The Sunday post: dumplings, dedication and passion

This post begins a new category devoted to cooking experiences. My rather stressful life requires a few moments for myself, where I’m able to devote my brain to something different that requires concentration and dedication: in the past few months I found myself doing more cooking and enjoying it a lot. Finding the recipe, getting the right ingredients, slicing, dicing and – finally – cooking is a great way to move from the virtual electrons on my computer screen to something tangible that shapes up in front of me, with the full glory of smell, texture, temperature and appearance. A great source of relax, which I thought I could share on this blog.

Proper cooking requires time, and this is why I indulge in it only on weekends, typically on Sunday, hence the title for this and all subsequent posts. Don’t expect formal recipes, though: you’ll see stories, anecdotes, jokes and tales of an amateur cook.

This category requires me to break a rule I set to myself: as much as I hate splitting the posts into summaries and body, I have to consider how most of my readers aren’t coming over here for cooking stuff. As this kind of posts need quite a bit of room to breathe, I will have to swallow my pride and have just summaries flying around. Feel free to come over here anytime to read the full story, of course.

Without further ado, then, here comes a tale of passion, dedication and dumplings.

Cooking is about dedication. Shaping a dish up is more than following a recipe: it takes the proper time, it takes concentration, it takes motivation. Technique of course helps, but unless you’re a professional cook, you need to set aside a proper time slice to harvest results. There is nothing difficult about cooking, once you know the basics, yet don’t indulge into it if you don’t feel in the proper state of mind. If you don’t have time, if you’re impatient, or if you feel that food is little more than getting the proper amount of protein and vitamins into your body, you’re better order some take away. If you feel like getting some time for yourself, doing something easy yet rewarding, then this dumpling story is for you.

This Sunday story happens on a Wednesday. November 1st is a national holiday in Italy, and me and my wife thought it was a good time to invite her sister to visit and show us her new car. My wife explicitly asked me to cook my potato dumplings, and I duly obliged.

Potato dumpling (we call them “gnocchi”) are possibly the easiest stuff you can cook at home while impressing your guests. Of course I’m not talking about the packaged stuff you buy at supermarkets, made with potato flakes and whatnot: homemade dumplings are easy and fun to do once you know the basics.

The secret with potato dumplings is making sure they actually taste of potatoes. They are made of just two ingredients, potatoes and flour (you might read about eggs in some recipes, but that’s something between a shortcut and an abomination), so getting the right proportions is key. Since flour will cover the taste of potatoes, the trick is using the minimal amount of grain, yet managing to get a stiff dough you can work with. Also, there is no fixed potato/flour proportion, as different kind of potatoes will absorb more or less flour according to a number of uncontrolled variables.

Here comes my first variation: the traditional recipe assumes that you start by boiling potatoes, with the skin on to preserve as much flavour as possible. Since the amount of flour will depend heavily on the amount of water to absorb in the dough, getting as less humidity as possible in your potatoes can really make a difference. A good way is avoiding the boiling part and bake the potatoes instead: I usually whack 1kg of potatoes (yellow paste, if possible), with their skin on, in a pre-heated oven (180°C should do). It takes from 40 minutes to an hour to cook them through, that depends on the size of potatoes and the power of your oven. Once I start to suspect the potatoes are baked, I stab them with a table knife and lift them up. If they slide off from the knife, they’re ready to go. Despite my wife muttering about burnt smell, I don’t mind if the potato skin gets some black, burnt, spots: this is expected and will actually add a nutty flavour to the dumplings.

Once your potatoes are done, it’s time to peel them off (yes, they will be hot, until I trained my fingers to the kitchen heat, I used a kitchen glove and a knife). It’s then time for some good mashing: I’m definitely ruthless here, and I go to great length to ensure there are no potato lumps left. I’m actually so paranoid to sieve the mash, even if that qualifies me as mental with my wife: I do think this earns me a lot of brownie points in texture. The final result usually resembles wet potato flour.

It’s now time to start the dough process: I have a spacious table ready and place the potato mash in the center. Flour comes into play: I usually start with a sizable chunk, possibly some 300g. I know I will need more but again the lesser the better, so I get a good pinch of salt, and start mixing. This is where dedication and passion come into play: working the potatoes and flour mix means using hands to mix, pinch, massage and overall feel the dough shaping up into something elastic and smooth from the initial state of gooey crumbles. Hands are key to the final result, as it’s not just a matter of pressure but also a question of natural heat coming from the body. Some say that mixing the dough is close to having sex, and I have to agree. As I proceed, I add flour with the idea of drying the dough when I feel it’s too wet, but every pinch of flour is a stab to flavour, so I try to refrain as much as possible, knowing that the more I mix, the less flour I need. The potatoes will tell me how much flour to add: once the dough is elastic, soft and dry (don’t overdo, though: dry still means keeping some moist), I know I’m done. As a ballpark, I consider no less than fifteen minutes just for mixing.

I’m now the proud owner of a silky ball of dough: it’s time to shape it into small dumplings. The process here is fairly simple, as all it’s needed is (literally) the rule of thumb: dumpling should be the size of a thumb’s phalanx. To achieve this, I take a small handful of though, sprinkle some flour on the table and start rolling and stretching the dough into what resembles a snake. What I basically do is stretching while rolling the dough, with a movement that goes from the center to the sides. And I use just fingers, not palms: the trick is spreading fingers while rolling, going back and forth: the dough will stretch, and stretch, and stretch, until it gets to the diameter of a thumb. Expect, from an handful of dough, to end up with a 30-50cm roll. The roll can now cut be cut into the desired size, using either a knife or a spatula.

