Pumpkin like you've never had it before

Pumpkin gnocchi from northern Italy

click to enlarge Pumpkin like you've never had it before
Credit: Ann Shaffer Glatz
Pumpkin gnocchi browning in sage butter

Gnocchi, pronounced N'YAW-kee, are little pieces of dough, usually round or oblong in shape, which are boiled in water or broth and tossed in a sauce. The word gnocchi is the plural of the Italian word gnocco, which means "little lump." They are usually made from potatoes, but regional variants exist, including ones made with semolina flour, winter squash or spinach and ricotta. Gnocchi are usually eaten as a first course (primo piatto) but are sometimes served as a side dish or contorno.

Gnocchi originated in northern Italy where the colder climate is better for growing potatoes than grain. In restaurants throughout northern Italy, gnocchi are traditionally served as a Thursday special.

Gnocchi alla Zucca is a regional specialty of Lombardy, a region in north-central Italy. Zucca is the Italian word for "pumpkin." In this context, we are not talking about our familiar orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins, which are quite flavorless, but the Mantua pumpkin, which is a turban-shaped squash, with a greyish-green peel and sweet orange pulp. This classic northern Italian dish dates back to the Renaissance when "pumpkins" first arrived in Italy from Central America. They were brought to Europe from the Americas after Christopher Columbus's voyage to the continent. Mantua pumpkins can be difficult to source in the United States, but I have found the more widely available kabocha squash to be an excellent stand-in. I usually can find kabocha squash in Asian or Mexican grocery stores.

At their best, gnocchi can be light, airy and delicate. At their worst, they can be dense, rubbery and soggy. The keys to keeping gnocchi light are to remove some of the moisture from the squash by roasting it in the oven and incorporating as little flour as possible into the dough mixture. Roasting the squash, as opposed to boiling, concentrates the flavors and avoids the loss of nutrients. It is also important to have a light touch and to not over-knead or overwork the dough. The correct amount of flour to add will vary with the moisture content of the squash. Though your Italian nonna might scoff, the inclusion of an egg yolk in the dough will make it easier to handle. It's a good idea to pull off a piece of the dough and cook it before shaping it to test the flour ratio. Ideally the gnocchi should float to the top and hold together. If it breaks apart or is too loose, knead in a little more flour into the dough and try again until it holds together.

It is important to shape your gnocchi so that they will cook more evenly and hold the sauce. This can be achieved by creating grooves by rolling your little dough pieces across a ridged wooden board known as a cavarola. If you don't happen to have a cavarola handy, you can use a dinner fork. In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan instructs: "Take a dinner fork with long, slim tines, rounded if possible. Working over a counter, hold the fork more or less parallel to the counter and with the concave side facing you. With the index finger of your other hand, hold one of the cut pieces against the inside curve of the fork, just below the tips of the prongs. At the same time that you are pressing the piece against the prongs, flip it away from the tips and in the direction of the fork's handle. The motion of the finger is flipping, not dragging. As the piece rolls away from the prongs, let it drop to the counter. If you are doing it correctly, it will have ridges on one side formed by the tines and a depression on the other formed by your fingertip. When gnocchi are shaped in this manner, the middle section is thinner and becomes more tender in cooking, while the ridges become grooves for sauce to cling to."

Gnocchi alla Zucca (Pumpkin Gnocchi)
Serves 4

Ingredients

For the gnocchi:
1 ½-pound kabocha squash
Neutral oil, such as canola, rice bran or grapeseed (for greasing the sheet tray)
1 cup AP flour, plus extra for dusting
¼ cup grated Parmesan, plus extra to serve
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg yolk

For the sauce:
3 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small handful of fresh sage leaves, stems removed and torn into small pieces

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Quarter the squash, remove the seeds, carefully trim away the skin, and cut the flesh into large, roughly equal-sized pieces.

Lightly grease a baking sheet and roast the squash pieces until tender, about 30 minutes, turning once halfway. We are not looking for browning or caramelization.

While the squash is still warm, mash it with a potato masher, or pass it through a potato ricer. If it feels wet, heat the mashed squash in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, stirring regularly, until it feels drier, like mashed potatoes (not like the one's your grandmother made, but more like the dry, pasty ones they served in your high school cafeteria).

Transfer the squash into a large bowl, then add the flour, cheese, spices and salt, followed by the egg yolk. Using the fingers of one hand, gently work the mixture together until all the flour is incorporated. Add additional flour as needed to get the mixture to hold together. When it forms into a soft, cohesive ball, allow it to rest on a floured work surface, covered with an inverted mixing bowl to keep it from drying out.

After resting for about 10 minutes, roll a handful of the gnocchi mixture into a cylinder about ¾ inches in diameter. Cut the cylinder into ¾-inch pieces and spread out on a floured tray. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Create ridges with a cavarola board or dinner fork, as described above.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Working in batches, drop the gnocchi into the water and cook until they float to the surface. Remove within a slotted spoon or spider, and drain in a sieve or colander, gently shaking to make sure they don't stick together.

In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter, then add the torn sage leaves. Add the gnocchi and toss or stir gently until well-coated in butter and lightly browned.

To serve, top the gnocchi with some of the melted butter and sage and a dusting of Parmesan.

About The Author

Peter Glatz

After the passing of his wife, Julianne (former Illinois Times food columnist), Peter Glatz decided to retire from a 40-year career as a dentist to reinvent himself as a chef at the age of 66. In his short culinary career, he has worked at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant, Oklahoma City’s Nonesuch...

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