Nino’s post on the Four Things Meme mentioned gnocchi as one of his favorite foods. That kicked me in the pants and reminded me that I hadn’t fixed any gnocchi since last winter. Unacceptable!!
We were lucky enough to have about a pound of venison hamburger given to us by a hunter friend, so I thought that would make a killer sauce. (Plus my daughter had just watched Bambi. How could I resist??) Enough tangential blabbering. On to the good stuff.
Potato Gnocchi With Venison Ragu
- 1 lb venison hamburger (ground lamb makes a killer ragu, too)
- sea salt
- freshly ground pepper
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
- 2 x 28oz cans whole tomatos (See Notes)
- 1/2 bottle decent red wine (See Notes)
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 large sprigs thyme
- 3 large russet potatoes (NO Yukon golds or other starchy spuds!)
- 2 eggs
Making the Ragu
Brown the venison with a bit of olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. (I’ve got a Le Creuset Dutch I mean French Oven which I bought years ago and has been worth every penny.) Season with the salt and pepper as you go. After the meat is browned, add the garlic, onion, carrot, and celery. Continue cooking until the vegetables are softened, then add the crushed tomatoes.
(Here’s a trick for hand-crushing tomatoes without making a huge mess as the tomatoes explode: Drain the juice from the tomatoes into the cooking pot, leaving the tomatoes in the can. Use a long knife and poke all the tomatoes in the can — this will let the internal juice come out through the holes without exploding when you squeeze them. Now invert the can over your pot, stick one hand up in the can, and crush the tomatoes into goop, letting crushed bits fall out around your hand. Figured this one out all by myself.)
Pour in the red wine, add the bay leaves and thyme springs. Cover and cook for at least two hours. Crack the lid off the pot and cook for another hour until the ragu is thick and wonderful.
Serve with pasta or whatever. Leftovers around here get vacuum packed with our FoodSaver and tossed in the freezer for later use.
Making the Gnocchi
Keep in mind that I’m a California Farm Boy, so authenticity on these may be lacking. My technique comes from having watched Molto Mario twice a day when my daughter was younger. Food TV had his show on right as I was fixing her lunch and dinner, so we’d watch his show as we were getting ready to eat. One of her earliest phrases was “Ciao, Mario!”
Cut the russets in half and put in a large pot, covered with 2” water. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook for 30 – 45 minutes until the potatoes are soft when pierced with a fork. Remove from the pot and peel as soon as you’re able to work with them. Immediately pass the potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer, mounding the processed potatoes on the counter. Try to work the potatoes before they cool too much — the texture of the gnocchi will be much better.
Clear a hole in the middle of the potato pile. Break the two eggs into the center and stir them up with a fork. Spread a couple handfuls of flour over the potatoes, then start mixing up the pile. This is sort of like mixing bread dough on the counter: just keep gathering it up and kneading it a bit. Add more flour as needed. The mix should still be sticky, but workable. A dough scraper is invaluable for this process! You’ll end up with a smooth ball of dough after five to ten minutes of kneading.
Get a large pot of water on to boil. Get a *large* bowl of water with a bunch of ice cubes in it. Put a strainer over the bowl so the strainer is in the water. Put a bunch of lint-free towels on a counter or kitchen table (not on a wood table!). Scrape off the counter you’re working at and sprinkle a bit of flour over the working area.
Start to make gnocchi by cutting off a hunk of the dough. Roll it out into a rope about the thickness of your thumb. (OK, I’ve got marginally big thumbs. Maybe 3/4” thick?) Use your scraper or a knife and cut the rope into pieces roughly 3/4” long. Using your thumb, flick the pieces off the back of a fork, rolling them along the tines and smooshing them a bit with your thumb to make a bit of a dimple.
Working in batches of 15 – 20 gnocchi at a time, drop them into the boiling water. You’ll need to tinker with the heat a bit to maintain the water at an aggresive simmer, not a rolling boil. A rolling boil is a Bad Thing because the gnocchi will fall apart! I leave my lousy electric burner on high heat, but pull the pot partway off. Cook the gnocchi for 3 – 5 minutes until they’ve all released from the bottom of the pot and have been floating for a minute or two.
Remove from the pot with a skimmer and transfer to the ice water bath. Let rest there while you cook the next batch, then remove with the skimmer and spread out on the cloths to drain.
At this point you can divide up the gnocchi into meal-sized portions. Continue as below for cooking. Place the unused gnocchi on cookie sheets and freeze overnight. Vacuum seal, or tightly seal in Ziplock bags, and store in the freezer for a couple months. If you can wait that long.
To finish cooking the gnocchi you’re about to eat, float them in gently boiling water for a few minutes to reheat. Put some sauce in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Remove the gnocchi from the water and place in the simmering sauce. Gently stir to coat and cook for a few moments — this final touch of cooking in the sauce, rather than just coating, is critical because you’re getting the sauce’s flavors into the gnocchi instead of just on them.
Serve on plates dusted with good Parmesan cheese and drizzled with a bit of top-notch olive oil. (I’m talking the $25 per bottle stuff you use in sparing amounts as a finishing oil, not the stuff you use for frying and sauteeing.)
Tomatos. Use imported San Marzanos if you can find them. They’ll be more expensive than your standard Hunt’s ‘maters, but this is one of those cases where you really, REALLY want to spend the extra bucks. Italian San Marzanos have a depth of flavor that’s just amazing.
Wine. Cooking wine is evil dreck. You wouldn’t drink the garbage, so why put it in a nice dish? You don’t need to pour in half that bottle of ‘85 Tiganello, but use something you wouldn’t fall over dead from if you found it in your glass.