Ricotta Gnocchi with garden veggies

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Few dishes are as comforting as gnocchi. Plump and pillowy little versatile dumplings baked, boiled or fried, tossed with sauce or just butter and cheese, will put a smile on even the grumpiest of faces. I mean who in their right mind would turn down a plate of gnocchi?

Although all gnocchi are wonderful, there is one variety that is particularly close to my heart (or should I say, belly). Those amazing little clouds of joy are none other than the humble yet delicious ricotta gnocchi, which FYI, are also also called gnudi in the most elite Italian dumpling circles.

The holy story of gnocchi

At this point you must be asking yourself what makes ricotta gnocchi or gnudi so special. Well for starters they are extra pillowy and soft, they are better for your waistline, they are incredibly easy to make and they so happen to be oldest type of gnocchi out there, and might I add they are most likely the grand pappy of pasta in general. 

One of the oldest legends referring to gnocchi dates from the late 3rd century a.C. The story relates the miracles of St. Pantaleon of Nicomedia, now in modern day Turkey. Son of Christian mother and a pagan father, something quite common at the time, Pantaleon grew up in a particularly wealthy family.

Although he was raised as a christian, he became increasingly distant to the Church after his mother passed and went off to study medicine. He excelled in his studies in such a manner that he soon became head Imperial physician. 

According to the Church, on one occasion the patron saint of physicians, midwives, and all things lottery (now you know who to pray to next time you buy ticket) ran into the Bishop of Nicomedia. He was so impressed by the way the Bishop healed the sick with the help of Christ, that Pantaleon quit his job and renounced his wealth, becoming a humble preacher and healer traveling through northern Italy. The story also goes to say that his former Imperial patient pleaded him to leave his faith or face prosecution. 

While preaching in Italy, it is said that on a Thursday the 29th of July of an unknown year, the famished saint came across a humble peasant cottage, where a very elderly couple lived. The saint asked them for food, and while they were struggling to make ends meet, the couple invited him to join them for a scarce meal of dry pulmentum (ancient roman polenta) and bread. 

After having dined the Saint blessed them and told them that because of their generosity they would be rewarded by abundant crops and that the nearby streams would be swarming with fish. After St. Pantaleon had left the humble hosts found gold coins underneath the plate he was served in. 

Gnocchi are now always on the menu every Thursday in every restaurant in Italy. In fact Thursdays are called Giovedì gnocchi. Funnily enough Italian immigrants took that tradition with them to “Southern Cone” of Latin America. Tradition demands that every 29th one must eat gnocchi for good fortune, even better if it is eaten on a plate placed over money.

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But wasn’t pasta Chinese?

We know for a fact now that pasta being introduced into Europe by Marco Polo is well, ancient “FAKE NEWS”. Archaeological evidence has demonstrated that the Etruscans, an ancient civilization that lived in what roughly modern day Tuscany, in Italy, were enjoying a type of pasta (which I might add is still being eaten in Tuscany today). In fact pasta history was influenced in a much grater degree by Middle Eastern trade than the Far Orient. 

That is NOT to say that Chinese were not feasting on bowl of delicious rice noodles with amazing topping and sauces even before the Etruscans did. I’m just stating that rice noodles did not make their way to Europe just like writing didn’t make it’s way East from Mesopotamia. Great minds and inventions have been known to sprout in different places and times. 

So why was it that up until fairly recently we all thought that pasta came from China? Well it so happens that the confusion stems from a misinterpretation of one of the passages from The travels of Marco Polo, also called Description of the World or Il Milione. 

The book was in fact not written by Marco Polo himself but by Rusticello da Pisa who happened to be Polo’s cell mate while he was imprisoned in Genoa. Da Pisa was already both  a celebrated crusader and author who happened to write the Roman de Roi Artus called Compilation in English, which, as it name states, was a compilation of the stories of King Arthur, his round table and his knights.  

So impressed by Marco Polo’s journeys East, Rusticello da Pisa decided to record the stories he heard during his Genovese “time-out”. Now the pasta confusion lies in a passage in which Polo recounts the products he saw being made from a starchy tree, now believed to be the Sago Palm. In it he explains that locals made a pasta-like noodle that resembles macaroni. 

The part that has been much overlooked over the years was that to compare the noodles with macaroni he must have known what macaroni were.

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If we start pulling on the “macaroni” string, or should I say noodle, we suddenly have a full array of historic information related to both pasta and gnocchi. It seems that Macaroni found their way into Italian diets thanks to the Greek colonists who founded ancient city of Neapolis, modern day Naples. These settlers brought with them their ever so solemn and traditional “macaroneia” μακαρώνεια with them. 

If there is a dish that truly did evolve over time that would be macaroneia. Originally it was simply barley cooked in a rich broth that was exclusively served at funerals, you see the word macaroneia, and therefore macaroni, literally suggests it, as it derives from the word μάκαρες (makares) which translates to “blessed are the dead”.

Now before you freak out and decide never to have Mac’n Cheese ever again, bear with me. 

During the Roman era Macaroneia changed quite significantly; barley was replaced by “the more refined and elegant” wheat, and then that wheat started to be milled and made into a dough. That is how little dumplings much like German and Austrian spaetzle, called zanzerelli, were born. Pasta had undoubtedly made its debut.

Extremely popular, zanzarelli were enjoyed in both the most humble of households and in large and elegant banquets alike. But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages and Renaissance that zanzarelli suffered a the biggest transformation. To accommodate the upper crust’s taste for a more sophisticated dish, almond meal was incorporated to the dough, while lower classes in need of more satisfying meals used less expensive wheat and other cereals, they also began making them larger to accommodate their hard working appetites.