The extra mile here is getting a cheese grater and gently roll the dumplings on it: this will give a rough texture to the finished product, which will help in picking up the sauce. Dumplings then need to be sprinkled with flour, gently moving them around, so that you make sure they won’t stick to the table. This ends up the dumpling-making process, even though there is usually a slight variation over here: I’m good when it comes to mashing and mixing, but rolling the dough isn’t quite my cup of tea. Usually my wife gets to the kitchen, looks in despair at me and at the miserable amount of dumplings I made since her last check, and quickly takes over as a dumpling making machines, spitting perfectly shaped bits of dough at an impressive speed while I start the next phase: the sauce.

You can have dumplings in a number of ways, the simplest being with just melted cheese (but in that case it’s paramount to use good Fontina cheese, which is quite hard to find). My wife loves my variant of “gnocchi alla sorrentina”, that is using tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, so this is what I was up to for my sister-in-law. Of course, after all the effort spent in homemade dumplings, I don’t feel like opening a can of tomato sauce, so I indulge into some real sauce the Italian way. First of all, I get a large pan, fill it with water (no less than 6 liters, but the more the merrier): the time it will take for the water to boil, and the dumplings to cook, is exactly what I need to have the tomato sauce ready. Also, this is a good time to pre-heat the oven to 180°C.

What I need now is a saucepan, a couple of garlic cloves, 1kg of cherry tomatoes and some good olive oil. I quickly wash the cherry tomatoes and get a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil in the pan with the garlic, at very slow heat. Garlic is nasty: it’s great while it’s warm, it’s ok when it gets to pale golden but it’s bitter crap when it passes the burning point: I play conservative here, and get ready to take it out should the tomato preparation get too much: if I’m fast with tomatoes, I know I can leave my garlic in the pan as the temperature will drop and the garlic will stew instead then fry. If I’m able to get real cherry tomatoes (that is no bigger than a strawberry), all I need to do is cut them in half and throw them in the pan. If I have to deal with bigger tomatoes, sauce making gets a bit harder, since I really want to peel and de-seed the tomatoes before cutting them in chunks. The tomato skin and seeds are OK for smaller ones, but they’re definitely bitter and acid for the average and large ones. To add insult to injury, I don’t like boiling tomatoes to ease the skinning process, as I’m convinced that the flavour I gain is well worth the effort of skinning them “alive”. Unfortunately, that takes time, and luckily I can still grab cherry tomatoes this time of the year, so life is sweet.

What I have now is a nice sizzling pan of oil and roughly cut cherry tomatoes, simmering on medium heat. When they are soft enough to be easily mashed using the back of a spoon, it’s time to take the sieve out and work my sauce through it. Yes, it takes time and yes, I could just use a food processor, but using the sieve allows me to squeeze the last bit of juice while getting rid of seeds and tomato skins. The final result is pure red velvet, and it’s time to add some fresh basil (roughly chopped using my hands as the knife will inevitably ruin the flavour), letting the sauce simmer just for a bit, while I cook the dumplings on the now boiling water, to which I add a fair amount (a handful, roughly) of salt. The salt rule for pasta and dumplings is using 10g of salt per liter: your best bet is measuring once the amount of water that sits in your pan, grab a scale to weigh the salt then use your hand to understand what does the correct amount look like. From then on, getting the right quantity it’s a piece of cake.

When the water is fiercely boiling, I dip my dumplings all at once, then put a lid on and get the highest possible heat: the dumplings will inevitably lower the temperature, and it’s very important to make sure that the water gets back to boiling as soon as possible. Dumplings are really fast to cook. I have just the time to stir them a bit before seeing them floating on the pan: as they start to float, they’re ready, so I use a skimmer to lift the dumplings straight into the sauce pan (which, by the way, needs to be large enough to accommodate all the dumplings). I use a skimmer rather than a drainer, as I can use that extra bit of water that comes with every skim. I mix them carefully, on a low fire, ensuring they are fully coated and that they started to absorb the sauce, which will thicken a bit during the process. I can now turn off the fire and leave the dumpling to rest for a bit. What I have is an excellent dish I could serve right away, just by sprinkling with some good olive oil and some parmesan cheese, but I’m a complicate guy and I want more!

I grab then some mozzarella cheese (200g are fine), which I gently squeeze as much as possible to take the liquid out before dicing it. Half of it gets cut into 1/2cm cubes, the rest is minced as fine as possible, getting it to a state where it seems grated rather than sliced. I can now add the cubes to the dumpling and sauce mix, which will have cooled down enough not to have the cheese melt right away (mozzarella is nasty: if it melts too early it behaves just like mercury, and tends to stick together into a huge ball instead than spreading around the pan). The dumpling, sauce and mozzarella mix gets into a baking pan, and the surface is coated with the finely minced mozzarella and a good handful of freshly grated parmesan (and no, you can’t use pre-grated parmesan: pre-grated parmesan is to food what inflatable dolls are to sex: you have been warned). Everything gets into the oven, where it needs to sit for the next 15 minutes in order to develop a nice cheese crust. This is a good time to open a bottle of wine and clean up the mess before anyone else gets into the kitchen, which by now looks like a battlefield.

The effort pays off when you open the oven and you find something like this:


This is guaranteed to win friends, influence people and have a great dinner. Next time it will be the turn of possibly the most popular italian favorite, “Pasta e fagioli”. If you like pasta and love beans, stay tuned.