Gnocchi and pesto (How to make both)

Gnocchi

Food and drink evoke memories. For some a cold crisp glass of white wine enjoyed on holiday at a small restaurant by the sea reminds them of the scent of hot shellfish, the punch of garlic aioli and a burnished orange sun setting in the distance. Pesto has the same effect on me. The scent of basil takes me back to Spaghetti House in Knightsbridge in the late 1980s. My Father worked locally and occasionally had to go to work on a Saturday. Often my Mum and I would accompany him into work and spend the day in a museum or window shopping. We usually ate lunch together but sometimes it would just be Mum or Dad. Dad and I had two favourites, Spaghetti House and a Chinese called Mr Chow’s. Unadventurous by modern standards I’m sure. Particularly for someone who clearly loves food. Well, for those younger than me, here comes some context.

Remember, it had just been 10 years since the Panorama April Fool’s Day episode where they tricked the nation into believing that pasta was grown on trees and harvested annually. The rate of change in what we can buy in the supermarket and therefore cook at home, be it by way of reheating or cooking from scratch, has increased exponentially particularly from the 1990s onwards. I’m almost 40 but I can remember when people put butter and/or ketchup on their spaghetti because a homemade tomato sauce wasn’t part of their cooking lexicon. The excitement in our local supermarket when the first mass market jars of pasta sauces arrived was palpable. (NB: 2016 appears to be the first year since their introduction in which sales of jars of pasta sauce have decreased. Sadly it doesn’t appear that we are cooking more from scratch. It seems people now buy ready made pasta and sauce to nuke thereby saving a few minutes for limp lifeless pasta rather than al dente).

The scent of basil being chopped, blitzed or pounded is unmistakeable and takes me back to Spaghetti House in the late 1980s, replete with Italian waiters straight out of Central Casting shouting loudly at each other and a pepper mill that as tall as a small boy. It was like stepping into Italy without the faff of getting to Heathrow (convenient as the Brompton Road is for doing so) and immersing yourself in another culture for an hour or so. Today, such a setup would likely be considered kitsch and restaurants go to different but equally great lengths to prove their authenticity.

Spaghetti House is where I ate many different types of pasta, sauces and Italian dishes in general for the first time. Gnocchi with pesto however, is one that that I recall most fondly. Recently, someone who I follow on twitter said that they didn’t like pesto. Okay, it wasn’t recently it was months ago and I promised to write up my recipe for both pesto and gnocchi quickly but I didn’t but it’s here now.

A warning

I’m about to describe my take on two traditional recipes. If you’re Italian, a pedant, intolerant or a combination therefore, you may not agree with my recipe. That’s okay, change it and make it your own.

Pesto

In the late 1990s, Jamie Oliver burst onto our screens and not only got people cooking ingredients previously foreign to them, but also bashing the hell out of herbs and garlic in a pestle and mortar. My Grandma had a pestle and mortar in her kitchen. It was a heavy stone affair which would make light work of anything. The late 90s brought a number of pretenders to the fore. I seem to recall receiving two pestle and mortars sets as gifts but they were a far cry from a my Grandmother’s kitchen in Nairobi. These were small, light and made of ceramic. The end of the pestle was smooth and rounded. The lightest contact with a clove of garlic sent the allium flying out of the mortar, across the kitchen and from there, the bin.

A traditionalist would frown in horror at the idea of making pesto in anything but a pestle and mortar but I’m going to be pragmatic. If you have a good, heavy, stone pestle and mortar then please, pound away. If not, then a Magimix is your friend.

Pine Nuts

pine nuts

Take 60g of pine nuts and toast them in a dry frying pan. The act of toasting will enhance their flavour and release their oil into the pesto. For that second reason, don’t buy pre-toasted pine nuts or toast them hours/days in advance. Heat the pan over a medium heat and when the pan is hot add the pine nuts. Move them around occasionally and gently. They take a while to start to change colour but once they initially do, the process speeds up and they can easily go black. This is not a task where you can leave the pan or divert your attention to Twitter. You’re looking for a golden colour ideally over the entire nut but if not, over most of it. Better partial coverage than the risk of the nut turning black. If you do burn any (i.e. they go black) then they must be binned as they will give the pesto a burnt, bitter and acrid taste.

Garlic

I use two large cloves of garlic for these quantities of other ingredients but here is where you might want to want to experiment a little to suit your taste. To my mind, garlic shouldn’t be the dominant flavour in pesto but a warm background note. But if keeping the vampires away is a priority then by all means increase the quantity.

Parmesan

Around 60g freshly grated from a block. Ready grated in a Ziploc bag is (a) more expensive (b) often has an additive in it to keep it from clumping (c) usually tasteless or worse still (d) tastes like shaved milk that went off six days ago. (How do I know, well, let’s just say I go to great lengths to write my analogies).

