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Not Ireland. Italy. Sort of.

[Video=gnocchi]September 29, 2010. The Island of Potato is the way the great chef, Marco Canora, explains how he magically transforms a humble potato and some flour into light, airy gnocchi. Those small pasta-like potato dumplings that are totally great in a very few great restaurants. And like lead everywhere else. Marco gets the lead out.

Gnocchi is the ultimate Better Cheaper Slower food. Two really Cheap ingredients: flour and potato. Better than any pasta or potato dish I’ve ever had. And I love pasta and potato dishes. When you make it yourself, when you really get it right, you’ll be so amazed by every bite you’ll eat Very Slowly.

There’s no recipe. It’s all about technique. If Marco hadn’t shown me how to do this and let me get my hands in and on it and help a little – it would have taken a very long time to get this right. But I just did it solo for the first time – and it turned out great. I hope the video helps you get it right, too.

The magic trick
I’ll do my best with words, but you really should watch the video after you read this. The object of the game is to get just the right balance between the potato and the flour. There’s no recipe, no ingredient measurements – because potatoes come in all sizes and with varying moisture content. So here’s how you get the balance right.

Bake the potatoes, however many you make. Slice them lengthwise to maximize the exposed surface area; you want them to cool down and, most important, you want them to dry out. You want to allow their steam to escape.

The drier the potato, the less flour it will absorb. Less flour, lighter gnocchi. Marco uses your basic Idaho baking potato because they’re dry.

When your potatoes have lost all their steam, scoop the potato out of the skin and squeeze it through a potato ricer and onto a cutting board. Yes, you have to have a ricer. While your doing this, you’ll see more steam escape.

When you’re done, use a pastry scraper to spread the shredded potato across your cutting board. You have now created the fabled Island of Potato. Then you make it snow on the Island. Dust the top of the Island with flour; good old all-purpose flour. You want to make a thin sheet of flour on top of the potato.

With a pastry scraper, “cut” the flour into the potato. This will probably take 90 seconds, maybe two minutes. However long it takes, you want the potato to completely absorb and incorporate the flour. You’re done with this step when you can no longer see flour that is separate from potato.

Now use the scraper like a snow shovel, and push in the sides of the island to make it smaller. It’ll be higher, of course, and its surface area will be redsuced by about a third. Then do the snowstorm again; this time, you’ll use less flour because there’s less surface area to cover. Cut the flour into the potato again. Thoroughly.

When the second flouring is completely integrated into the potato, make the Island even smaller. Reduce it by a third again so it covers less than half its original surface area. Do the third and final snowstorm. But …

Don’t cut the flower into the potato with the scraper blade. Instead, just press down on the shrunken Island, then fold it over. Then press and fold again. And again and again until there’s no visible flour. The Island should be firm. It should not be sticky.

Say goodbye to the Island. Form it into a loaf. I used three potatoes to make a loaf about 8″ by 3″ by 2″ high. Then slice the loaf crosswise to make slices approximately 1″ thick by 2″ by 3″. The big sides of the slice should look kind of airy – marbleized and striated, not glommy.

With the full length of your hand, palm and fingers, roll the slice until it becomes a log, probalby about four or five inches long. When Marco does it, each one is absolute perfect and symmetrical – and identical to all the others. When I do it, they’re a little funky and each one’s a little different than the others. He says you get better with practice.

Continue rolling, but now begin to exert some pressure out toward the ends of the log – so it gets longer and thinner. You’re done when you run out of room on the cutting board.

Finally, dust your long, skinny logs with a very little bit of flour. Roll them back and forth a couple of times to coat them. Then cut them into small pieces, about 3/4″. They’re ready to cook; or, you can make them in advance and leave them out at room temperature for two or three hours. If you leave them out, put them on a flour-dusted kitchen towel.

The whole process took me about 20 minutes. The pro can do it in half the time.

This goes really fast. Put the raw gnocchi into a pot of boiling water. They’ll sink to the bottom. About a minute later, they float to the top. When they’re floating, they’re done. Take them out of the pot with a slotted spoon so they drain. Put ’em on a plate and sauce ’em.

They’re great with a simple tomato sauce. They’re great with a little olive oil, sea salt and grated parmiggiano cheese. And they’re mindblowing with a butter-sage sauce Marco showed me, the one he serves at his restaurant, Hearth.

Cost-Benefit Analysis
Let’s start with the benefit. When you get these just right, they’re the best thing that’ll go in your mouth all day. No exceptions. No exceptions. Cost? About 50 cents per main course serving. Really.

Cost comparison
For the equivalent serving size (1 potato, about 200 grams), Tater Tots cost $1.12. How did that happen? Well, Ore-Ida added a lot of vegetable oil. And salt. And chemical preservatives. Mostly, they added a lot of packaging and marketing.

Let’s Do The Math
Gnocchi, about 180 calories per main course serving, not including sauce. Tater Tots, 300, not including ketchup.
Gnocchi, a 35-minute walk. The Tots: make that an hour.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Buy your vegetables from a farmer.
The estimated bill for marketing domestic farm foods was $466 billion in 1998… 80 percent of the $585 billion consumers spent for these foods. The remaining 20 percent,or $119 billion,represents the gross return paid to farmers … From 1988 to 1998, consumer expenditures for farm foods rose $186 billion. Roughly 88 percent of this increase resulted from an increase in the marketing bill.” (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture report) Things aren’t getting better: “In 2006, 19 cents of every dollar spent on U.S.-grown food went to the farmer for the raw food inputs …” (USDA Economic Research Service, 2008). Just buy the potato.

You should read Marco Canora’s thoroughly enjoyable and user-friendly new book, Salt To Taste. You’ll love reading it even if you don’t use a single recipe. But you will. Like his soffrito. And whenever you can, you should go to his great restaurant, Hearth.

my pastry scraper

my potato ricer

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