Three Dishes is an exploration of a trio of riffs on the same dish. Think of each dish as a route on a map showing the many ways deliciousness can be reached from the same origin point. The issue featured Mark Ladner’s Gnocchi alla Romana, David Chang’s Gamjatang, and, also appearing below, Marco Canora’s Gnocchi.
I started making these gnocchi when we opened Craft in 2000, and we’ve been making them every day at Hearth for eleven years. It’s a craft, like playing the guitar. You make gnocchi every day, and well, you’re gonna get pretty fucking good.
Everyone wants to say, “Oh, those are Marco’s grandmother’s gnocchi,” and it’s been in print that they are, but they’re not at all. This is not my grandmother’s recipe; this is not my mom’s recipe. This is a recipe that happened through trial and error, through me looking at the task every day and asking questions of myself and gauging results, through me being aware of process and then altering the process. I’ve made these maybe forty thousand times in my life. It’s been the same methodology for thirteen, fourteen years.
I want to preface this: I’m not a big intellectual, conceptual, understand-how-the-science-works guy. I haven’t studied this on a molecular level. The things that I’m saying, Harold McGee might hear and say, “That guy is so full of shit. I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.” I have nothing to back up what is coming out of my mouth besides real-life experience. I know at the end of the day I can make really good gnocchi that make people say, “Oh my god, that’s the lightest gnocchi I’ve ever had.” It means a lot, and I’m super proud of it, but it’s not science. So take everything I say with a grain of salt.
HOW TO MAKE GNOCCHI
Once you start the process, you go to the end. That’s big rule number one. There are a few moments where you can step away to do shit—phone call, whatever—but it’s a big project that takes a substantial amount of time.
You’re only using two ingredients: potato and flour. But within those ingredients, there are variables. Sometimes the potatoes are really wet, and the sugars haven’t really converted to fluffy starch, and it makes a dramatic difference. Older potatoes are better. For a while I was keeping a case of potatoes back in the storeroom, so that I was always using old potatoes. They’d be in there three or four weeks. You can go to a supermarket and find old potatoes that are budding, and they’re really dry. That’s what you want: a really dry, starchy potato.
Bake your potatoes, uncovered, at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour, until they’re soft. You want to work with them when they’re crazy-hot out of the oven to maximize the amount of evaporation through steam when you open them. Steam means water escaping from the potato. The less water in the potatoes, the less flour you need to make the dough, and the less flour in the dough, the lighter the gnocchi. What can I do to release the most steam? Well, I can cut the potato in half the long way, because this creates the most amount of surface area for steam to escape.
As soon as you open them up, you can tell what you’re dealing with. These are really nice potatoes. Look at all the crystallization. You know the way a chestnut or a Japanese sweet potato looks when you bake it, and you see that dry, floury, crumbly, starchy interior? These have that. They’re really crystal-y, really dry. Bad potatoes look denser and wetter and more cement-like, and you know it’s going to be more difficult to spread ’em, that it’s going to require more flour to bring them together.
Then, they get scooped. I always like to scrape close to the skin; for me, that’s where the nicest potato is. Some really good flour-like potato lives close to the skin. I don’t know if that’s because it’s closest to the heat source—that more evaporation happens under the skin than at the center—but it always seems to make a difference. So I scrape.
Now you can mill the potatoes, which is what we always do, or you can use a ricer. They both work. But the most important thing is the fine holes. A lot of ricers have large holes, and you have big pieces of potato, and then you end up with a finished dough that isn’t really coherent and together.
Mill the potatoes right onto the surface that you’re working on. Our surface is steel. I don’t mind wood; I don’t mind marble. But you know what I can’t stand? When people try to do this on a fucking cutting board. Do it on your kitchen table, or clean your counter. You need lots of room. Don’t try to do this on a cutting board.
Now it’s the spread. Your potato pile is still very hot; this is about cooling it, getting the steam out. But it’s also about not working the starch, the same way you don’t want to work a pie crust or biscuit dough too much. So I make sure that every time I do this [poking at the pile of potatoes with a spoon], it’s productive to spreading. In other words, the last thing I want to start doing is this [smushing with the spoon]. I want to be very careful. No smushing allowed. I break up the pile, so it spreads. And that’s why I feel like a spoon is a good tool for this job; there’s not a lot coming into contact with the potato, and you run less of a risk of a smush.
I’m going to work this until it’s spread out into one even half-inch to one-inch layer. There’s not a whole lot of negative space anywhere. I have here what I always refer to as “an island of potatoes.” This island of potatoes can be fifteen potatoes, it can be eight potatoes, it can be two potatoes, it can be twenty-five potatoes. You create an island of potatoes, and the methodology can be applied to however big the island is.
This is the fanning-bench-scraper stage. Now you spend a minute getting some steam and heat out of the potatoes. If you feel the edge of the island with the back of your hand, it’s pretty cool to the touch, but the center is much warmer. I want everything to be like the edge. This is when I like to fan with the bench scraper. I’ll also go down the center and flip the potatoes to help with the steam release.
