A Tale of Two Dumplings

Time for dumplings! Today I’ll delve into two of my favorite (farinaceous) dumplings: the mighty ravioli and the divine gnocchi. All known cultures, past and present, have some form of dumplings in their cooking repertoire.

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In ancient Rome you had isicium, the Czech had knedliky, the Hungarian tesztak, in France we have quenelles and everyone knows of the Jewish matzo balls, the Russians make do with pel’meni, we have all tasted Chinese wontons and gyoza – Japanese potstickers, all of these are variations along the same culinary theme.
In fact it would be a good idea to add the names and recipes of the dumplings you know or have heard of in the comments. My Larousse Gastronomique (English version) has a great entry on dumplings:

“Dumpling. A ball of dough, originally savoury and served as an accompaniment to meat or as a dessert…a simple, satisfying food, dumplings were boiled and served to extend small amounts of meat. Originally made by shaping small portions from a batch of bread dough before specific mixtures were developed using flour, cereals, pulses, stale bread, potatoes or cheese, sometimes with a raising agent added or enriched with fat in the form of suet, were developed. Local ingredients and method are used across Europe to make a variety of large or small dumplings, plain or flavoured with herbs, vegetables, spices or other ingredients…Dumplings are closely related to pasta. Italian gnocchi are good examples of small dumplings usually grouped with pasta and the spatzle of German and Austria, made from batter simmered until set in finger noodles, also hover between the two descriptions. Polish plain or filled dumplings are also very similar to gnocchi or filled pasta…The name dumpling is also used for Oriental specialties, such as the small filled dumplings of Chinese cookery, related more closely to pasta than European-style dumplings.”

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Gnocchi is a classic example of fusing “New World” with “Old World” recipes. The original flour and water mixture for gnocchi is still used in some parts of Italy, but mostly they are now made of potato flour mixed with the flesh of boiled potatoes and a little wheat flour. Since we don’t know exactly when the potato was introduced to Italy, I’m not sure when the first modern gnocchi was created. The spud seems likely to have arrived via Spain sometime between 1569 and 1588 (it came to to France around 1600).

Wherever the potato was introduced, it was considered weird, poisonous, and downright evil. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scrofula, early death, sterility, and even rampant sexuality (this one is definitively one for the giggles), and of destroying the soil where it grew. There was so much opposition to the potato that an edict was made in the town of Besancon, stating:

“In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it.”

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Above pic is of a simple gnocchi appetizer with a liberal sprinkling of Parmesan.

From the excellent “Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink” by John Mariani:

Although some authorities believe gnocchi may have originated in Piedmont, potato recipes were far more popular in Liguria by the early 19th century, and there is a recipe for an elaborate form of potato gnocchi containing veal fat and hard-boiled eggs in the fifth edition of Vincenzo Corrado’s Il Cuoco galante (1801) Gnocchi is also the name of a small, rippled dried pasta shell. The name gnocchi may derive from the Latin “nucleus”, though some authorites believe it may derive from the Middle High German ‘knochel’ (knuckle.)

Are you ready to make gnocchis? It’s simple enough and all you need is a large bowl, a rolling pin, a sizeable table top on which you work your dumplings, a fork, a small knife and plenty of elbow oil. This recipe is basic and like the pasta one I wrote about last week, it can be improved on once you know how to make this one. For 6 to 8 persons (you can freeze what you don’t use easily) you will need: 3 pounds large old potatoes, 2 cups potato flour, 1/2 cup of wheat flour, 2 tablespoons of salt, a dash of olive oil.

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Wash and boil the potatoes in salted water till cooked. Drain and peel, set aside to cool. Use an ordinary cheese grater or a potato ricer if you have one and grate the potatoes into a large bowl. Add both flours, a good pinch of salt, and a dash of olive oil. Use both hands and mix until you get a pliable dough. Dust the table top with flour and take the dough, a piece at a time, roll it out with your hands until you have long tubes about 3/4 inch in diameter (think of it as making little snakes!) Cut the tubes of dough into pieces about one inch long and make an indent on one side with your fork.

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Handle the gnocchi carefully so they don’t loose their shape. Place them on a lightly flour plates. Keep them apart so they don’t touch one another or they’ll stick together. Cooking them is easy. Bring a big pot of water to a boil and then add the gnocchi carefully. When they float to the surface they are ready. Use a slotted spoon to fish them out and serve immediately with a sauce of your choice. Or just with a knob of butter and cheese. As I said last week, my great grandmother used to serve hers with a hare ragoût sans pareil. Once you know how to handle making gnocchi then you can experiment with fresh herbs, different oils, even adding an egg (though this will make them tough if you overcook them) and it can be served with a multitude of sauces, meaty or vegetables based. Like the ravioli.

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It is said that sailors in Northern Italy invented ravioli. They did not want food to go to waste on the boat so they ground up their leftover dinner and stuffed them in pasta pockets. Smart guys! The pic above I stole from an Italian website. I’m sure this guy is thinking about his saved ravioli!

You don’t need a pasta machine to make ravioli but if you do have one it will save you some time (personally, I prefer to use the rolling pin and a crenelated cutter.) This is for roughly 200 ravioli, approximatively 6 to 8 servings…though I’ve been known to eat a cool 100….and burst!

4 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon salt, 4 whole eggs, slightly beaten, 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil, and have a cup of lukewarm water on standby.

Sift the flour in large bowl, make a well in center and add the salt, olive oil (of a good quality), and the eggs. Mix gradually (yes, using both hands) as you pour a little water here and then, until fully absorbed. Place your dough on a floured board or table top and knead it thoroughly for 3 to 5 minutes until dry and smooth (a trick to know is to add some flour if it’s still sticky) Cover with a cloth and set aside 10 to 15 minutes.

This is a pic of a ravioli pasta machine from Mercato.

While you are waiting for the dough you can start making the filling of your choice. Depending on the mood I like to make a pork & veal filling, spiced up with pancetta and savoury, or a minced mixture of asparagus, garlic breadcrumbs and basil. Either way is good and can be eaten with a freshly made tomato sauce or just like gnocchi, with a knob of butter and your favorite grated cheese (I find the peppery Pecorino or the melt-in-your-mouth Fontina both great) There are of course a thousand ways to fill ravioli and each of us has a recipe handy.

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The dough is ready. Start rolling! Once you have rolled the dough into a large rectangle about one eighth of an inch thick, lay the filling of your choice about twice the size of a marble, about one half an inch apart in a grid pattern over half of the sheet of dough. Confused? I hope not. There’s a special ravioli rolling pin made just for that though I don’t have one, I use my little cutter. The ravioli rolling pin is like a regular rolling pin except that there are several thin strips of wood that make a grid pattern with indentations in between them. As you roll this pin over the dough it makes the grid that the filling will lay on. But with a cutter once you lay the other half of the dough over your fillings, all you have to do is cut the whole thing into neat squares. Make sure you sprinkle flour on them (same as gnocchi) or they will stick. Cook the same way as gnocchi: in salted boiling water, and wait till they surface.

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