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My brother doesn’t eat much sugar. He doesn’t particularly care for chocolate. My entire pastry school education is rendered completely useless when it comes to impressing him; and this, naturally, is rather deflating to my self-esteem in the kitchen.

However, pasta is guaranteed to arouse his enthusiasm. Or better yet, gnocchi.
The pasta he gets, usually at least once a week. But gnocchi—that’s a little tricky. It’s not hard to make, but most recipes call for eggs, and my mother is allergic to them. So gnocchi was something that Don usually only got to eat at restaurants.

That changed the day my sister brought home a recipe for eggless gnocchi. It was immediately placed high on my list of must-try recipes. All I had to do was find the right sauce to pair with it.

When we lived in D.C., we used to eat at the Maggiano’s at Tyson’s Corner fairly regularly, and Don always ordered the gnocchi with tomato-vodka cream sauce. I was determined to find a comparable sauce, but one that would not require me to go out and buy a bottle of vodka. I found my ideal in the creamy tomato sauce featured in Cook’s Illustrated: Best Recipes and Reviews 2009.

The sauce builds a strong flavor base by sweating onion, bay leaf, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes in butter. Next tomato paste is added, the pot is deglazed with white wine, and then you add two cups of crushed tomatoes and leave the sauce to simmer for about half an hour.

Once the sauce is thick enough so that a spoon pulled through it leaves a trail, all that is left to do is add half a cup of cream and two additional tablespoons of crushed tomato and season it with salt and pepper.

But while the sauce was still simmering, I worked on my gnocchi. I had already peeled, cubed, and boiled three large organic potatoes. Now I mashed them up with salt and pepper and olive oil (the original recipe suggests using a potato ricer, but I cannot vindicate buying a piece of equipment to use solely on one ingredient), before stirring in enough flour to make a rough dough.

At this point, I walked away from the dough for about fifteen minutes. When I came back, the crumbly, shaggy mass had transformed itself into a smooth, pliable dough. Somehow the moisture from the potatoes knows to distribute itself evenly throughout the dough; and although you can accomplish the same thing by kneading, handling the dough will make it tougher, so just leaving it alone to work this little kitchen miracle is preferable in my opinion.

To shape the gnocchi, I formed the dough into a 20-inch log and sliced it into 10 equal portions. Then I rolled each of these portions out into a 15-cm rope and cut them into ¾-inch pieces. The original recipe had some complicated method of forming these little chunks of dough into proper gnocchi shapes, but I couldn’t make head or tail of it, so I just rolled them into balls and made an impression with the tines of the fork on top of each one.

Boiling gnocchi is great fun. Three minutes after the chubby dumplings are plopped into the water, they come bobbing back to the top, one at a time, like a fleet of little submarines surfacing. Once they were all floating, I lifted them out of the water with a spoon and let them drain for a few moments in a colander. I also scooped out half a cup of the hot gnocchi-water and stirred it into the sauce to thin it to the appropriate consistency.

Dinner was ready to serve. I tossed the gnocchi into the sauce, dished up generous helpings, and served it to my family.

The meal was everything I had hoped. Even without eggs, the gnocchi was tender with the softly chewy texture that I love; and the creamy, deep orange-hued sauce was complex and vibrant. The little flecks of sun-dried tomatoes gave it a subtle smoky flavor that vividly recalled memories of eating sun-dried tomato bread in the Spanish hill towns.

When my mother mentioned making the meal again some time, Don looked up eagerly from his plate and hopefully suggested: “Tomorrow?”

I think we have a winner.

Creamy Tomato Sauce

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated: Best Recipes and Reviews 2009

Note: The only changes I made to the original recipe were leaving out the ounce of prosciutto (I don’t eat pork) and the pinch of red pepper flakes (I didn’t have any). I also skipped the step of adding two additional tablespoons of wine at the end of the cooking, because I didn’t want any raw alcohol taste; and I offered basil leaves to tear over the gnocchi alongside the dish, instead of adding them directly to the sauce, since not everyone in my family likes basil.

