Fall is in the air here on the Oregon Coast; you can feel it in the morning: the crisp cool air, and the sun comes up a little later and is not as strong. The families vacationing here have all gone home; school has started and the routine is back to normal. Fall is my favorite time of the year; the menu ideas become more savory and a little heavier than what was made during the summer. My thoughts start to turn towards mushroom, winter squash, dried bean, apple, and potato dishes. One of my favorite potato dishes is gnocchi which is a type of dumpling.
According to Wikipedia: ‘a dumpling is a cooked ball of dough and is made from a variety of flours, potatoes, or bread. A dumpling may be cooked by boiling, steaming, frying, or baking. It may have a filling, or there may be other ingredients mixed into the dough. Dumplings may be savory, sweet, or spicy. They can be eaten by themselves, put into soups or stews, served with gravy or sauce, or in any other way.’
Gnocchi is believed to have originated in Italy during the time of the Romans who used semolina to make the dumplings; semolina gnocchi is still made today in the region of Lazio. Other regions of Italy make them from bread (Trentino-Alto Adige), ricotta (Toscana), chestnut flour (Val D’Aosta), and wheat flour (Puglia). Potato gnocchi, which has become ubiquitous across most of Italy, is a recent addition: around the 16th century when potatoes were introduced to Europe.
I have never been very good at making potato gnocchi; I either put in too much flour which makes them turn out like hockey pucks or not enough flour which causes them to disintegrate in the pot. It’s probably because I don’t make them enough and don’t have a good understanding of how the dough needs to feel for it to be ready. I know that feel for pasta dough, but not for gnocchi…..sigh.
Gnocchi are delicious with toasted butter and sage, tomato sauce, pesto sauce, or in soups. I also enjoy making (and am much more successful at) ricotta gnocchi or ravioli nudi. These dumplings are made with ricotta cheese, chopped spinach or Swiss chard, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, egg, and a little flour. They are shaped into quenelles (which are sort of football shapes done with spoons) and dropped into a pot of salted water to cook. They are served with tomato sauce or with toasted sage butter and are really delicious.
Most cuisines around the world have some type of dumpling. The Romans spread the tradition across their empire and the dish was adapted to what was readily available. My mother’s family was from Poland and made a type of spaetzle which was served with lots of butter and fried onions. There are variations of this type of dumpling all over Eastern Europe and is probably the most simple form of dumpling: eggs, flour, salt, and water.
This variation was transported to the USA via the various European immigrants and we have our own version of deliciousness: chicken and dumplings.
Other cultures, such as Asia, have a broad variety of different dumplings in their cuisines. They are most often made from wheat or rice flours and then stuffed with various fillings (savory and sweet) and steamed, baked, or fried. One merely has to visit a restaurant that serves dim sum to witness the vast array of Chinese dumplings available for consumption.
So you see, dumplings are common across most of the world in some form or another. It’s always interesting to me to see just how similar and how different cultures and cuisines are from each other. The similarity is the fact that most cultures make a type of dumpling; the differences are in the choices of ingredients and the cooking methods, both of which most likely originated out of necessity.
But back to gnocchi—I will leave you with as foolproof a recipe for potato gnocchi as I can provide. It’s from Fine Cooking Magazine and it worked for me the last time I made it. Serve the gnocchi with toasted sage butter or your favorite tomato sauce. Let me know how they turn out for you and know that you are enjoying a dish that is not only ancient in origin, but shared by others in some form or fashion around the world…buon appetito!