The Tao of Gnocchi

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Holly A. Heyser


To try Hank's recipe for ciciones, Sardinian semolina gnocchi, served with green chickpeas, click here.

I am fascinated by this little nub of pasta. It is a cicione, a type of Sardinian semolina-and-saffron gnocchi that is as golden as the sun, substantial without being leaden, and just downright beautiful.

I'm a big fan of trompe l'oeil in food—where something looks like something else, surprising (and hopefully delighting) the eater. In this case, the ciciones look like chickpeas. I first heard about them in what has become my pasta bible, the appropriately named Encyclopedia of Pasta. It says that the Sardinians, who use saffron a lot, added it to their pasta to make it look as if they'd used eggs.

Chew on that a bit: apparently in Sardinia it was cheaper to use saffron in pasta than eggs. WTF?! Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, and even Gucci eggs from my local farmer's market aren't more than $4 a dozen. Pretty trippy, eh?

I decided to use both saffron and eggs, especially since I had some kick-ass eggs on hand—you know, the kind with the bright orange yolks? What? You've never had such glorious eggs? Get thee to a farmer's market and slap down the cash. I know it's spendy, but the difference is radical.

The fact that ciciones are a semolina gnocchi also intrigued me. Mostly I make potato gnocchi, and occasionally I make ricotta gnocchi, which are essentially ravioli gnudi, or naked ravioli—it's the filling without the pasta. Gnocchi, incidentally, simply means dumplings or "little lumps." The semolina gnocchi I've eaten have always been heavier than the potato kind, although they still should not be lead weights.

So, armed with great eggs, semolina flour, and some Sardinian saffron I'd gotten from Scott at Sausage Debauchery, I set about making faux chickpeas.

Turns out it was an exercise in Zen.

You start with a wettish dough that you knead well and then let rest for a long time—two hours or more. This lets the dough relax and results in a lighter gnoccho.

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Holly A. Heyser

You then cut off a small piece and roll it vigorously between your hands until you've made a yellow snake the width of a pencil. You'll want to work the dough up and down as you do this to get it as even as you can.

Next, you cut off little pieces of the snake that are, hopefully, about the size of chickpeas. You can stop here and cook them, or you can go the extra step and gently roll them between your palms into a nice round shape. And if you really want to get fancy, you can then pinch one end of each gnoccho between your thumb and your first three other fingers—this dimples the bottom, making the pasta really look like a chickpea.

Doing this a few times is fun. Doing this with several pounds of pasta dough is less fun. But after making about 100 or so of these little gnocchi, I fell into that state I call the "pasta trance."

Spin the dough into a snake. Get it pencil-thin. Cut off even pieces. Roll, roll, roll. Pinch, flick onto board. Ooh, a good one! Definitely looks like a chickpea. Ugh. Flattened out the dough by mistake. Roll, roll, roll. Pinch. Eh. That one's just okay. Om ... om ... om ...

Every now and then I'd look up and take a swig of wine. Once I noticed my neck hurt. It was an hour later. Roll, roll, roll. Pinch, flick onto board. This is not a quick and easy pasta.

But it is a good one.

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Holly A. Heyser

This first dish is what I had in mind when I decided to make these gnocchi. I had some green chickpeas vacuum-sealed in the freezer and wanted to use them, and I thought it'd be cool to mix them with the semolina "chickpeas" and serve it simply with a dense tomato sauce and pecorino cheese.

Gorgeous. Both the real and the pasta chickpeas had just about the same density, brought together with the rich tomato sauce, made last summer from simmering down Brandywine tomatoes until they became neither sauce nor paste (maybe a jam?).

Here is the full recipe for making the gnocchi and pairing them with the chickpeas and tomato sauce.

Fresh chickpeas will become available in farmers' markets and in Mexican markets starting in a few weeks, so I'll soon get another chance to make this. If you've never eaten them, they are a little like fresh fava beans: definitely beany and sweeter than starchy, with an underlying "green" taste.

I also had enough gnocchi left over to pair some with a traditional meat sauce, made in this case with ground venison. Sardinians mostly eat ciciones with meat sauce, probably pork and/or lamb. You could use your favorite red sauce recipe.

It was just as delicious as the first dish, and the flavor of the saffron distinguished it from what might otherwise be a very typical comfort food meal. The gnocchi were definitely heavier with venison sauce than they were with the green chickpeas, though.

Keep in mind that these gnocchi are not light as air. They are chewier than potato gnocchi, although not nearly as dense as you might suspect. Ciciones make a perfect pasta course, served on small plates; I ate a big bowl of them once and regretted it. It was too much. What you see above is a nice serving, which can be followed by other courses, like grilled meat and a salad.

Can you reach nirvana making and eating these? Maybe not. But ciciones are aromatic, hearty, beautiful to look at, require no special equipment, and are fun to make -- after you get past your first hundred or so. Om ... om ...

Recipe: Ciciones (Semolina Gnocchi) with Green Chickpeas

More on semolina gnocchi:

    • Traditional Semolina Gnocchi alla Romana, from We Are Never Full
    • Roasted Red Pepper Semolina Gnocchi, from the Endive Chronicles
    • More on Sardinian Ciciones, from Kyle Phillips of About.com

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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