In anticipation of my upcoming voyage to Rome, Headline Foods is featuring a weekly installment series creatively titled Countdown to Italy. Read other posts here.
After a brief foray into asparagus season, it’s time for the second installment of…COUNTDOWN TO ITALY. Let us return to the hot, crowded kitchen of yore where our young chefs will soon be elbow deep in flour + water. It is the second of four classes with Enrica of Otranto, and she has chosen to yank us from our Puglian comfort zone and whisk us north to Genoa, land of pesto. A figurative yank and whisk of course, as we are still lined up by the one fan in her apartment, seeking refuge from the Lecce heat. We have trotted into the kitchen, cartons of blood orange juice in hand, quenching our thirst and awaiting the day’s recipes. I spot basil on the counter, some nuts on top of the fridge, a rare glimpse of olive oil and pecorino pique my interest. Okay, who am I kidding, we put oil and cheese in everything. Finally, Enrica announces our project – homemade gnocchi and pesto genovese.
Being the good American kids we are, the first mention of pesto immediately conjured images of cheesy pizzas and chicken sandwiches in our naive little minds. Eager to learn the secrets of the magical green spread, I reached for the basil in hungry anticipation, but there was much to do prior to conquering the pesto. For this pesto was not to be casually spread on a deli sandwich, or buried ‘neath a layer of thick mozzarella. Oh, no. This pesto was the main event. The big kahuna. The star of the show. This pesto was to be tossed with nothing more than fresh pasta and butter, highlighting its flavors and showing off the pesto in all its nutty basil glory. But wait, I asked, dov’e la pasta? Ah, dice Enrica, la pasta faremo. (That loosely translates to Ah, said Enrica, we will make the pasta. But my Italian is quite rusty, and I probably was totally off on my conjugation. So…sorry? No one said this blog was a language lesson). And then, I noticed it. A large pot of water, boiling on the stove. Several pounds of peeled russet potatoes. A giant bag of semolina flour. My math skills might be as rusty as my Italian, but I knew the universal equation: Flour + Potatoes = Gnocchi
We boiled the potatoes, for 30 minutes perhaps. Let them cool, and ran them through a ricer (the ricer is not necessary – I just broke down the taters with a fork during the great Ferragosto feast of ’08). And then, it was pasta making time. Atop the grated potatoes, we piled an equal amount of semolina flour. This was topped with 1 egg/potato and slowly combined. Once the dough began to come together, we covered our hands in flour and got to work. We rolled out thick logs of pasta dough – easily 12 inches long with the circumference of my thumb. (If you’re not familiar with the circumference of my thumb, then I really don’t know how to help you. ) We cut the logs down into one-inch or “gnocchi-sized” pieces, and laid it all out to dry for a bit on some cookie sheets.
Meanwhile, it was time to make the pesto. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much the easiest thing in the world. Provided you have a food processor. Which I currently do not…but I do have a birthday next month! (don’t worry, there are only two weeks left of me non-subtly hinting for kitchen gadgets as birthday presents). Enrica did have a food processor, thus saving us young Americans from actually using a mortar and pestle to pestare the pesto. So, we tossed together some basil, pine nuts, pecorino, and olive oil in the food processor, processed it to an acceptable consistency, salted to taste, and had pesto! Like many simple dishes, the key is not so much in technique or quantities, but in the quality of the ingredients.
Pesto prepared, we returned to our sheets of gnocchi, and brought a pot of salted water up to boil. We dropped the gnocchi into the water in batches, letting it cook just a few minutes until the pieces rose to the surface. When each batch was done, we strained out the gnocchi, returned the water to full boil, and tossed in a new batch, removing the cooked pieces to a buttered dish. Once the pasta was done, we topped the gnocchi with the pesto, mixed it all together, and enjoyed yet another delicious meal.
And now, a totally gratuitous photo of an Italian beach.