This is the moment where it’s okay to leave for a second, but really no more. If the island gets really cold, it changes the way it absorbs the flour. You want it just cool enough that there’s no steam coming off of it. That’s key. That’s when I’ve done all I can to help with evaporation.
Now I can begin the actual gnocchi process.
There will be three additions of flour. The first is a heavy dusting of the entire island. The quantity is a visual thing. I have an image in my head of the day of the first snowfall. It’s like a thin blanket of snow that the grass still sticks out of. I guess if you’re not from the Northeast, you don’t know what the fuck that means. Google “snow on grass” if you have to. In my book, I provided a measurement for the flour, but that’s bogus. The island dictates the dusting.
Use a bench scraper to incorporate the flour. The potato wants to suck up the flour, and you want it to suck it up in a way that doesn’t make it mushy. Use the scraper to cut methodical, even lines straight across the potato island.
While you’re doing this, look at the relationship between the fluffy white stuff to the yellowy potato. Later, once the potatoes have sucked up all the flour, it will look very different; you won’t see fluffy white stuff anymore. It will all look like a yellowy potato product.
Once I’m done cutting all the way down, I fold in an inch or two of the sides of the island, incorporating any residual flour from the work surface. This all gets folded in, and you do another sweep-through with the bench scraper. The island of potatoes gets marginally smaller.
Now’s the time for the second addition of flour. The same concept, the same snowfall—just a little less because the size of the island has decreased. Cut the flour in as you did the first time. You’ll notice there’s not a whole lot of white fluff. It all disappeared.
Now I’m going to start forming the actual dough ball. It’s a compacting action—you’re moving the dough towards the center to form a much smaller island of potatoes. Dust the top with flour, and then flip it and do a dusting on the other side. That’s the third and last addition.
To incorporate this last addition of flour, fold the dough in half and press. Fold and press. Fold and press. Fold and press. Little by little, the potato will suck up the flour. No kneading, no stretching—just fold and press.
The three-additions-of-flour rule should always apply. You want to use as little flour as possible, but it’s also possible to add too little of it. Everything will work perfectly: you’ll form the dough, you’ll roll the dough, you’ll cut the dough, and then you’ll drop it in the water and it’ll all fall apart like dough diarrhea. It takes practice to get it right.
What happens now is that the dough gets tacky. When it starts sticking to my hand, and sticking to the counter, that’s a good sign. It’s the dough saying, “I’ve sucked up all my flour, don’t knead me anymore.” That’s when it’s there. You don’t see any remnants of white, dusty flour; it’s all yellow potato dough now.
Form the dough into a long loaf, about four inches wide. To remove any air pockets from the dough, I bang the loaf on the table, flip it, bang it, roll it again, bang it again. Repeat this for at least five or six flips and bangs. Then dust the whole loaf generously with flour and rub gently to coat. Fondling the dough at this point is one of my favorite parts of the process; it feels so cool. It gives a little bit; it’s firm but pliable. I don’t want to sound too crazy, but the magic part of it just happened. It turned into something. I don’t know how or why, but it turned from a bunch of stuff into this thing.
Move the loaf over to the side of your work area and let it rest for a couple minutes while you scrape your area clean. Cleaning is important. I see people teaching how to roll out the gnocchi, and there’s flour everywhere. It doesn’t make sense. This is not the end of Scarface. When I’m rolling the gnocchi dough, I need it to grip the work surface. If I have a shit-ton of flour everywhere, what’s it going to grip?
Take a slice off the loaf, and look inside. All these feathered layers are really positive things. They say: you used really good starchy potatoes, you didn’t add too much flour, you worked it the right amount. Just look at it. That’s really nice.
Now I want to roll as many little dongers as I can. Cut one-inch-thick slices from the loaf, and roll them each into long dowels. This takes time and practice. You don’t want to use your fingers, really; I try to think of them as an extension of my palm. Apply consistent, even pressure. But remember, the beautiful thing about doing something like this is the fact that there isn’t a set size. Fuck uniformity. Uniformity happens when things aren’t handmade. At the restaurant, I don’t want to see a donger bigger than the others, because I want to have standards. But I would never tell anybody at home that they have to be a certain diameter.
Group the dongers together and roll them lightly in flour. You don’t want them to be sticky, because you’ve got to move pieces to a sheet pan, then into the water. Use the bench scraper to cut gnocchi out of the dongers.
In the restaurant, we boil gnocchi in salted water until they float, take them out and shock them in ice water, and then store them in the fridge. On the pickup, we heat them up in beurre fondue, take them out with a slotted spoon, and plate. At home, you skip the shock stage; you boil them, they float, you take them out, and you put them into a pan with whatever you’re going to serve them with.
For the beurre fondue, we make a tea with a half cup water and a small bunch of sage leaves, and then we mount butter into it. That’s it. Parmigiano-Reggiano garnish, flaky salt, crumbled fried sage, freshly ground black pepper.