One of my favorite properties of nettles is that their rich emerald green color is so persistently vibrant. This makes it perfect for incorporating into pastas, breads, sauces, and soups to turn them a bright, fresh green hue that stands up to long cooking and anything else your kitchen can throw at it. It’s been a long, chilly, damp spring and as such I was still in the mood for some hearty comfort food. While I might usually do a lighter spring pasta to use up some nettles, the cool weather inspired me to go with pasta’s rustic cousin, gnocchi.
Gnocchi is classic northern Italian peasant food. For much of it’s history grain based flours were very dear, requiring a lot of input to grow and a lot of labor to harvest, thresh, mill, and sift. Adding another starch to stretch out the flour, like cooked potato, is peasant ingenuity that has blossomed into a cherished dish of it’s own. When they’re good gnocchi are light and pillowy, with only the slightest bit of resistance in each bite. When they’re bad they can be dense and doughy, distracting from anything the sauce may bring to the dish.
The density of homemade gnocchi has been the source of much fretting, and not entirely without cause. Due to the fact that potatoes vary so much in moisture and starch content they can be finicky to make, especially if you want to simply follow a recipe with exact proportions. Gnocchi are best made by feel, using the measurements as a guideline and using your hands to determine whether you should add the full amount of flour called for.
Dense gnocchi is usually the result of adding too much flour to the dough, and too much flour usually is added to combat too much moisture. This is a case in which the variety of potato matters a great deal. For light gnocchi it’s important to use a starchy or floury potato, which have less water content than their waxy counterparts. In America the most common floury potatoes you’ll find are russet potatoes, although other heirloom varieties may be found at farmer’s markets and co-ops. When cooking the potatoes it’s important not to add any moisture. Never boil or steam them, always bake them or, if you don’t want to heat up the oven, cook them in the microwave. How the potatoes are handled when cooled also affects the amount of moisture they retain. I always break the potatoes open as soon as I take them out of the oven or microwave, so that water from the inside can evaporate before it cools. Finally, always use a food mill or potato ricer to break the potatoes into a smooth paste. Using a food processor will over work them, and other methods leave chunks that are too large. In a pinch you can also press the cooked potato through a fine sieve, chinoise or tamis if you don’t have a food mill or potato ricer.
When it comes to shaping the gnocchi I feel that it’s crucial to add the small ridges and dimple on the back of the gnocchi, but some people don’t bother with this. It’s easy to do, the ridges help hold sauce, and the dimple keeps them from clumping up on the plate and helps them to cook through better. It’s also easy to do, so why not? I have a rigga-gnocchi, a small beech-wood board with ridges on it, designed for this express purpose, but for many years I used the back of a fork with no issues at all. In either case, simply place the length of the gnocchi perpendicular to the fork tines or ridges and press it down and out a little with your thumb. There’s really no right or wrong way to do it, so experiment with different techniques until you find one that works for you. Seeing as the dough for gnocchi should be much softer than a standard pasta dough it can be necessary to add more flour to the outside of the pasta while shaping it to avoid sticking.
When it’s time to cook your gnocchi it’s crucial to have both a large pot of salted water and for that water to be at a full rolling boil. As with cooking all pasta, the water should be heavily salted, so that it tastes almost as salty as the ocean. If it’s not boiling and you add too many gnocchi the water temperature will drop low enough that they won’t cook fast and they’ll fall apart before they set up. It’s best to cook gnocchi as soon as they’re rolled and shaped, but if you would like to make them ahead of time simply freeze them in a single layer on a sheet pan. With this route keep them frozen until they go into the pot of water.
I recently served these gnocchi with morels in a gorgonzola cream sauce alongside horseradish crusted venison tenderloin, but they would be just as good with tomato sauce, pesto, or simply brown butter and sage.
This recipe makes a fairly large batch of gnocchi, about enough to serve 8-10 people as a meal with vegetable and protein. If you don’t want to use them all at once freeze in asingle layer on a baking sheet, then remove from the sheet and place into freezer bags while still frozen. The dough will keep for three days in the fridge and for two months frozen as gnocchi.
4 large russet potatoes
1 ½ c flour
1 Tbsp olive oil
Clean and blanch the nettles, then remove leaves from any tough stems. Measure out two cups of packed leaves, then wring in a kitchen towel to remove any excess blanching water. Place into a food processor with the three eggs and puree to a fine paste. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in the oven or microwave until they’re pierced easily by a fork. While still hot break potatoes open and allow to cool. Once cool press the potatoes through a ricer, food mill, or tamis. Add the nettle mixture, olive oil, and one cup of flour. Mix until combined, adding more flour if necessary to bring it together into a soft dough. Try to avoid over mixing or kneading. Cut off pieces of dough and roll them into ½” thick ropes, dusting them well with flour. Cut the rope into ½”-1” long pieces depending on your preference, and shape them by pressing onto the back of a fork or a rigga-gnocchi. Cook in well salted boiling water until they float and remain floating for approximately one minute. It’s good to test one before dumping the pot to make sure it’s firmed up. Drain or remove from pot with a slotted spoon and serve immediately.