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion
1 bay leaf
Salt
3 garlic cloves
2 oz. oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup white wine
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons crushed tomatoes (from a 28-oz. can)
½ cup heavy cream
Pepper

Technique:

1. First prep all the vegetables. Dice the onion as finely as you can and measure out ¾ cup, reserving any remaining onion for another use. Peel and mince the garlic cloves. Rinse and drain the sun-dried tomatoes, pat them dry with paper towels, and then chop them up as well. Now that you’ve got all of that out of the way, you can fire up the range.

2. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until it is beginning to sputter; then add the ¾ cup of onion, the bay leaf, and a generous pinch of salt. (I like the purer taste of kosher salt, and the large flakes are easy to pinch.) Sweat the onions until they are soft and translucent and the edges are beginning to take on some golden coloring, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep them from browning unevenly.

3. Increase the heat slightly and toss in the garlic. Cook briefly for 30 seconds, and then add the sun-dried tomatoes and tomato paste. Let this mixture cook for a few minutes until it had darkened, stirring constantly. Then add the wine and allow it to fizzle away enthusiastically, with the occasional stir, until all the liquid has evaporated.

4. Add the two cups of crushed tomatoes and let the sauce come back up to a simmer. Then turn down the heat to low, and let the sauce cook, partially covered and stirring occasionally, until it has thickened enough so that a spoon dragged across the bottom of the pan leaves a trail. This should take between 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of your pan. (The greater the surface area, the faster the sauce will cook. Has to do with the rate of evaporation.)

5. Once the sauce has thickened, pull out the bay leaf and stir in the cream and remaining two tablespoons of crushed tomatoes. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm while you finish up with the gnocchi.

Potato Gnocchi

Adapted from Claire Criscuolo

Ingredients:

3 large organic russet potatoes (mine weighed about 8 oz. each)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 ¾-2 cups all-purpose flour

Technique:

1. Bring a medium-sized pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Then, while you’re waiting for it to boil, wash and peel the potatoes, quartering each one lengthwise and cutting each quarter into three cubes. Toss the chunks of potato into the boiling water and let them bubble away for 12-15 minutes, or just until they are soft enough for you to pierce with a fork. You don’t want them to be soft and falling apart. Drain the cooked potatoes thoroughly in a colander.

2. Transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Mash them well with a potato masher. (Or you can use that potato ricer, if you happen to have one hanging around in a drawer, waiting for its day in the sun.) Drizzle the olive oil over the potatoes and mix well.

3. Measure out 1 ¾ cups of flour and add it to the bowl of mashed potatoes. At this point, some recipes will tell you to toss everything together with a fork and others will say to stir it up with a wooden spoon, but I find that nothing beats your own fingers. Probably the best piece of advice I was ever given at pastry school was: “Your hands are your best kitchen tools.”

4. Once the dough has come together into one rough lump (you may need to add a little more flour, depending on how moist your potatoes were), turn it out onto a lightly floured counter and leave it there for at least fifteen minutes. When you come back, you should have a beautiful, smooth round of dough waiting for you. If it’s not quite where you want it, just give it a few quick kneads.

5. Now you can start shaping the gnocchi. Roll the dough into a 20-inch cylinder—it will look like a rolling pin without handles. Then cut the cylinder lengthwise into ten 2-inch slabs with a sharp knife.

6. Roll out each slab into a 15-cm rope, and cut into ¾-inch portions. They should be about the diameter of a quarter.

7. You’re almost ready to start cooking the gnocchi at this point, so fill a large pot three-quarters of the way up with water and put it over the heat to start coming to a boil.

8. Roll each little coin of dough into a ball and then press the tines of the fork into the top of each one, flattening and elongating it slightly. Once all the gnocchi are shaped, lightly salt the pot of boiling water and plop in the gnocchi.

9. My pot was rather small, so I boiled the gnocchi in three batches. If you have a larger pot, you could probably do it in two. Use your best judgment.

10. Let the gnocchi boil for 3 minutes, occasionally giving them a gentle stir with a wooden spoon, until they have all come floating back up to the top.

11. Lift the finished gnocchi out of the water with a spoon and let them drain in a colander. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi.

12. Once all the gnocchi has been boiled, before you pour out the water, scoop out about half a cup and add it to the finished Creamy Tomato Sauce. Then transfer the gnocchi to the pot of sauce and toss them gently together to coat. Serve in wide shallow bowls with a bunch of basil leaves to tear over top and some grated Parmesan cheese alongside for sprinkling.

Serves four as a main dish

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