I've always been a bit intimidated by gnocchi. Everyone who knows anything says that gnocchi has to be light and cloudlike. If you don't get the technique just right, they say, you end up with unpleasant, leaden little nodules. The first time I attempted it, I made the dough very stark and simple: flour and potatoes. That was it. Most gnocchi recipes include at least one egg, in order to bind it. This drier dough held together just enough that I thought it would work. It didn't. Each gnocchi came apart the second it hit the hot water. I was so concerned with making it light that I made it too light.
This time around, the results were much better. There's egg replacer (Ener-G brand) and a bit of non-dairy milk to bind it all together. The real secret is in the main two ingredients. Be sure to use the starchy russets, not any of the fancier varieties of potatoes. I bake them a little after they boil in order to get the moisture out. They need to be really dry in order to work, so don't skip this step. Also, go easy on the extra flour. Too much will weigh your gnocchi down.
There's one tool that you might not have that you really need for this: the potato ricer. You don't want to use a potato masher for this because you'll get a gummy, overworked dough in the end. You don't need a special kind of ricer or even a top-of-the-line one, so if you can spare the 10 bucks at Target (or wherever), definitely pick one up. You can also use a ricer to make the fluffiest mashed potatoes you've ever had in your life, so they're useful beyond just making gnocchi.
This is a kid-friendly recipe and a fun one for little helpers, especially pressing the potatoes through the ricer (Play Dough Factory, anyone?) and making the dough into gnocchi.
For the gnocchi:
3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 tbsp egg replacer, whisked with 1/4 cup warm water
2 tbsp almond or soy milk
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 1/4 cups unbleached flour, plus more for dusting
For the sauce*:
2 cups of butternut squash, cubed
1/2 of a red onion, chopped
1 6 oz. can of tomato paste
2 tblsp olive oil
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced (optional)
*The classic accompaniment for gnocchi is brown butter and sage. To make that instead, melt 6 tablespoons of Earth Balance over medium heat. Add to that about 10 fresh sage leaves, rolled and sliced very thinly. Keep the butter and sage going on the heat until it starts to brown. Add 2 tsp lemon juice and remove the pan from the heat. Add the gnocchi and toss and return the pan to the heat until it's all well coated.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Make the gnocchi: Put the potatoes into a big pot of water and bring it to a boil. Simmer the potatoes until they're soft, then drain them in a colander. Line a sheet pan with foil and place the drained potatoes on it. Put them into the oven for five minutes to remove any residual moisture.
Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, push them through a potato ricer. They'll come out in soft threads like this:
In a bowl, combine the potatoes with the egg replacer mixture, milk, salt and nutmeg. Add the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until a dough forms. Add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, until you get a dough you can work with. Be careful not to add too much or to overwork it. You want it to just come together.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work space and use a knife or pastry cutter to divide it into six sections. Take each section and roll it against the counter into a long, thin rope. Take your cutter or knife and cut 1/2 inch segments off:
I'll make a confession now: I forgot to do what is, aesthetically, the most important part of making gnocchi: the fork grooves. I know, I know. We had a bit of a doggie emergency come up at this point in the process and I had to stop for a bit. When I got back to it, I was thinking more about getting done than with spending the time to do the fork grooves. Honestly, it's an optional thing. Sure, it makes the gnocchi feel more authentic, but it's not the end of the world if you skip it (the dog is fine, by the way). The fork step is fun if you've got kids helping you make this, so by all means do it if that's the case.
Fill your water pot back up and bring it to a boil. Start dropping the gnocchi into the water in groups. You don't want to crowd the pot, so don't do them all at the same time. Give them a quick stir to make sure they aren't stuck together and leave them alone. After about 3 minutes, they'll start floating to the top. That's when you know they're done. Don't pull them out until they float or they'll be too doughy.
You can put the finished gnocchi back on that sheet pan you used to dry out the potatoes. Just spray it with some cooking spray so they don't stick. Don't put them back into the oven, though.
Make the sauce: Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the squash cubes and spread them out in a single layer.
Unlike just about everything else you cook like this, do not stir these around. We're looking for a caramelization on at least one side of the squash. Put them on the heat and cover them and leave them for at least five minutes. It'll be hard, but resist the urge to stir!
Once you have some browning going on, add your onion to the pan. If you're using the jalapeno, add it as well. Now it's okay to stir it around. Cover it and cook for another 2-3 minutes until the onion is soft. Add the whole can of tomato paste and stir it around. It'll be very tight and won't look like a sauce at all.
Once it's softened up a bit, add a ladle of pasta water and stir it around. Cover and let it simmer for a bit. The water will be absorbed and sauce will not be quite so dry, but it still won't be quite there. Add another couple of ladles of water, one at a time. After the third, you should have a proper sauce.
You can add anything to this at this point. I like my sauces simple, so I just threw some oregano in and some salt and pepper to taste. Once you're happy with the sauce, add your gnocchi and give it a toss. At this point, it's ready to serve.