Food for Thought: Making Gnocchi

Italian food practices and family ties

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Homemade gnocchi being prepared on a baking sheet
What do you mean you don’t eat a three-course meal every night? PHOTO: Moira Nazzari / Pixabay

By: Isabella Urbani, Staff Writer

I’m half Italian, but it’s hard to feel like anything but Italian with the way I was raised — with gnocchi running through my veins and family being more important than life itself. My Nonna is my next door neighbour and my aunt is just down the street. That random Italian person I just met? Yeah, that’s my fifth cousin. When my Nonna immigrated from L’Aquila to BC when she was just 16, speaking no English whatsoever, she created her little version of Italy at home. I didn’t realize how European my upbringing was until I had friends over for dinner. The multi-course meals that I was accustomed to on a nightly basis were only reserved for special occasions for my friends. 

Almost every cultural tradition in Italy stems from family, especially the food. Breakfast consists of Italian coffee with a small biscuit or pastry. But be warned, Italian coffee is strong: one cup goes a long way. The biggest meal of the day is lunch. In Italy, shops close every single day at this time so families have the opportunity to prepare food and eat together. Most food is prepared from scratch using vegetables harvested from the garden to prepare a nice side salad and create a tomato sauce from scratch. No crumb is left uneaten. Whatever Nonna puts on your plate must get eaten. 

In Italy, dinner usually consists of light fare such as a small bowl of soup to hold you over until the next day. But since most of my family comes home in the evening from work and school, we replicate the same Italian lunch traditions at dinner. For the last few years, my family has eaten at my Nonna’s house every Monday and Tuesday. The first course always consists of a pasta or soup dish. Followed by a main course of various meats, vegetables, more carbs (obviously), and salads (yes, plural). And who could forget the dessert? Sometimes, your stomach will get lucky, and it will just be sugar-coated strawberries with ice cream or just plain fruit. Other times, it’s a full-blown cake. 

One of the most well-known Italian dishes is gnocchi. Although it’s filling enough to be its own meal, it’s typically served as an “appetizer.” Gnocchi is pasta made with potato instead of grain and originates in Northern Italy, where there is a much cooler climate. Its pasta pieces are oval shaped and bite sized enough to be compared to a petit dumpling. Traditionally, it’s served with a basil tomato sauce and is best served when made from scratch. You can buy premade packages at the store but I can guarantee it won’t quite taste the same. Also, don’t tell your Italian friends you cook gnocchi any other way if you don’t want to be accused of blasphemy

My Nonna likes to make big batches of gnocchi at one time so she can freeze them and pull them out when she needs them. Here is my Nonna’s recipe for gnocchi and her homemade tomato sauce. 

Nonna’s Gnocchi

  1. Cook as many potatoes as you’d like in a pot. My Nonna likes six. Once they’re done, smash them up. 
  2. Add eggs. For this recipe, two should be sufficient.
  3. Add some salt and 3 1⁄2  cups of flour. Do be wary about your flour. Too much can cause the gnocchi to become chewy.
  4. Now, you can form your dough. Roll your dough into strips. Then, cut them into small pieces, just over an inch long. 
  5. Freeze for a few hours. 
  6. Cook your gnocchi in a pot. When they begin to rise to the top of the water, wait one minute, and then take them out. The actual cooking process only takes a few minutes, since the potatoes were already cooked during step one. 
  7. Add the gnocchi to your sauce, stir it in, and serve to guests with a sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese.

Nonna’s Homemade Tomato Sauce 

  1. Fry onions in a pan. 
  2. Once your onions are caramelized, add in your canned tomatoes. Make sure you squash them up in the sauce. 
  3. Season your sauce: salt, pepper, and a few basil leaves. You can choose to remove the basil after the sauce is complete or leave them in. 
  4. Nonna’s tip: add in a carrot and some celery for flavour. Remove the celery but keep the carrots. 
  5. Nonna’s tip: add just a tinsy bit of sugar.
  6. Let simmer for an hour.