and rightfully so: for the one farm that I loved (Anna’s!), I ended up at two places that were ”character building” or “this will be a funny or at least interesting story once I get over how sucky it was.” So, I was in Rome with time to kill. I stumbled around a lot and got lost, I ate and I cooked and I shopped for food. I unleashed my Italian language on unsuspecting Romans. After my Roman holiday, I headed out into the Lazio countryside (fyi: Rome is in the province of Lazio) for five days of cooking lessons at an agriturismo, where I became the unofficial Italian -English interpreter between the Italian only speaking cook and other English only speaking food enthusiasts. Trust me, hilarity and befuddlement ensued. I giggle and cringe at the same time thinking of how I most likely messed up some key recipe details. (I hope everyone’s recipes turned out ok!) Besides honing my Italian cooking vocabulary, I learned some pasta making skills and seriously yummy recipes. Phew. So, after all that I arrived at my last farm in Campania.
And it was good in Campania. Olive picking was the big project (you’ll read more about this soon!) and working in the garden was the next big project. I was outside everyday and I loved it. As I was tending to baby plants, weeding, putting mulch down, I sometimes had to remind myself to look up, take in the vista and take a deep breath. This was the exact opposite of sitting behind a desk and this is what I wanted.
I was wiling my time away in the garden enjoying the sun, air, and dirt when I heard that a big batch of gnocchi were going to be made for lunch and would I want to learn? “Si! Certo!” I shouted. Julie, an awesome university student from Boston who was on the farm with me, was invited, too. We dropped our spades, tore off our gardening gloves and set off for the kitchen. This is a commercial kitchen and if we’re to help out with food that would be served to customers, we need to be outfitted properly. My gnocchi-making outfit consisted of a cap to cover my hair and an apron to protect my clothes from my sloppy self. Written on the cap is “Mozzarella di Bufala, Campania. O E Cosi, O non e…”. Which roughly translates to “Either it is, or isn’t.” If you’ve ever eaten the real deal buffalo milk Mozzarella, you understand this to be truth.
For all the traditional Italian food I’ve learned to make on this trip, the term ‘serves 4’ couldn’t be less relevant. These recipes are meant to feed people.
This is your ratio of ingredients for making gnocchi:
1 kilo of floury potatoes
300 grams of Tipo ’00’ flour
20 grams of salt
The batch of gnocchi we made was bigger. Based on the ratio above, here were our measurements:
2.5 kilos of floury potatoes
750 grams of Tipo ’00’ flour
50 grams of salt
When Julie and I got to the kitchen, the first step was already taken care of: the potatoes were boiled whole with their skins still on. First up for us: peel the skin off of the potatoes. Not so hard except the potatoes were blazing hot from just being plucked out of the boiling water. Most of the skin came off easily enough with just pulling and rubbing it off with our fingers. But this required touching the hot potato. I had to peel the skin off in increments; taking breaks every few seconds to give my scalded fingers a rest. This actually hurt more than I’m letting on here. I exclaimed ‘holy shit’ a few times to demonstrate the pain I was in. I received no sympathy. But we weren’t being tortured for no reason at all, you want the potatoes to be warm when you make the pasta. This makes for a more tender dough and the potatoes will be incorporated into the dough better. No pain no gain.
Things got more fun and less painful once the potatoes were peeled. Marika, our kind and patient gnocchi instructor, walked us through the rest of the steps. Once all the skin is off, the potatoes were passed through a ricer. We dumped the riced potatoes into a large bowl big enough to mix all the soon to be made gnocchi dough by hand. On top of the riced potatoes we added all of the flour and made a well in the middle for the eggs. Both eggs were cracked into the well and then beaten gently with a fork, incorporating a bit of the flour into the mix. Once that was done, Marika started mixing the dough by hand. She told us that if the dough is too soft and sticky to work with, then add a bit more flour. Marika mixed the dough until all of the flour, potatoes and eggs were more or less in one large, somewhat cohesive mass so she could dump it out onto a large floured board and continue working it by hand. Marika kneaded the dough on the board until it was smooth and uniform in texture. The dough was still warm from the potatoes. She shaped the dough into a large log and then cut it into four smaller pieces to make it more manageable for all of us to work from. The smaller pieces were then cut down even more, into discs roughly size of hockey pucks.
Marika, Julie and I each took a misshapen hockey puck and rolled it out into a long, fat thread. I learned that as you are rolling the dough into that fat thread, use your palms to exert a little pressure down onto the dough and at the same time gently push your hands out into opposite directions. This will help in getting the long shape you need.
The hard work behind us, now we just needed to cut the fat threads into one inch gnocchi pillows. We used large square dough scrapers with sharp edges to cut the threads of dough. Marika gave us a good tip here: when cutting down on the pasta, push out to the side, flinging the cut gnocchi away from you so you don’t accidentally double cut them. As we cut our way through the threads of dough, the newly minted gnocchi were tossed with a bit of flour so they wouldn’t stick to one another, and then transferred to a rimmed sheet for safe keeping.
These gnocchi looked a bit different than what I originally thought gnocchi looked like – they weren’t plump little grooved ovals. But Italy is a big country and I’m sure there’s more than one way to make gnocchi. Marika freezes the gnocchi right on the baking sheets. When it was about time to eat lunch, the frozen gnocchi were dropped straight into salted, rapid boiling water. Once they floated back to the surface, they were ready. Ready for what? To be tossed with an incredibly rich and delicious sauce of sausage, onions, spinach, cream and saffron!
These gnocchi were light as a feather and so tender; the exact opposite of dense potato bricks that are sometimes passed off as real gnocchi. A great morning followed by an amazing lunch. After lunch, we headed back into the garden to enjoy more fresh air and sunshine. Not a bad day at all.
This is Marika. She’s the one who taught me how to make gnocchi. She’s not only a wonderful cook but a generous and very patient woman who spoke to me clearly and slowly in Italian without any hint of frustration. And then still without any frustration, would repeat and find other ways to communicate (gestures! notes!) with me to make sure I understood. Before I left this farm, I wanted a photo of me and her. She felt a bit shy because her shirt was covered in tomato sauce; she just spent a day in the kitchen making lasagne. I said (actually I mimed this) that I would give her a hug to cover up the sauce on her shirt and the photo would look great. It looks great.