Oh and certainly not the fine powder that you get in cardboard tubes. If that’s your view of parmesan then we need to talk.

Olive Oil

You need enough extra Virgin olive oil to wet the basil. Find one that you like at a price that you are willing to pay. Look beyond fancy bottles and labels and there are two dominant notes; fruit and pepper. The difference between most bottles is the balance of the two. I like Waitrose own brand for the price and it’s what I use everyday. (In another act of heresy, I recommend trying Spanish olive oil if you haven’t before. They produce more than the Italians, it’s usually cheaper and dare I say it, better).

Basil

You just want the leaves, not the stems

Basil goes off quicker than Usain Bolt. This lush green herb has an ability to bruise and blacken between the supermarket and home so my advice is to make your pesto as soon as you get your basil home. If you do need to store it before use then remember it needs to go into a cool dark cupboard, not a fridge.

You need the basil leaves not stalks to make pesto. Remove the leaves by hand, pinching the stem of each to release them. Two 100g packets of Waitrose basil yields about 120g of leaves.

Combining the ingredients

For these quantities, I tend to use the smallest of the three magimix bowls. If you’re using another mixer then go for the smallest bowl that will fit all of the ingredients with the basil squashed down.

Put the garlic and pine nuts in and give them a quick blitz. Then add the olive oil, parmesan and basil and pulse until just combined. You may need to add a little more olive oil. The longer the basil is in the mixer the more it will oxidise and start to taste bitter so err on the side of caution. As soon as it’s mixed, turn it out into a kilner jar or airtight container. Taste and correct the seasoning. It will need pepper but the quantity of salt depends on your palate. The parmesan is likely to be quite salty so hold back.

Cover with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil and it will keep for a few weeks. When you do take some out, make sure you use a clean spoon, add a new layer of oil if necessary and wipe the inner sides of the jar of any stray bits of pesto above the oil line. This reduces the chance of mould forming.

On a weekday evening you can boil some pasta and add it a spoon or two of your homemade pesto with perhaps a little more pepper and parmesan for a quick, delicious taste of Genoa. (Tomato and rocket salad with a small glass of Gavi if I’m being complete).

If you’ve got a little more time then read on to make gnocchi, the perfect accompaniment to pesto

Gnocchi

Good gnocchi are light and fluffy, bad gnocchi are heavy and gloopy. With a bit of practice you can make the former every time.

Potatoes

Gnocchi is made from mashed potatoes and my views on that are fixed; Maris Piper potatoes baked in the oven. Boiling potatoes increases the water content and it’s very easy to end up with wet soggy potatoes that taste faintly of water and starch. Baking potatoes on the other hand cooks them in their own moisture and gives you the flexibility to add moisture to enhance their flavour (butter, cream/milk) if making mash or easily soak up any remaining moisture with flour if making gnocchi.

Take 1.5kg (this makes four good portions) and bake at 210c for an hour. If a knife runs through them with ease they’re ready. If not, return to the oven and every 10 minutes. When they are ready, cut each potato in half and scoop out the innards into a potato ricer. Doing this while the potatoes are still hot makes the job of scooping out the flesh much easier but you’ll need to wear an oven glove unless your hands are asbestos lined. Pass the potato through the ricer

Adding the flour

Weigh the mash potato and calculate 10% of that weight. That’s how much flour you need. Fold in half the double zero flour into the potatoes and it should come together as a dough but you may need a little more of the quantity you weighed out. You may need even more flour if the potatoes were particularly watery but add it in very small quantities and fold gently. The more flour you add, the more you will taste, detracting from the smooth potato flavour. The more you work the potatoes, the harder the finished gnocchi will be.

Shaping

Long sausage, 1cm wide

Take ¼ of the dough and roll it out into a long even sausage about a centimetre wide. Using a sharp knife, cut the long piece of dough into gnocchi about 2cm long. When you have finished, take each gnocchi and run it down the tines of a fork ending at the prongs. That will give the gnocchi some definition and a couple of extra bits of surface area for the pesto to cling on to. Put the gnocchi onto a sheet of greaseproof paper or a lightly floured board while you complete the same task with the remaining dough

Cut into size

Cooking the gnocchi

Cook the gnocchi as soon as possible. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. While you wait, take a small frying pan and add into a tablespoon or two of pesto. Add a little olive oil and loosen the pesto.

The gnocchi will take less than a minute to cook and is best eaten immediately. The more gnocchi you cook, the greater the chance of them sticking together. I therefore suggest cooking no more than two portions together but ideally cook an individual portion at a time. The gnocchi is ready when it floats to the surface and immediately on doing so should be removed from the water with a slotted spoon and into the pesto to be gently folded in and onto a plate. Dress with a little shaving of parmesan, a twist of pepper and enjoy.