 

The origin of the word GNOCCHI

What’s in a name? That which we call a gnocchi, 

By any other name would taste just as good…..

 

Around the 6th century a tribe of Scandinavian origin called the Lombards settled in Italy after trudging ALL of Europe. Seriously, I think their navigator was a bit off. 

Even though their rule over Italy was short lived, they left a permanent mark both gastronomically and culturally. Lombards settled in quiet quickly and adopted the vernacular language spoken around them; some lombardic words, however, made their way to Vulgar Latin and eventually into Italian. 

Such is the case for gnocchi. The word gnocchi, plural for gnocco, stems from the lombardic KHOHNA meaning knot, as in the knots in a tree or the knuckles in one’s hand. Why? Well the little pasta wonder resembled just that. Akin to both the word gnocchi and the pasta are German knödels. 

I can imagine now more than one nonna is frowning down on me as I say this, for German and Italian food have NO relation. Or do they?

As the price of flour increased creative cooks found a way to sub the product for cheaper ingredients they had on hand, like chestnut flour or eventually potato, corn, pumpkin and sweet potato after the discovery of the New World. 

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Funnily enough gnocchi in Venice are still also referred to as macaroni as well as gnocchi. And its preparation is almost identical to Roman gnocchi, gnocchi all romana. Both concoctions are made out of flour, or semolina, eggs and water, or milk, and are then dried, cut into disks, boiled and finally they are baked in the oven with butter and cheese. 

But maybe the most celebrated gnocchi are those of Verona, fairly close to Venice. Veronese gnocchi are served in a simple yet delicious tomato sauce, and are etched into local culture since the 1500’s. 

During the early 16th century, Verona was struck by famine and chaos. The nearby Adige river was overflown destroying the hard worked fields in the area. To make matters worse, Verona had become a target for raids conducted by a fearless and terrifying group of colorfully dressed German mercenaries called the Landsknechts.

In sheer desperation, the hunger-struck Veronese planned an assault on the bakers of San Zeno, a famous quarter in Verona, to appropriate their grain and bread. Alerted of the impending attack, the Podestà, the highest ranking officer in Verona, and Tommaso Da Vico, one of the city’s wealthiest residents, ran to San Zeno. There, the men managed to thwart the revolt with the distribution of free food that came directly out of Da Vico’s pocket book, obviously making him over-night sensation amongst the sansenati, the dispossed. 

The dish he chose to distribute among the poor, you guessed it, gnocchi tossed in butter and sprinkled with cheese, accompanied with bread and wine. 

Continuing with his acts of generosity Tommaso Da Vico, devised a plan of sure gastronomical genious, he created the most celebrated moment of one of the oldest carnivals in Italy, the Baccanale del Gnoccho.

This carb-lover baccanale is lead by the Papà del Gnoccho, a Father-Christmas-like-character dressed in white and red, adorned with a colorful crown and a large fork with a pierced gnoccho on top as his distinctive scepter. His helpers called gobeti or macaroni distribute both candy and gnocchi to the crowd. 

The election of Papà del Gnoccho, like all things food related, is not taken lightly by Italians. Originally he was chosen only from the San Zeno neighborhood, but seeing as how the world has become a more democratic place, it is now open to all Veronese citizens. 

This I have to add is a highly political event. 

To submit his candidacy it is compulsory to be inscribed in a gnocchi clan. Once approved by all members of the clan, the aspiring Papà del Gnoccho chooses where to announce his aspirations from all available bars in Verona, in front of a certified notary and the gnocchi constituency. Once all required legal procedures are formalized, his submission is then presented to the Senate, which is comprised ONLY by the former Papà del Gnoccho.

Once the Senate has deliberated and approved all candidates, the campaign begins. All sorts of mischief and treachery are fair play; spies are know to have infiltrated past campaigns and all manner of morally grey strategies roll out right up until election day. 

Once voting commences candidates must retire to headquarters. After the voting tables are closed, ballots are then proceeded to be counted only by ONE trustworthy gnocchi enthusiast. 

He and he alone knows the outcome of the election and is the sole responsible for notifying candidates, Senate, and voters, of the outcome. 

I don’t know if my mind strays in that direction unjustifiably, but I can imagine that many a bribe in the form a family heirloom recipes, and all things gastronomical, have altered the results at the poles. 

Once the new Papà del Gnoccho is announced, plans for his coronation begin. This whole process culminates on Gnocchi Friday (Venardì Gnocolar), where Papà del Gnoccho is crowned and parades in front of his subjects. Click here to watch last year's coronation and here to check out the Carnivale's official website. 

Now that you are more aware of Gnocchi history I leave you with my recipe.

 

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Ricotta Gnocchi and Garden Veggies

Yields: 4 servings

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Prep time:

Cook time:

Ingredients:
  • 400 g (6 oz.) of drained ricotta
  • 200g (2 cups) of finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 130 to 200 g (1 to 1 1/2 cups) plain white flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 70 g (1/2 stick) of butter
  • a good glug of olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups of fresh garden peas
  • one bunch of asparagus
  • chives or parmesan to garnish
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:
  1. Pulse ricotta, parmesan, flour and eggs in a food processor or mix by hand, until a smooth dough is formed
  2. Cover dough with cling film and let rest in the fridge for 30 min
  3. Roll out dough into a thin tube roughly the size of your thumb
  4. Cut dough into small "pillows" and boil in salty water for a couple of minutes until they start to float. Remove from boiling water and set aside. Reserve a couple of tablespoons of the salty water for the sauce.
  5. Cut asparagus, and fry in a pan with butter until relatively soft
  6. Add peas and oil and once cooked toss in gnocchi and cook until lightly browned. Add salty water and salt an pepper to taste
  7. Garnish with chives or parmesan
  8. Enjoy!

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