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MARTHA SEZ: Gnocchi, seed-starting and other springtime obsessions
April 13, 2018

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Here's a good gnocchi recipe.

4 medium-sized russet potatoes

1 and a half to 2 cups all purpose flour

1 large lightly beaten egg

1 teaspoon salt

Boil and rice potatoes, mix with egg, add flour and salt, knead, roll into coil and slice off 1-inch gnocchi. Boil until they float to surface and then ...

I have become fascinated with gnocchi. Why? Even I don't know the answer. My preoccupation with gnocchi, like my predilection for blue jays and other brash, presumptuous creatures, Colonial American kitchen gardens and Victorian crochet projects, is a mystery even to me.

Perhaps the fascination began, not with the actual food, which I had never tasted, but with the word itself. I like words.

Gnocchi is pronounced NYOK-ee. The word feels good in the mouth, a pleasure to say. The gn in Italian is like the n in pina colada or the ny in the words nyet and canyon. The double c in Italian is pronounced like a k.

Try it: gnocchi.

Gnocchi is the plural of gnoccho. A gnoccho is a dumpling, or, literally, a lump. A plate of gnocchi is a serving of little lumps, which pleases me, or at least the idea of it does.

The reality was something different. I found a reputable recipe for gnocchi and followed the directions assiduously, but still I was not happy with the result. They were fun to make, and they looked great, but, when I bit into a gnoccho, the texture was disappointing. The gnoccho was dense and soggy, a lumpling.

"You have no business making gnocchi," my sister told me when I called her for advice. "Gnocchi-making is not within your purlieu.Or purview. Leave it alone. Gnocchi are not in your DNA. Stick to pies."

Nevertheless, I persisted. I couldn't help it. Once I get involved with something, I just can't let it go until I feel I have a handle on it, until I get it right.

I had no experience with gnocchi. What texture is considered acceptable? Who knows, I thought, maybe dense and soggy is appropriate. I went on Facebook and posted the question. Several helpful people commented. One, who has Italian roots and so, I am assuming, some familiarity with the dish, was encouraging.

"It is admirable that you are even trying to make gnocchi," she told me, and I appreciated her kindness. I kept trying.

Gnocchi are made from mashed potatoes, flour, egg and salt, just like the potato balls my grandmother, Rosie, used to make. I believe Rosie's potato balls also contained milk. Gnocchi recipes sometimes call for cheese. So you see, Sissy, gnocchi are not so terribly far outside our purview. Or purlieu.

The texture of gnocchi is described by Laura Giannatempo in "Fine Cooking," issue 90, as "plump and pillowy." Nowhere did I see the adjective gummy, a word that would better capture the essence of my gnocchi. Remembering Rosie's potato balls, I recalled her constant advice for all kinds of baked goods, from pies to sugar cookies: "Don't toughen up your dough."

Overworking, overhandling the dough toughens it, as does adding too much flour, she taught me and my little sister. Her potato balls were delicious. If I can make potato balls, I can make gnocchi. Right?

First, let's get this straight: Rosie did not make dumplings. Nor did she make lumplings. She fried those potato balls.

So I riced the potatoes, went light on the flour, handled the dough gingerly, and then followed a recipe that involved frying the gnocchi instead of boiling them. The texture was definitely improved. But you tell me: What food isn't improved by frying in olive oil with garlic, parmesan, tomatoes and basil?

We have to remember that a piece of gnocchi is only a potato ball, no more. We cannot expect too much from it.

All the same, I still have improvements in mind. Then there are the variations on gnocchi: cavatelli, gnudi, malfatti, malloreddus, strangulaprievete. I know nothing about them, nor have I ever tasted any of them, but don't the names sound wonderful?

Never mind right now. It's time to plant seeds in little containers and start them under the grow light in my spare bedroom. Zinnias do best, but there are so many I'm working on, flowers with such names as dame's rocket, tobacco Starlight Dancer, larkspur, snapdragon, love-lies-bleeding, morning glory Heavenly Blue, four o'clock, agrostemma Purple Queen and calendual Red Devil.

Have a good week.

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